He Choreographed 'Single Ladies' And 'WAP.' Now He's Got A Bigger Mission
There are certain hit songs that are almost inseparable from the dance moves that go with them. Hum a few bars of "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)," and your hand might start flipping back and forth on its own.
Choreographer JaQuel Knight created that dance for Beyoncé when he was just 19 years old — and this summer, he did it again with the routine for the monster hit by Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B, "WAP."
"For me, it was all about tapping into my upbringing," Knight says. "I'm from a small town in North Carolina where we frequent family reunions, family cookouts, on the weekends. There's always music and dance. And also, I grew up in Atlanta — [so there are influences from] the streets of Atlanta, being in a marching band and having that mix of culture there."
Knight is defining the way some of today's biggest stars move, and he's getting recognition in a way that many choreographers never do — by copyrighting his work. He spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro about the potential of dance as a form of activism and the challenges and benefits of protecting it as intellectual property. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ari Shapiro: For non-dancers, will you break down some of the movements in the "Single Ladies" video? Just to give us a sense of what you think about as a choreographer?
JaQuel Knight: There's a part where... you clap your hands and your arms go around your head, and you kind of stick your butt out like your grandmother would do when her favorite part of her favorite song would come on — she'd make that good ol' stank face. You tap on your cheek just a little bit, you look at it, and then you go back into your choreography. That feeling is my grandmother all day.
Now that I'm picturing Beyoncé as your grandmother, I'm never going to look at this video the same way again.
It's definitely the joy, though. When you look at the video, as much as it's about the moves, it's also about the feeling and the intent.
Let's talk about your move to copyright some of your work, which is uncommon for choreographers — and incredibly involved.
[Laughs] Yes. The notation for "Single Ladies" is 40 pages long, and that's the choreography from top to bottom.
So why was it important to you to get copyright protection? Why did you think this is something a choreographer should have?
I felt like it validates our positioning and ownership. What copyrighting does is allow you to still have your hand on it, even after the work is done — so as people go and want to use your IP, use your choreography in feature films, commercials, even on video games, you still have ownership and you should still collect some sort of residual payment for such usage.
So much of what makes choreography universal and ubiquitous now is social media. I've heard fears that when dances are copyrighted, people on TikTok or YouTube are going to get sued for, like, doing a popular dance at a bachelorette party. Do you fear that that's what's going to happen here?
No, the point of copyrighting isn't to protect us from [people] doing the dances at home. It's to protect the creator from these huge corporations that come in and take advantage.
Like Fortnite, you're saying — a video game that's going to make a ton of money by selling a dance that somebody else created.
You have this close artistic partnership with Megan Thee Stallion, and you were intimately involved in creating the performance that she gave on Saturday Night Live just a month ago, which combined music with a message to "Protect Black Women." Tell me about how you incorporate video, music, movement, stillness and speech to create something that is more than just entertainment.
For me it's about being present in the moment: feeling all the things, feeling the ups, feeling the downs, and then allowing that to translate into my work. Being not only a choreographer but a creative director, I'm the one who envisioned the the performance from start to end — I sit down and walk Megan through the show. And all things don't require movement: Choreography isn't only about "move, move, move, move," and "5, 6, 7, 8." It's about the stillness and the power that one holds being still, standing strong, being present. Letting every piece of your body have energy that can pierce the camera lens, so people at home can feel you.
And what about the specific message of protecting Black women?
I mean, the role of Black women is beyond important. They have a heavy hand on my life — my mother, I have a sister. What I do, whether it's personal or business, it all relates back to the Black female. We've seen how the media portrays Black women — they just continue to question and continue to put them down. After all the work, all the pain, all the troubles they deal with, they steadily continue to rise up and show out.
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