When JaQuel Knight was a teenager in Atlanta, he spent his summers at band camp. Not just any band camp though — marching band camp in the South.
Alumni of his high school, who had gone on to attend historically Black colleges and universities, came home to train students all day under the relentless Georgia sun, drilling them in the precision needed to perform and move as one showstopping unit. As drum major, Knight arranged the intricate ensemble choreography and music — Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, a little Crime Mob to represent for ATL. To this day, he still remembers the mantra the entire band would repeat if anyone stepped out of line, and he recites it to me with a sudden ferocity that’s startling even over Zoom: “Excuses: Excuses are the tools of the incompetent used to build monuments of nothingness. Those who specialize in them seldom succeed at anything else. Excuses!”
“I mean, that is Beychella,” says Knight with a laugh a few weeks later, sitting outside a cafe in lower Manhattan in early October. Even with a mask on, his joy in the memory is palpable. Two years ago, the discipline he learned during those formative summers in Atlanta came in handy when he served as a lead choreographer and co-creative director for Beyoncé’s HBCU marching band-inspired Coachella performance, which became the acclaimed Netflix concert film Homecoming. He has worked with Beyoncé since he was 18, when his mentor, dancer and choreographer Frank Gatson Jr., brought him in to choreograph for her groundbreaking “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” video. Since then, Knight’s extensive work for her has included videos for several songs from her audiovisual projects Lemonade and Black Is King, plus two Super Bowl performances.
Now 31, Knight is one of the music industry’s most sought-after choreographers, a creator of iconic dance-centric visuals at a time when they can propel a song to the top of the charts and even change the course of a career. Executives and managers for artists ranging from pop star Zara Larsson to country icons The Chicks have him on speed dial, hoping his moves — or even simply his “vibe” — will unlock new powers within their artists. Recently, he started working with Megan Thee Stallion as both choreographer and creative director, elevating the rapper’s stage presence and infusing her performances with political urgency, as he did for her October debut on Saturday Night Live. For Knight, “every movement has a purpose, and it’s about the music but also about the full package of what the dance is interpreting,” says Shakira, who worked with him on her Super Bowl halftime show this past year. “A culture, a mood, a visual statement.”
That kind of statement goes far beyond the steps he creates. A year before “Single Ladies,” Gatson made a prescient comment in The New York Times: “If she does it the right way, people won’t say, ‘Have you heard Beyoncé’s new music?’ They’ll say, ‘Have you seen the new Beyoncé?’ ” Now they do — and Knight’s choreography is a big reason why.
In the three years after “Single Ladies” became a pop culture phenomenon and inspired countless imitations — including on SNL, Glee and even in a Chipmunks movie — Knight’s starting day rate roughly tripled. (Now, it’s typically in the four figures, moving into a five-figure fee for a whole project.)
But as time went by, he came to wonder why other creatives’ work seemed to garner a different kind of respect than his own. As a choreographer for Beyoncé’s 2016 “Formation” video, Knight’s powerfully defiant movement helped usher in her politically engaged Lemonade era — and generate hundreds of millions of YouTube views. Yet, “Mike WiLL Made-It is making millions, millions [as producer of ] ‘Formation,’ ” reasoned Knight. “And I’m still here on a weekly [rate]?” His reputation as one of the industry’s top choreographers grew, yet where compensation was concerned, he was still treated like a temporary hire — not an author and owner in his own right.
“How is this happening and [choreographers] are not getting anything?” Knight remembers asking himself. “How can I take my craft more seriously and protect myself?” Choreographers are typically hired by an artist’s team and often paid either a daily or weekly rate or a project fee; once a project ends, no matter the scope, so does their compensation. But as videos have moved from TV to YouTube and Instagram, the importance of visual spectacle has only grown — and choreography has become a more significant part of an artist’s iconography. Some of the most memorable music videos of the past decade — think Sia’s “Chandelier,” Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” or Kanye West’s “Fade” — rely almost entirely on dance visuals. Thousands of fans flocked to Britney Spears’ Las Vegas residency to witness her bust out the same “I’m a Slave 4 U” dance break she has been doing since 2001. In 2017, Janet Jackson made national news for reuniting her former dancers onstage for her famed “Rhythm Nation” routine. Even if you didn’t see them in person, you can now watch these moments on demand — and learn them yourself — as footage of them proliferates online.
“The artist is used to the idea that after you create something for them, it’s theirs — that they should be able to perform it around the world for millions of people forever,” says Knight. Often, a credit on social media is all a commercial choreographer like him will see as a testament to his work. “We’re left to the life of Instagram posts and Twitter to prove we did the work, which is sad,” he says, his voice quivering with an intensity that creeps in whenever he speaks about the obstacles in his field. “And credit [on social media] does not come with ownership. We’re getting used and abused.”
He needed a tool that would empower him to not only get better compensation and credit but also formally recognize him as a capital-C Creator. In other words, he needed copyright protection. Though surprisingly few in the dance world take advantage of it, choreographic works are protectable under copyright law in the United States (and most countries), and choreographers can submit theirs for registration with the U.S. Copyright Office.
There’s very little case law on copyright and choreography, and a slew of Los Angeles entertainment lawyers told Knight’s manager, Mary Pelloni, that she and Knight would at best face an uphill battle trying to register his work. Then, after two years of searching, they met attorney David L. Hecht of Hecht Partners in New York, who in 2019 had litigated the most prominent case in years. Hecht represents a group of clients including actor Alfonso Ribeiro, rapper 2 Milly and Russell Horning, the teenager known as Backpack Kid, who alleged Epic Games copied and renamed their signature dances (The Carlton, The Milly Rock and The Floss, respectively) and sold them as emotes, the virtual “expressions” players use on the Fortnite battlefield. Those cases were largely withdrawn because, in March 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in an unrelated case that a claim of infringement based on a registered copyright requires first securing that registration. (Since then, some of Hecht’s clients have done so; others that were rejected by the Copyright Office are in stages of appeal.)
If Knight could successfully register his work, Hecht knew, he could then license it to others who wanted to use it in public performances, from feature films to global tours. And while the exact details — including who would pay, how much and how he’d enforce his rights against those who don’t — are still being figured out, Knight’s mission could be revolutionary for the wider dance community. He could help change not just what recognition and compensation look like, but maybe also the arcs of his fellow choreographers’ careers.
“This is potentially a seismic event in this space,” says Lateef Mtima, the founder and director of the Institute for Intellectual Property and Social Justice and a professor of law at Howard University. “It’s potentially as important as the revelation that Ray Charles negotiated back ownership of his masters. At the time he did it, no one knew it. But when it became public knowledge, it awakened modern-day artists to start thinking about their intellectual property from that perspective. The prescience JaQuel has is so important: It’s a way to awaken his artistic community, [to tell them] that they are ignoring one of the most important tools in the toolkit.”
Hecht, Knight and Pelloni decided to begin by registering the choreography in the “Single Ladies” video — by now widely acknowledged as an iconic piece of art in its own right, and one that could clearly demonstrate what a copyrightable commercial choreographic work looks like. The Copyright Office approved the registration on July 9, making Knight (as far as the prominent copyright experts interviewed for this story know) the first commercial choreographer in pop music to succeed in doing so for his work. He’s already in the final stages of registering six other pieces, including his choreography for Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s August collaboration, “WAP.” Eventually he plans to register his entire catalog.
Lynne Weber has danced with a professional ballet company and studied hula, Indian mudras and modern dance. But until recently, she had not twerked on her kitchen floor.
Weber, 68, is a professional dance notator who has been working closely with Knight on his copyright journey. Over the course of five weeks, she completed a 40-page-long score for “Single Ladies,” and she has moved on to “WAP.” “My son sometimes walks in on me,” she says with a laugh. “It’s embarrassing, but he’s gotten used to it.” Knight’s choreography, she says, is “quite important in our dance heritage. He incorporates other dance styles into his work as well as coming up with new ways of moving that really appeal to both dancers and nondancers. We need to have the dances people are interested in seeing, interested in doing, recorded for people in the future to see. It’s something that has really grabbed at our souls.”
The Dance Notation Bureau, a nonprofit where Weber is executive director, is the home of Labanotation, the most commonly used form of codified dance notation. It’s a bit like sheet music, if the notes were multidimensional: It uses vertical staffs (one per performer) and symbols indicating the body part, direction, length and intent for a movement. Like most choreographers, Knight does not use Labanotation for his own purposes; he records rehearsal footage and makes his own notes on it. When he first saw the “Single Ladies” score, “my jaw dropped,” he says. “It’s out of this world to see my hard work and sweat put on paper.”
For a Black creator in an industry that has long appropriated Black culture — and who often works with the industry’s most influential Black female artists — the score represented something bigger, too. “You feel like you stand for something,” says Knight, his voice cracking a bit. And because all Dance Notation Bureau scores are recorded on archival paper, that something will last for a very, very long time. The bureau plans to submit its scores of Knight’s work to the Library of Congress for inclusion in its collection. He has, symbolically, joined the canon of important contemporary choreographers: As Weber points out, the bureau has worked on scores for choreographers going back to modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan — “and, now, through to JaQuel Knight.” After so many years of serving other artists’ visions, Knight can finally claim ownership of his own.
Copyright provides a creator “a level of presumptive validity, and also paternity: ‘This is mine,’ ” explains Robert Kasunic, the U.S. Copyright Office’s associate register of copyright and director of registration policy and practice. Under federal law, that ownership exists from the moment a creative work is “fixed” — for choreography, preserved in a form of writing like Labanotation or on video — and under the Copyright Act of 1909, choreographers have had the option to do just that. But their reality has been far more complicated. For most of the 20th century, choreographic works could only be registered if they demonstrated a clear narrative and could thus be categorized as “dramatic works” — which left out most anything outside traditional ballet.
As Kara Krakower (a former legal fellow of Hecht’s) wrote in a 2018 paper for Fordham Law School’s intellectual property journal, it wasn’t until the mid-1900s that the reputation of dancers shifted “from prostitutes to artistic geniuses” and distanced itself “from vaudeville and ‘colored’ forms of choreography” — a shift that, not so coincidentally, paralleled the rise of white, male visionaries like George Balanchine in ballet and Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse in musical theater. The Copyright Act of 1976 finally recognized choreographic works as a discrete category, but even so, the act did not provide an explicit definition, other than to say that they didn’t include “social dances” (say, the waltz or the hustle) or “simple routines,” neither of which were defined. At best, Congress simply seemed to be creating “a definitional difference between choreography and ‘dance in general,’ ” says Kasunic.
Today, choreography still feels a bit like the Wild West of copyright. Of the more than 500,000 applications the office receives for millions of works registered each year, says Kasunic, the number for choreographic works is typically less than 20; the office’s electronic system doesn’t even have a separate label for them, still lumping them in with dramatic works.
Several things could account for that. The world of professional dance is a small one built largely on reputation — so, historically, choreographers haven’t been tempted to outright copy each other’s work, resulting in few occasions (until recently, at least) when the idea of infringement litigation even seemed necessary. Providing the requisite material for an ironclad copyright application can also be costly (one Labanotation score can run just under $5,000). Still, plenty of choreographers have no idea that they can register their work in the first place. “It’s like the choreography world is just warming up to this stuff,” says Hecht. “As crazy as it sounds, the  Copyright Act laid out this protection, but it’s like no one looked at it.”
Knight was aware of copyright for choreography — he saw it mentioned with the credits in ballet programs and Broadway playbills. But within the commercial sphere, he says, “You only know what you see. And if it hasn’t been done, how can you dream of it?” One of the people most stunned by Knight and his team’s success registering “Single Ladies” was, in fact, his mentor and co-creator, Frank Gatson Jr., an industry veteran who danced in Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” video. “I was like, ‘Really? They did it?’ ” recalls Gatson, 62. “What JaQuel and I do, it’s commercial art. That’s why intellectual property is a big deal.”
For Knight, getting the “Single Ladies” job meant first failing to get another. Gatson was auditioning dancers for Michelle Williams (of Destiny’s Child), and Knight — who, in person, has the assured bearing of a performer but a compact build — was considered too short. Still, his freestyle at the audition impressed Gatson. “To this day, he says he came to make sure I noticed him, not to get the job,” recalls Gatson. “Today’s choreography, it all seems like, ‘Do a booty dance, act nasty, walk.’ But this young man had something very fresh and new.” He later hired Knight to choreograph a different Williams project and saw that he could organize a room full of “professional dancers, who are sometimes prima donnas” and clean up their movement without sacrificing its funk and soul. At that point in time, Gatson also worked closely with Beyoncé on both creative direction and choreography, and once the two began conceiving “Single Ladies,” he asked Knight to fly to New York to join the team.
Gatson had a choreographic reference in mind, which he had discussed with Beyoncé before Knight got involved: a Fosse routine called “Mexican Breakfast” that featured three women dancing in a line on a bare stage. He also wanted to incorporate J-setting, a movement style Knight knew in which dancers perform in a lead-follow format, similar to marching band majorettes. Beyond those initial points of inspiration, Knight had free rein to workshop any ideas he had, in the studio with Beyoncé. He’d teach her a bit each day, then sit down and talk about how they wanted the dance to make women feel. “ ‘Single Ladies’ for me is like a walk-through of my childhood,” says Knight. “Moments where I remind myself of my grandmothers, of talent shows with my cousins, marching band, everything I’ve done wrapped into one.”
The end product showcases what would become Knight’s stylistic signatures. Like Beyoncé herself, he is a master of precision (he often hires dancers with ballet technique training), so “Single Ladies” has an overall clarity and elegance, regardless of the dancers’ particular movements. “Even in super slo-mo, you can see the dancers are together,” says Weber of the “Single Ladies” video. His blend of influences ranges from African dance — in which the hips and upper torso often move in different rhythmic sequences — to classic musicals. His phrasing isn’t predictable either, moving from moments of intensity to sudden stillness. Often, he’ll ground a choreographic work in a motif like the “Single Ladies” hand flick — something any viewer will remember, and can likely replicate, even if the surrounding movement patterns are more complex.
While there aren’t any explicit criteria for what makes a piece of choreography “copyrightable,” “Single Ladies” could be a textbook example. “The overall artistic mélange — you definitely see creativity, lots of different themes and perspectives melding together for a contemporary urban audience,” Mtima says of the video. If you look online, it is easy to find side-by-side comparisons of the “Single Ladies” and “Mexican Breakfast” videos flagging the very reference points that Gatson and Knight intended, as if there’s a game of choreographic “Gotcha!” going on. (“On social media, right away everyone is an art connoisseur, and as soon as you go up, you’re critiqued,” says Knight with a rueful laugh.) But within the framework of copyright, those references are considered “building blocks” — raw material artists build upon in new work, like certain chord phrasings in music — which are not only acceptable but almost expected in an art form like dance. As an element of the creative process, they can prove essential and, indeed, inescapable.
There’s no exact line denoting how many building blocks it takes for a work to stop qualifying as new and copyrightable — and at any rate, the Copyright Office’s examiners evaluate choreographic submissions as coherent, whole works. (They are also not choreography experts, though they analyze choreographic submissions regularly for consistency’s sake.) On that level, there’s no doubt that Knight’s choreography is very much his own. And he and Hecht deposited with the Copyright Office both the Labanotation score for “Single Ladies” as well as the video, providing an extra level of proof that both the original concept and the dance in the video itself are his work.
Of Gatson’s “Mexican Breakfast” reference, Knight says, “You see the three ladies, you see the inspiration — but the funk, the stylized movement, they’re extremely different. I mean, how I got here as an artist is being inspired by those who came before me. That’s how any of us get anywhere. But as you grow, you learn who you are. [At this point,] people can see something right away and know ‘JaQuel choreographed that.’ ”
It’s not in his interest to be anyone other than himself. Registering the copyright for “Single Ladies,” and the works that will follow, he says, “is about protecting that voice.”
When I first interviewed Knight in September, he was sitting in his live-work loft space in downtown Los Angeles, with a painting of OutKast’s Stankonia album cover on the wall behind his desk — the patron saints of his hometown, looking down on him. Even amid the coronavirus pandemic, he’d had a busy past few months. In June, he creative-directed and choreographed Megan Thee Stallion’s virtual performance at the BET Awards, a spectacle of Mad Max imagery and glamazon dancers, twerking in unison, in which she seemed more confident than ever before. “It was a turning point in my career,” says Megan today. “I was able to show what I’m capable of. Every performance has been elevated since I started working with JaQuel.”
In July, rapper-singer Tory Lanez shot Megan in both of her feet following a party they’d attended. (He was only charged for the incident in October.) When she reunited with Knight the following month, it was for her first concert since that traumatic event: a livestream for Tidal produced by Live Nation. “For me it was like getting her to walk again,” recalls Knight. “To get onstage again after being shot in your feet? As an artist, putting yourself onstage is already a vulnerable space. I have a huge heart for Megan and what she stands for and means to the community.”
The day before Knight headed to Tampa, Fla., to meet Megan for final rehearsals, news broke of Jacob Blake’s shooting in Kenosha, Wis. He began to think of how to acknowledge such tragedies in the Tidal show and eventually suggested a moment of silence for Black victims of police violence. “Being involved in my community and standing up for what is right is very important to me,” says Megan. “It’s great to have someone on my creative team who has such vision and can bring ideas to life that resonate long after the show.” Mid-performance, the music stopped, and she and her dancers raised their fists in the air as the names of the dead flashed on a screen behind them, followed by the question, “Why is it so hard being Black in America?”
Megan and Knight explored similar themes in her SNL appearance. Midway through her hit “Savage,” Megan paused as the sound of gunshots rang out, then stepped forward, her head bowed, while two recordings played: an excerpt from Malcolm X’s iconic 1962 “Who taught you to hate yourself?” speech, and activist Tamika Mallory calling out Kentucky attorney general Daniel Cameron as “no different from the sellout Negroes who sold our people into slavery.” Then Megan took the mic with an urgent message of her own: “We need to protect our Black women, because at the end of the day, we need our Black women. We need to protect our Black men, because at the end of the day, we’re tired of seeing hashtags of our Black men.”
Knight conceived every aspect of the performance — down to the phrase “Protect Black Women” and the names of police violence victims embedded in the set design — after discussing the overall concept with Megan and her team. In the days following, it dominated the cultural conversation (everywhere from the Black Lives Matter Twitter feed to Fox News), proving how Knight’s creative vision can raise even an established star artist’s profile. During SNL rehearsals, Megan told Knight she wanted to train with him in Los Angeles for a month, just to prepare for whatever their next project may be.
“No one was taking Megan lightly before I came into the picture,” says Knight. “But now it’s like, how can we polish it?” Her dancing had been twerk-centric for quite a while, so Knight focused on how to take that to the next level. “Now, even Megan’s like, ‘What the fuck? What kind of synchronized ass shake is this?’ ” he says, bursting into laughter. Knight describes his current role with her as “more than choreographer or creative director — essentially, the guy who figures out the overall image when it comes to performance.”
It’s a role he has inhabited before, for artists like Tinashe and Zara Larsson ready to break through to the next level of stardom. And Knight doesn’t just give them moves — he sharpens every aspect of their performances. “He teaches you how to walk. He teaches you how to flick your wrist when you’re hitting that last chorus onstage,” says Chris Anokute, founder of artist-development firm Young Forever and a former Motown Records executive who worked with Knight on Larsson. “He’s giving you an overall aura. Most choreographers don’t know how to do that because they don’t understand artist development.”
Knight is well-aware that not every artist has Beyoncé-level stage presence or dance training. Still, he knows that every artist might have an inner Sasha Fierce. “What he sees in people is a matrix of their abilities and untapped potential,” says Pharrell Williams, whose 2017 “Lemon” video (by his band N*E*R*D and Rihanna) was built around a piece of Knight choreography, performed by magnetic dancer Mette Towley, that launched a worldwide dance challenge (and helped garner over 120 million YouTube views). “The way in which he navigates such dominions is his choreography — his artwork.”
As the centerpiece of culture-changing music videos, that choreography has profoundly changed the way Black women are portrayed. Knight’s movement is undeniably sexy, but always on the artist’s own terms: A woman dancing his choreography looks like a queen, even when she’s twerking in a position that might seem to defy gravity. He’s still inspired by the young women in the dance squad that performed in front of his high school marching band. “They carried themselves well and had high standards,” recalls Knight, still sounding a bit in awe.
These themes of his work — uplifting Black entertainers, helping them own their power through statements that are sometimes political — make Knight’s own quest to copyright-protect his work as a Black artist something of a political act itself. “Copyright ownership is essential for Black creators to ensure authentic representation and to protect cultural output,” says Terrica Carrington, vp legal policy and copyright counsel at the Copyright Alliance. And on a cultural level, it could be paradigm-shifting. “There is this notion throughout much of the Black community that the law can only be used as a tool to exploit people, and there’s this notion that copyright is inherently racist and biased,” says Howard University’s Mtima. “And that’s just not true. A lot of the law is not targeted in any particular way; people get confused with discriminatory practices in certain industries. JaQuel is demonstrating, ‘Well, if the law is inherently against me, how is it that I’m able to use it to my advantage?’ ”
Knight’s mission may not exactly be a cause for celebration for everyone in the industry — especially video platforms like Twitch, YouTube and TikTok, which depend on user-generated content, much of which involves performing, or essentially appropriating, existing choreography. Knight and Hecht say they don’t want to use copyright to police regular folk who love dance — say, a flash mob performing the “Single Ladies” choreography — and just want to collect a licensing fee when his choreography is used for commercial gain (say, livestreams of tours using his choreography). “But that won’t be a comfort to YouTube,” says one intellectual property attorney who works in the music industry. “JaQuel may be temperate in enforcement, but [another choreographer] may say, ‘Take every flash mob down.’ ” A platform like YouTube might “want the courts to render a populist opinion where it’s not enforceable in the first place,” the attorney continues, “or else they can be abused by copyright holders.” (YouTube declined to comment for this story.)
Where official music videos are concerned, Knight’s copyright ownership should not change negotiations much: a label, or the artist in question, could buy his work for a video (much like a film studio buys a script from a screenwriter), discuss points or some percentage of the profit, and he’d be free to collect on uses of the choreography elsewhere. Short-form content in particular — for example, the “WAP” dance challenge on TikTok, which borrows from Knight’s choreography and has around 10 million unique videos — is a huge area of commercial growth. TikTok doesn’t license choreography, and until it does, Knight’s representatives’ only way of enforcing their rights, should they choose, might be sending an endless series of takedown notices. But, as the industry attorney points out, “if that’s where people are making money, why wouldn’t he want to enforce his rights in that area?”
Since Knight’s team registered “Single Ladies,” it has received requests to license his work in mediums ranging from video games to feature films. Now, they’re figuring out what those licenses might look like and cost, along with what back-end opportunities might exist for choreographers with copyright ownership. To do so, they’re seeking the advice of contacts both in and outside the music industry — experts like Warner Chappell president of A&R Ryan Press (for the publishing perspective) and Knight’s agent, Lucille DiCampli (for the musical theater perspective). Thanks to the Society of Directors and Choreographers union — which sets minimums for work, including royalties from ticket sales — theater is the only art form in which choreographers can currently see a profit in perpetuity. According to DiCampli, choreographers can get between 0.75 and 3.5 points on a show’s gross revenue, depending on their experience and whether the show recoups its investment — a figure that includes future productions and touring companies.
Knight could potentially also consider forming a kind of collecting society — collective rights management organizations, like ASCAP and SESAC in the United States, that license copyrighted works on behalf of their authors. “A collecting society does two very compelling things for creators: It creates a scale whereby they can collect revenues, and it’s a force for creative people — a political force and an economic one,” says Stanford University Law School’s Paul Goldstein, a global authority on intellectual property. “It would be wonderful if choreographers could band together with some collectivity to get what they deserve.” None in the United States manage rights for choreographic works, but several across Europe do — and they cover choreography in music videos.
For now, Knight is focused on forming a new entity of his own — a publishing company for choreographers. “I don’t want to hit steps every day for the rest of my life,” says Knight. “So how can I share this knowledge with everyone else, and start to build something even my kids can live off of? I think now is the time that we recognize choreographers as the gatekeepers of culture.” With Pelloni and Hecht, he wants to help his colleagues (including those with whom he co-choreographed routines) register and ultimately license their work, and in the process, maybe prolong their own careers beyond their prime dancing days.
Their first client is already waiting in the wings: Sean Bankhead, a friend of Knight’s who has known him since high school in Atlanta, when they were members of rival dance crews. Bankhead’s choreography includes Normani’s “Motivation” video, a tour de force of dance that burnished her solo clout last year. “Luckily, JaQuel is making headway and getting answers that are really a huge game-changer,” says Bankhead. “I will be second in line right behind him to copyright my work.”