It’s no small feat for dancers to condense their years of training into a few months to teach an actor their craft. But it is helpful when your student is Jennifer Lopez.
“If you’re going to go take an introductory pole class, you’re going to ease your way in,” explains Johanna Sapakie, who acted as the pole dance choreographer for Lorene Scafaria’s hit female-driven pic Hustlers. “Jennifer came to the table with a couple things in her pocket — she is incredibly athletic and super strong and had a physicality about her when she started.”
Lopez plays Ramona, a seasoned strip club dancer in Hustlers, which is based on real-life events chronicled in a 2015 New York story. The film follows a group of dancers, led by Ramona, who drug and steal from their Wall Street clientele in post-2008 Recession-era New York City. Lopez stars alongside Constance Wu, Julia Stiles, Lili Reinhart, Cardi B and Lizzo.
Hustlers bowed to a stellar $33.2 million at the box office over the weekend — the best live-action movie debut in Lopez’s two-decade acting career and whose performance is already garnering early Oscar buzz. And, for Sapakie, part of the film’s success lies in its realistic portrayal of pole dance. “Pole dancing takes skill,” she says. “Girls don’t just get up there and mess around and look fantastic. There is an art to it.”
Lopez demonstrates this skill set with precision in one of the film’s standout scenes — a moment that caught the attention and praise of critics and audiences. In her onscreen introduction, Ramona, wearing a bedazzled leotard, saunters onto the stage at the strip club, with a packed house of male clients eagerly throwing down bills as she shimmies, sashays and straddles the pole to the sultry beats of Fiona Apple’s 1997 hit “Criminal.”
In order to sell Ramona’s experience, Sapakie had a specific move in mind: “I wanted to make sure we could get her upside down.” (Inverting on a pole is an advanced skill that leaves a dancer holding on with only their arms.) “We needed to nail this [move] to show that Ramona is a woman who masters this art form.”
To get there, Sapakie, whose background includes aerial acrobatics and more than two decades of pole dance experience, worked with Lopez for two and a half months prior to filming to train the star for her dazzling intro scene. (Sapakie previously worked with Lopez on her reality series ¡Q’Viva! The Chosen and its subsequent live stadium show.)
“Once the decision was made and she’s like, ‘I want to pull dance in this film and I I need to look legitimate,’ it was like, ‘Okay, let’s do what we need to do and put in the time to make it happen,'” says Sapakie. Poles were installed in Lopez’s homes in Miami, Los Angeles and New York so she could train in between her busy schedule, which included prep for her It’s My Party concert tour.
Ramona’s opening dance was slated for the final week of filming on the pic’s 29-day shoot, so Lopez continued to train for a couple of hours a day until her big scene and the team tried to figure out the song she would dance to.
“We listened to a lot of different stuff when we were training, some just to get the vibe and [get] comfortable with the movement,” says Sapakie. As filming approached, Lopez and Sapakie would practice the routine to several songs that were in consideration for the sequence, including British singer Raign’s cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” In the end, they settled on the Apple track.
“[The song] feels so deep and growly and powerful, and the vocal is this smooth, sensual sound. That felt like it really fit,” Sapakie says. “It was something about those drums at the beginning. It was just so Ramona.”
The entire cast and crew moved into a strip club in Long Island City in the final week of production. The main change made on set for Lopez’s dance was retrofitting the stage with a rotating pole, as opposed to the normal static pole that dancers usually use, in order to make the sequence easier to film. “It’s a lot more user-friendly, in that you’re not trying to match specific angles for editing purposes,” Sapakie explains. The choreographer acted as Lopez’s stand-in to perform the sequence for Scafaria and cinematographer Todd Banhazl as they planned the angles before the actress took the stage.
The rotating pole also allowed Lopez to conserve energy while performing, which proved to be invaluable. Ramona’s dance sequence was shot in one day, with Lopez performing the four-minute-long routine about six or seven times. “Her stamina and her athleticism in order to get through that day, in particular, was top-notch,” Sapakie says.
While Lopez was performing, there was a room full of 100-plus background extras playing club patrons and fellow dancers. Sapakie’s favorite moment from the sequence came when Lopez was inverted on the pole — the moment that Sapakie knew would establish Ramona as a veteran dancer— and the superstar smiled for the cameras.
“It was pure enjoyment,” says Sapakie. “It just came naturally and organically because she was so successful at what she was doing. There was a lot of pride in that. It was such a proud coach moment.”
This article originally appeared on The Hollywood Reporter.