Spotlight: How JaQuel Knight Became the Man Behind the Biggest Dance Moves of the Decade, From 'Single Ladies' to 'Lemon'

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JaQuel Knight

"I always imagined what it would feel like to be the creator of something that kids in the 'hood, kids in the country, kids in third world countries would be watching to learn."

Big breaks come in all shapes and sizes, but rarely do they come as big as JaQuel Knight's. At 18, he landed the opportunity to choreograph Beyoncé's totally dance-based "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" music video, which went on to become an iconic visual for one of the world's most beloved pop stars and launched Knight's career. Even by Kanye West's standards, it's "One of the best videos of all time," as he declared in a now-infamous speech interrupting Taylor Swift onstage during the 2009 MTV VMAs. Knight has gone on to work with Beyoncé on almost everything since, racking up collaborations with N.E.R.D, Britney Spears, Tinashe and many others along the way. 

"I was absolutely flattered by the intent of Kanye. That's a cool honor -- Kanye got up to speak out for your video," Knight says with a chuckle. "People were talking about the video from all angles: from learning the dance to 'Was it a drag queen in the video?' to 'Is this really a one-take?' to 'Wow, she's really dancing the whole time,' you know? So it was super interesting that the focus on it was living up to all the hype. We worked really hard on that video and only hope that people were able to take things away from it that will last a generation or hopefully a lifetime."

Knight grew up in Atlanta and was introduced to dance after playing saxophone in his high school marching band, which is where he says he got his discipline -- sitting in the sun for long hours, marching up and down the football field and the looming punishment of 50 pushups if he ever forgot his part. "The marching band became a place of me first being able to teach people dances, [teaching] a large group of folks how to be organized and synchronized," Knight says. One day a friend invited him along to a hip-hop dance class, thinking he might enjoy it, featuring top choreographers of the time Shane Sparks, Dave Scott and Brian Friedman. That turned out to be an understatement, and soon after, Knight quit the marching band and joined a dance troupe, then started his own dance troupe and began performing all over the city at talent shows, celebrity basketball games, in local music videos and so on with one opportunity leading to another.

"That's where I began to creative direct and choreograph fully," he says. "Starting my own group, shopping for clothes, choreographing, overseeing the group. It was maybe about 12 of us. It was something super important and a great starting point for me as a creative. It kind of just flowed naturally from me being in the band and writing music, to then listening fully and becoming the music."

For Knight, atypically, there was no transition from dancer to choreographer. He says he "started off creating" and has always been able to "come up with steps," spanning back to his childhood dancing in his grandmother's living room and putting on talent shows with his cousins. "This was a skill that I was able to kind of nurture over the years," he says. So when he moved to Los Angeles, even though he was only a teenager, he had already been working as a full-time dancer and choreographer in Atlanta. His sights were set on moving up to the next level of creative direction, inspired by reading interviews and hearing stories from the choreographers he looked up to. "So I imagined I would have the same kind of route," he says.

Knight landed the "Single Ladies" gig after auditioning for choreographer Frank Gatson Jr. around the Unexpected album from Beyoncé's Destiny's Child bandmate Michelle Williams. Knight says that even though he was too short for the job at 5-foot-10, he was "auditioning as a dancer, but had the intent of going to hopefully impress Frank enough to one day be a part of his team." Knight wound up landing a gig as assistant choreographer for the video and went on to choreograph the promo tour as well. After that, Knight recalls Gatson telling him he "may have a really good job" in a few months and to "stand by." Six months passed before Gatson called, telling him, as Knight recalls, "Hey, I've got this Beyoncé record, can you come to New York tonight?"

"I went to New York hoping to be a part of it, but I was so excited to be able to go and to work, I had no clue what it would become and really didn't think much of it till days after I shot it," says Knight. "That trip to New York really changed things for me."

Within weeks after the release of the "Single Ladies" video, Knight was an in-demand choreographer, leading to work on tours with Britney Spears and American Idol; commercials with Skechers; too many music videos to count; the film Burlesque with Christina Aguilera and Cher; and a year of working with what he calls "like, every female artist," including Brandy, Kelly Rowland, Nicole Scherzinger and more. "Forgive me if I forget I few things," says Knight, continuing to list off his credits: He helped launch Tinashe's career leading up to and around her breakout single "2 On," has frequently collaborated with Zara Larsson and lately teamed up with Big Sean and Liam Payne. He spearheaded the wildly popular dance elements of N.E.R.D's comeback and the Rihanna-featuring single "Lemon" last year, with a world festival tour starting next month. And all the while, Knight has maintained a committed relationship with Beyoncé, choreographing tours, Super Bowl halftime performances, Grammys and VMA shows, the "Formation" video, Lemonade film and more, with Coachella coming this weekend and the On the Run II Tour with JAY-Z slated for later this year.

"It's a dream come true," he says. "I always imagined what it would feel like to be the creator of something that kids in the 'hood, kids in the country, kids in third world countries would be watching to learn. So to think, 'Wow, this is really my stuff and the world is doing this,' I'm still in disbelief with most of the things. I have yet to clock in and really take the time to reflect and know what's happening. I still feel like I'm dreaming."

A decade into his career, Knight is beginning to focus his attention increasingly on his long-term plans and his company JK Entertainment. As part of that, he's looking to move further behind the camera, directing music videos, including recently helming Victoria Monét's "Life After Love" clip, while developing various TV projects and writing two films -- one musical, one dance-based. Basically, he wants to do everything. Putting it bluntly, Knight says, "The goal is to be a big-time director who can choreograph and direct and write and produce his own films."

With all this, Knight is looking to discover and develop new choreographers and directors, just as Gatson did with him, building a roster of talent to collaborate on his many projects. In so doing, he has turned to social media to seek out new talent, while encouraging a new generation of creators like him with online dance competitions such as "JaQuel's March Madness" last month and the #LemonDanceChallenge, which saw contestants performing on Ellen with N.E.R.D and "Lemon" video star dancer Mette Towley in January.

 

:: A Celebration of Dance - I'm Thankful To Each & Every Person That Was a Part of The #LemonDanceChallenge !! To @pharrell @chadhugo @sha3 @nerd for an opportunity of an Lifetime, I thank you guys. @theellenshow thanks for always supporting dance, regardless of its genre. My superstars @mettenarrative @mylesyachts @phil_wright_ @melissamolinaro @thealiyajanell @jenemarie_ @iammapy @syncladies @dashaunwesley @candice @catrendic y'all smashed! Thank you guys for pushing it all forward!! @z.lattimore for always coming thru and holding it down!! S/O to the cue card beauties @tajanatokyo @heymsfranklin @itskendrajae @khadijashari @rebbirosie @fatherteresaa @sisleyloubet much love!! Beyond grateful!! -------- #Creator #Choreography #Dance #Pharrell #Rihanna #instagood #Instadaily #JaQuelKnight #JKEntertainment #ellendegeneres #theellenshow ----------

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"There's a lot that goes into the choreography that people don't even have a clue about, so I think it's my job and role as someone who's had his hand in a lot of cultural moments to grow the next person to do the same thing," he says. "I'm the guy that's very aware that I'm not going to be choreographing for the rest of my life. I'm not going to be the hottest one for the next 10 years, I'm very aware of that." 

He continues, "So me knowing that, I think my place and my job is to groom and kind of create the next me, in a sense. You know, who's going to be the next guy to innovate dance culture, create the new hot step, create something that people at home want to do, create the next superstar? That's my role -- to provide the knowledge so people can follow and become better than me."

SPOTLIGHT:

When you’re coming up you have to want it. Dream it. See it constantly. Keeping your fire and passion boiling because there’s always someone right behind you working just as hard.

What's good is now we're reaching that 10-year mark of where things usually start to make its way back ... So we're right now in the renaissance of dance, we're starting to see dance in everything -- dance on TV, dance in film, dance in commercials. Platforms like Twitter and Instagram have allowed everyone in the world to see dance at every second of the day. 

I am learning to make time for myself and putting myself first within the craziness of it all. This allows you to truly be happy and excel in all areas of your life. 

Social media is the biggest change from when I was coming up to now. I just started dancing at the beginning of YouTube, now here we are and people are making money from loading dance videos. I remember my first video I uploaded and me and my best friend, we even created like viral dance content back then, but to see how people are able to put themselves out there now has changed completely -- and for the better, I can say. 

A good idea means nothing without activation and execution. Write it down. Make it plan and get to work.

Spotlight is a new Billboard.biz series that aims to highlight those in the music business making innovative or creative moves, or who are succeeding in behind-the-scenes or under-the-radar roles. For submissions for the series, please contact spotlight@billboard.com.

 

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