Choreographer JaQuel Knight pretty much only works with women big enough to go by one name. Beyond Beyoncé (and her Single Ladies, Super Bowl and Grammy performances), the Atlanta creative crafted the Circus Tour for Britney, brought out the best in Christina and Cher in Burlesque and is working with Tinashe in developing her next level dance language.
The 28-year-old is a huge deal in the dance world, which is why the hopefuls attending his Industry Intensive at London’s Old Finsbury Town Hall were hanging off his every word, looking at him with the pleading eyes of people dying to be spotted and catapulted to the top. But they also know that the sessions in the high drama old ballroom are all about hard graft, with everyone practising micro versions of the moves (flicks, rolls and pops) even when they’re not on the main floor sweating out the whole routine.
We caught up with Knight after he’d guzzled a gallon of water following the three-hour workshop, and found out about Atlanta clubs, dodgy dancer fashion, gender roles and – of course – working with those single-name ladies.
It’s so competitive to become a well-known dancer, let alone a well-known choreographer. How did you make yourself stand out?
I was always true to who I was as a person. I’m a fun guy, I like to have a good time, I like to laugh, I’m super silly and I love music, so when I choreograph I always make things very personal.
Do you think some choreographers are a bit too literal with it?
Yes, some dance is just about body movement and it’s nothing that you would do. You wouldn’t do it if you were walking down the street or if you were standing at a bus stop waiting or if you were at a club and your favourite song comes on. I always relate back to those moments: What do you do when you are at a cookout? What do you do when you are at your friend’s birthday party?
How was growing up in Atlanta?
Obviously there is a great hip hop and RnB scene there. The clubs are really good and that’s a good breeding ground for it. The dance world was super fresh and organic. I remember going to the little teen clubs and people dancing on the walls and in the middle, everyone doing their thing, their new grooves. Everyone was dancing in some kind of way. It was such a great time. Growing up in Atlanta played a huge part in who I am, because outside of dance I was heavily involved in the marching bands. I played saxophone for six years.
Is that quite a Southern thing?
Yes. It was really like a thing in the South and you take it really serious and you work all summer and you get ready for the football games and you do competitions, battle of the bands and parades.
That must have influenced your dance formations. The dance world is quite an interesting mix of team work and camaraderie, but also intense competition and probably some bitchiness.
It’s a pretty supportive community. People take class from each other, you go and learn from each other, you go to auditions hoping to work with each other, and then it’s kind of like us [choreographers] on the other side of the table who blitz it, put people against each other and say we can only have two tall girls out of the 50, or two short girls, or only two guys.
As much as it’s about the dancing you also need to have certain looks for certain jobs, which must be tough.
It’s absolutely having the look and feeling fresh and not feeling worn out, so that you have new energy to offer. It’s really all about what you have to give, you know. How hungry are you? Do you still want it? Do you still have that fire?
You’ve worked with so many different musicians and some of them are real dancers, like Beyoncé, but others less so. It must be pretty tough to choreograph around people who aren’t as good as your dancers.
I’ve developed a style of choreography that’s very social. So, a lot of times I get artists and they don’t want to dance. They just need movement, they just need personality, they just need to know how to move. That’s just walking right, fixing your posture, rolling your shoulders back half the time. Walk through your hips, plant your feet in the ground, use your knees. I love putting artists in front of a mirror because the moment you’re in front of a mirror, you start to come head to head with everything you hate about yourself.
Beyoncé can keep up with all the professional dancers – it’s insane talent.
People think she is just a major dancer who’s mixed it up right away. No! You know, she works really hard. She gets her dance rehearsal every day, ten hours a day, she’s in rehearsal working her butt off. Let’s do it again. I think that’s important for people to know too.
At your workshop, you were speaking to your dancers about having alter egos, like Beyoncé has Sasha Fierce. Is it important for dancers to have one?
You have to. Sasha was like her girl. Sasha became a thing when I came around because she became full form. That was that whole Single Ladies era. It was a good time man. The I Am… era was more when I came in and put my country fried chicken stuff on there, you know!
You basically choreographed one of the most famous dance videos of all time with Single Ladies.
I still don’t believe it.
Do you think all dancers need an alter ego though?
I think everyone needs it because once you get on stage in front of thousands of people and there are cameras everywhere, you’re dressed in some really nice clothes, your hair is done really well and you’ve got some make-up on, you are a different person.
Even seeing the kids today slipping off back into the real world after the class, you could see they were returning to their normal selves after being someone else in the studio.
Yesterday I was calling it a safe place. Being on stage is a safe place, being in a studio is a safe place. You get to be free in a world of movement and personality and performance, so why not take advantage of it and play around and don’t be yourself? Allow yourself to be whoever you want to be.
It’s a chance to escape and transcend yourself. As a choreographer you’re thinking of both men’s and women’s movement. As things are supposedly more gender fluid now, do you think that’s affecting the way you choreograph? Because a lot of dancing historically relied upon a strict idea of a man and a strict idea of a woman. Does that play into your choreography?
I’m still a little old school. I’m into guys dancing like men and women dancing like women and not drag queens. Guys, don’t dance like women, especially when you come into a work space. That’s super important to me. I don’t care what happens at home, I don’t care what you do at the club, but when you come here you need to be able to turn that on. Because that’s what people want when they are hiring. If Beyoncé wants hot guys, she wants to see a grown ass man. Tinashe, if you bring her in a room, she wants to see hot girls. So it’s important to learn how to continue to be that. Because I think when women overdo it, it can become a little drag queenie, a little showy. And when guys dance too well, it comes off a little flamboyant. It’s all of those things. When you come to the stage it’s about focusing and tuning in.
Roles are already a bit blurred in your work though. Some of the movements are quite ambiguous. Where do you look to for inspiration for your movement, or is it all a reaction to the movement?
It all depends on where I’m at, where I am in life, what the music wants me to look at. I’m working on a new project now and something about it just reminds me of the ‘70s. So I’m just looking at old clips of parties from back then and I’m super inspired by the twist, the environment and the energy behind it. Then Bob Fosse is king to me. He heavily influenced the Single Ladies project. Still I find myself looking to Chicago, popping that in. I’m like, “Oh my god, just how well written it was, how well thought out it was.” I am a fan of people who paved the way. I think that’s awesome. You look at that and let it help you elevate and push the art forward.
You talk a lot about wellbeing and health. Dance is such and amazing way of getting in shape.
You have to be in shape and you have to be ready to get in shape and I think that’s what this week is allowing all these dancers here to see. They saw the routines yesterday and were like, “We didn’t know it was that difficult. We didn’t know it took that much energy to get through.”
Watching them come off the dance floor, they’re gasping, chugging water. And when you make them hold those positions, they’re all like shaking. But when they’re performing, dancers make it look so easy.
It’s hard work, because by the time the show comes you want it to be a breeze. You have to spoon feed your body to know you can keep doing it. If your backside hurts, you’ve got to say, “OK, boom, backside, you are awesome. Back, you are awesome. Knees, you are great. You can get me through this.”
Beyond dancing itself, are there certain things that you think are really useful to do to be a good dancer?
Yes, you have to eat right. That’s a big thing. You can’t be eating junk food because that’s just going to tear your body down. And drink a lot of water.
I see that you worked on Burlesque!
Yes, that was my first film. That was 10 months of my life.
So…Christina and Cher?
Yes, me and Christina became really good friends on that.
She is a good little mover, Christina, isn’t she?
Yes, she has something there. She has got a little country girl in her. It was a good time; Burlesque was a good time.
A lot of burlesque and stripper dance styles have really entered mainstream choreography…
I think it has always been there. Look at the Pussycat Dolls! They were a burlesque dance group and the brand expanded so largely that they started making music. They became one of the biggest girl groups.
Beyonce’s Super Bowl show was huge. Were you prepared for how big a sensation and a backlash there would be from that? For me, it’s shocking that people find that so provocative.
It’s like, wow, you get criticised for being free and being yourself. You kind of get your hand spanked, “Don’t do that!” And if we all can’t be free, then how do we expect to grow? For me, that just pushed us forward even a bit more, just keeps us going.
It must be a good feeling to realise how powerful dance is and how much dance and performance can still change the national conversation and make people confront realities.
We put a lot of time and all of our energy into it. I would like to think, with everything, especially what we do with her, we leave marks and make statements and say something, especially when we are not doing interviews and we are not doing promos; we’re just coming out. You have to have a voice, you have to have some balls. It’s always exciting going in a new era with Beyoncé, because you never know what you are up against.
Who else do you have your eye on? Who would you love to work with?
I say this all the time, but Gucci Mane is a favourite of mine and I just have so much I want to do, so much we can to do to Gucci. We could make movies, we could just create brands and send them off and shows. I always love Rihanna when she comes out, because she is so fucking cool too. She doesn’t put a step wrong. With her looks, she has never failed.
How do you keep your eye on what’s relevant with music and dance?
I am out traveling, I make it a thing to go out to the clubs and see what people are doing in the clubs and hear the music. I get so many ideas where I pull out my phone and I hit record and I am like, “Oh, this is a good mix”, or I see people in the club vibing and am like, “Oh, let me record it.”
Where are the best clubs for real dancing?
My favourite place to see dance is Atlanta and seeing people dance. It is something that can never get old. It’s in every club because in every club, the music is good. The worst DJ in Atlanta is like the best DJ in LA, so everyone has a sense of swag and funk and culture to them and hard times and they have let it go and it never gets old.
Can we talk about dancers’ fashion? It’s a whole different world! You can spot a dancer a mile off in the street though. Rehearsal wear is very “interesting.” People style things out in weird ways.
It is so funny because a lot of fashion now is sweat pants and your Adidas hot pants. People are wearing that in the streets, and I am like, “This is all rehearsal wear!” The fashion in LA is like the whole Ugg boots and shorts idea. It’s like, “What are you doing?” That is very dance. Camo on camo, patterns on patterns. I love doing that!