Drake & Rihanna Choreographer Tanisha Scott on Their Musical 'Chemistry,' Those 'Hotline Bling' Moves

Tanisha Scott for GapFit
Courtesy of Gap

Tanisha Scott for GapFit.

The veteran creative director talks to Billboard about her best music videos & more.

Music videos have evolved quite a bit over the years, but dancing remains a constant -- and choreographer Tanisha Scott has seen it all, from the MTV TRL golden age of Hype Williams to Drake's meme-tastic "Hotline Bling."

While in New York to celebrate GapFit's new spring campaign and the launch of GapFit Sculpt's line of high-intensity compression leggings (in a series of how-to videos, which she did alongside Drake's trainer, Jonny Roxx), the veteran choreographer taught a class at Rumble Boxing, where she went through the moves of '90s classics like TLC's "Creep" and Will Smith's "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" to 2016's "Work" and "Formation," along with two new moves that she created for GapFit: "The XO" and "The Side-Step Stomp." She also sat down with Billboard to talk about what makes a music video great, how to get a music artist in the mood to dance, and playing Uma Thurman to Drake's John Travolta. 

You’ve done so many music videos, including Rihanna's "Work" and Beyoncé's "Baby Boy." What do you think makes a music video great in terms of movement and choreography?

When everything is cohesive. The director, the choreographer, the artist -- everything has to be in sync. So prior to us even getting to the shoot, we all have to know what the end goal is. The artist needs to fully engulf in every part of the video that they’re in and understand how it ties together. The best video is always the one that has the most cohesion. Not the one where the artist just shows up and says, "What are we doing?" Or when the director's like, "I’m going to change something right now." Or the choreography is done without even knowing what the storyline is.

Looking back, what are some of your favorite moments in making a music video?

Rihanna's "Rude Boy" was one of the most cohesive videos, because I worked very closely with [director] Melina [Matsoukas]. Melina, Rihanna and I were 100 percent involved in the creation, from the movement to the visuals. It was about honing into what she does naturally, which she is a West Indian woman, so she moves in a particular way. All I had to do was accentuate certain things based on the scenes and the setup that was there. All three of us, we looked at every move that she was going to do, every part of the song.

Another video was "Work." Rihanna and Drake have the best chemistry when it comes to music. They both wanted their culture and their vibe to come through. We shot it in Toronto in a place called The Real Jerk, which is a famous West Indian restaurant. It was just a party!

You're also from Toronto, right?

Yes. So just having a spot like that, that meant something for Drake, for Toronto. It’s dancehall music, it’s pop music, everything’s infused, and the way people were dancing was so cool because even though the song was playing a lot, we also played different songs. The DJ was spinning records as if we were at a party, so that’s how we got that energy in there. We had his friends, her friends, it was perfect and it came together impeccably well. 

How do you coax a music artist into getting into the mood and feeling that energy -- even if he or she is not a natural dancer? 

You just laugh. You have to make them forget that there’s no "lights, camera, action." Forget it and just lose all inhibitions. Once you do, we just zone in and I start playing around. It’s easy for me to tell your strengths and weaknesses and what you can do dance-wise. I watch and see how they move and I just make it better. So that’s why everything I do works and it looks natural because it’s the natural person’s movement coming out. I’m just literally being a coach and telling them to do this part there and that. But they basically put it together. Once you lose your inhibition, once you’re not thinking and taking yourself seriously, everything works because you don’t have to have rhythm to dance and have to have rhythm to look good with dancing. It’s just an energy thing, that’s all dancing is.

And what about working with Drake on "Hotline Bling"? Did you have to get him into the mood to do all those moves?

He’s an entertainer. He’s not one-dimensional. That video, he basically choreographed himself. People think I choreographed it -- I didn’t, that’s him. The part where we’re dancing together, that was him. His favorite movie is Pulp Fiction with John Travolta, and that little part that we’re doing, that was John Travolta and Uma Thurman. He was literally telling me, "Tanisha, jump on me," and I was like, "What?" Then he said, "Look at me, Tanisha. Now fall on the floor and get down real flat." And that’s when he put his head on me. He already knew what he wanted. 

Who inspires you in dance, past or present? 

Debbie Allen. She knows every style of dance to a T, and the way she moves is unbelievable to me. As a kid, I saw her in this TV adaption of Sweet Charity, and I knew that I wanted to be her. She’s technical, she’s funky, even today she’s still so fly and will take a class with little kids in it and get it.


What songs are you currently dancing to?

Drake's "Passionfruit" and "Perm" by Bruno Mars