How Choreographer Kyle Hanagami Is Uniting the Dance and Music Industries, One YouTube Video at a Time

ISSUE 6 2019 - DO NOT EVER REUSE THIS!!!
Shiobian Duma
Hanagami (second from right) in Los Angeles in 2018.

Earlier this year, Kyle Hanagami got word that the Las Vegas show he had been choreographing for Britney Spears’ Domination residency had been called off -- Spears was on an indefinite work hiatus due to her father’s health. “We were very sympathetic,” recalls the 32-year-old. Luckily, he had plenty of other projects waiting.

If you’re not familiar with Hanagami, you’ve likely seen his work. Whether through his choreography on the new BLACKPINK video -- he’s worked on four, including their 2018 smash “Ddu-du Ddu-du” -- or an occasional award show performance, like Nick Jonas’ “Find You” at the 2017 American Music Awards. Hanagami is one of the industry’s most sought-after choreographers, working with superstar clients such as Jennifer Lopez and BTS, and taking charge behind the scenes of hit shows including Dancing With the Stars and World of Dance. He’s currently focused on his role as creative director for Simon Fuller’s new 14-person international pop group, Now United, which recently wrapped a world tour and is recording its debut album with producer RedOne.

When Hanagami is not on a job, he creates dances to today’s pop favorites (lately, Ariana Grande’s “Bloodline” and Sam Smith and Normani’s “Dancing With a Stranger”) and shares them on his popular YouTube channel, which now has 3.7 million subscribers and more than 559 million views combined. The videos -- filmed at his real-life classes in Los Angeles’ Millennium Dance Complex -- have become more than just viral sensations, inspiring what he calls “digital dance,” making the routines accessible for anyone watching.

“Kids [can] sit in their rooms and watch a video either on a computer screen or a cell phone and learn [a dance],” Hanagami says. “Think about the kid who doesn’t have the money or resources to go take a dance class -- it’s kind of opened up kind of a new industry.”

YouTube is coincidentally how Hanagami’s career took off during his sophomore year at University of California, Berkeley, when he began sharing his dance videos on the then-brand-new site, more for his family and friends to see than to gain popularity. Before he knew it, he had offers from studio heads around the world to come teach classes, simply because they had seen his videos. Determined to finish school ("My life was very academically oriented,” he says), Hanagami would go to class Monday through Thursday, then spend his weekends in Europe, Japan and Indonesia teaching dances. Even crazier, Hanagami wasn’t pursuing an arts-related degree: he double-majored in economics and psychology.

“I genuinely thought I’d be working in an office,” Hanagami, a Los Angeles native, says. “I was like, 'Well, I’m majoring in economic psychology, it’s going to be a boring life.'”

He had never even danced prior to his freshman year, when one of his buddies introduced him to a dance crew and opened his eyes to the art of dancing. In fact, Hanagami grew up thinking dance was boring -- but once he realized he could make it more innovative with his own moves, he was inspired to change other people’s minds, too. “My goal as a choreographer has become, ‘How do I make dance interesting for people who don't understand it?’” says Hanagami. “It’s about [making] moments people can latch onto. It's really about getting them to fall in love with the music.”

He attributes that mindset to his success. The approach -- which Hanagami learned, in part, thanks to the mentorship of Emmy-winning choreographers Tabitha and Napoleon D'umo -- also applies to the way he choreographs, implementing what he calls a “viral mentality”: moves that get stuck in your head, but also ones that anybody can do. Though Hanagami doesn’t typically star in his videos himself, his passion translates through emotion-based moves that are fluid with the rhythm, yet sharp with the beat of each song. While hip-hop plays a role in inspiring the moves, Hanagami insists that his work is a fusion of different styles, and what it ultimately comes down to is “how you interpret the music.”

Actress Nina Dobrev experienced Hanagami’s relatable method when the two worked together last summer, filming a sassy routine to Shawn Mendes’ album cut “Particular Taste," which he released on March 14. Though she doesn’t have a lot of dance background herself, Dobrev -- who met Hanagami through best friend dancer Julianne Hough -- says Hanagami instantly made her feel comfortable doing the moves he’d designed for her.

“He [has] a warm energy that’s very inviting,” adds Dobrev, who was inspired to work with Hanagami after seeing his emotional video for Sam Smith’s “Him.” “His perspective is so fresh, unique and innovative. It’s almost futuristic.”

“Particular Taste” is Hanagami's third Shawn Mendes dance video. He looks for songs that have a tangibility to them, explaining that "Particular Taste" has a quirky feel that fit Dobrev's charismatic vibe. Hanagami says he's most intrigued by artists who make great videos, like Ed Sheeran and Billie Eilish (“fucking everything she puts out music video-wise is phenomenal,” he gushes), since he’s attaching his own visual to their music. Ariana Grande is seemingly the shining example of a visual artist: Hanagami has choreographed seven of her songs, including a routine for her current smash “7 Rings."

Eli Chitayat, senior director of content strategy for Republic Recordshas worked closely with Hanagami during Grande's Sweetener album launch. Hanagami’s impassioned choreography brings another layer to fans feeling the emotion of songs, Chitayat suggests, further connecting fans to the artist themselves -- and in turn, bringing his work practically full-circle. Republic is one of the many labels Kyle and his manager (Podwall Entertainment's Eric Podwall) are constantly working with to create videos like "7 Rings," and as Chitayat can vouch, it's nothing but a positive experience: "The beauty of working with Kyle is that he’ll never make a video for a song he’s not personally invested in."

Whether he’s working with A-list stars or novices, or inspiring a new wave of dancers from their bedrooms, Hanagami’s unique approach clearly has a lasting impact on everyone he dances with. Though he doesn’t often think about his influence in the dance world, Hanagami recognizes how far he’s come since envisioning a career behind a desk.

“When I first started choreographing it wasn't to work with an artist or be the biggest choreographer around. It was, ‘How do I make cool shit?’” he laughs. “Now, there’s people who will come to my classes and say, ‘I started dancing because of your videos.’ It’s crazy to think about that.”

A version of this article was published in the March 9 issue of Billboard.