This week, Billboard is celebrating the music video with a week’s worth of content that looks at the past, present and future of the video, at a time when it seems to be as relevant as ever. Here, we asked a dozen choreographers to share the inspirations, challenges, and creative processes behind some of the most famous music-video dance routines in the 21st century.
There is no one formula for a great music video. Everything from no-frills performances and emotional close-ups to CGI fantasy worlds and plot-driven mini-movies can move audiences, go viral, and change the course of an artist’s career. But looking at Billboard’s ranking of the 100 Greatest Music Videos of the 21st Century, it’s especially clear that having a sick dance routine does not hurt — six of the top ten videos on that list prominently feature or are entirely based around eye-catching, elaborate choreography.
Below, Billboard asked choreographers on classic videos for Sia, P!nk, OK Go, Justin Bieber, Ciara, and more about how they put those moves together — from the initial conversations with artists to working with directors to capture the magic on camera — and why dance-heavy videos resonate so widely with fans and viewers.
LADY GAGA, “BAD ROMANCE” (2009)
Laurieann Gibson: I was with Gaga for quite some time to prior to “Bad Romance” as her choreographer and creative director. Her movement catalog was already designed — I actually had a diary of movements that we created through our collaboration. Finding how an artist moves is like finding their sound. I think that’s why all of our videos were so well done: Her style of performing and her particular language of dance was her own. Her rhythm patterns are so offbeat and aggressive. The little movements, the timing — that was really developed prior to “Bad Romance,” so when I heard it, I just elaborated on the style of movement that I had created for her from the beginning.
There is a base of choreography, and then I start to decorate it. I was obsessed with the twist and Chubby Checker, and I was obsessed with the tension that I heard in her voice and the machine aspect of the song, so I took that inspiration. When she takes those tiny steps at the beginning of the chorus and covers her mouth, she’s doing a bourrée — that was her ballerina moment. And Naomi Campbell inspired the “walk, walk, fashion baby” section. The first time I saw Naomi walk down the catwalk in a Tommy Hilfiger show, I was like, “Oh my God, this is dance!” She walked for the gods, honey! It was like a refined horse’s gallop, it was insane. So she inspired the breakdown section.
We had the choreography before we did the video. I had put it on Gaga when we first performed “Bad Romance” on Gossip Girl in 2009. It doesn’t usually happen that way, and I think people don’t know that it informed that video — she let the choreography and the drama of it all lead. To be able to really inspire a lot of the emotion of the “Bad Romance” video was amazing. My creative process was so fulfilled. Then to get someone like director Francis Lawrence — who understood how to light it and shoot it and make it stunning, who got the Chubby Checker twist and the model walk — it was so magical. The choreography drove it, and you don’t always get that opportunity as a choreographer. I count that as a blessing. And I think it’s awesome that her fans and the Little Monsters love the dance and know it’s a part of the experience. I’m touched forever that those kids got that and responded to it.
BEYONCÉ, “7/11” (2014)
Chris Grant: I had been with Beyoncé as one of her lead choreographers since 2008. She noted that she didn’t really want [“7/11”] to be typical choreography — she wanted it to be fun and organic, just different movements that would repeat and make people want to do the steps.
At first Beyoncé just wanted me to vibe out. She wanted to see what would naturally come out. [When I’m coming up with choreography] I put on the song and just move to the beat like anyone else would at home. Then I adapt my movement to correspond to the lyrics or the emotion I feel she wants to convey with the song. It’s a marriage of movement and expression. The best thing for me to do when I create is not to overthink the vision she gives me. If the choreography feels inauthentic to the song, if it doesn’t give me chills or make me excited, then it’s not right.
I sent her a video of my concept based on her vision, and then I workshopped it and brought in some talented ladies for a few hours to see what the choreography looked like. We truly all had a blast shooting “7/11.” We shot it in one day, and to be honest, it’s my favorite video shoot till this day. I feel like people nowadays just want to be able to relate to one another. “7/11” shows a more down-to-earth side of Beyoncé. She’s just having fun with her girls and showing more of a goofy “not so perfect or polished” Beyoncé. It felt like an actual hotel party with your closest friends. Oh, and the guy wearing the white shirt and black pants that everybody thinks is JAY-Z rolling, flipping, and running around is actually me.
OK GO, “HERE IT GOES AGAIN” (2006)
Trish Sie: My brother, Damian Kulash, is [the lead singer of] OK Go. Damian and I have collaborated on countless video projects over the years. OK Go and I had already created a dance for their song “A Million Ways,” so we had an existing relationship and process for making stuff together. We knew we wanted to take the band’s dance game up a notch, but we weren’t really sure how. So I pitched them the idea of dancing on treadmills after seeing a bunch of people marching in sync on a bank of treadmills at the gym. It seemed like an untapped resource. The band was a little leery at first — all of us were concerned that there might not be enough you could do with the treadmills, or that the bulkiness of the machines themselves would overshadow the people and the movement. But since no one else had a better idea, we gave it a shot.
We entered the studio with all possibilities wide open. We didn’t even have a song picked out yet. We had eight treadmills but no set plan. The first thing we did was put OK Go’s album on a loop and started moving the treadmills around the room, setting them at different speeds and angles and leaping around on them like kids in a playground. There were a lot of injuries that first day. Treadmills are ruthless beasts. They’ll really chew you up if you’re not careful. And we weren’t careful. We tossed our bodies around like rag dolls. We leaped on and off, ran forward and backward, flipped over the handlebars, jacked up the incline so the treadmills were like a tiny mountain range. We were so young and resilient back then. Looking back on it? Ouch.
By the end of the day, it became clear that “Here It Goes Again” was the song that naturally worked best with the mood and tempo of the song and worked best with the most comfortable speed on the treadmills: 1.8 miles per hour. And our favorite treadmill line-up was the 4+4 configuration that maximized the way the moving belts interacted with each other, giving us the best “stage” to play on. For the next week of rehearsals, it was all about creating a vocabulary of movements that were inventive, impactful, and repeatable. And the final choreographic stage was taking all our favorite tricks and moves and organizing them into a piece that has a satisfying shape — ups and downs, changes in texture, and continual surprises that ramp up as the video goes.
Every member of the band had a different Achilles’ heel when it came to the choreography. And at the same time, every guy had his signature move that he nailed every time — one that really showcased his particular swagger. I’m sure you can pretty much tell which is which when you watch the video. It was very hard to get through the entire dance without someone making a deal-killing error. To preserve everyone’s sanity and energy, we would just stop the minute someone screwed up. We’d drink some water, reset, and start all over again. It may surprise people to learn that probably the hardest move is the “ice skating” maneuver. The guys make it look so effortless, but it’s anything but. That movement goes against every instinct in your body. The treadmills basically rip your legs sideways right out from under you. It took hours and hours of practice to nail that one.
When the video came out, the reaction was humbling and unbelievably gratifying at the same time. We were so lucky to ride the swell of YouTube just as it was gearing up. Who knows if anyone would ever have seen or cared about this video if we had made it five years earlier? Or five years later? And then watching talented people — ice skaters and teenagers in their school variety shows — using our dance as inspiration for their own work, that was a thrill. It’s lovely to realize that the “little guy” can still poke through once in a while. If it encourages other people to get in a room with their trusted buddies and make weird stuff that comes from the heart and doesn’t cost a lot of money, I’m all for that.
JUSTIN BIEBER, “SORRY” (2015)
Parris Goebel: I was lying in bed, and my dad comes into the room and says, “It’s Scooter [Braun] on the phone” — Justin’s manager. He wanted to see if I could make 13 music videos for Justin’s new album, and the first one he wanted done was “Sorry.” Scooter gave me full creative reign and let me go for it.
I booked a white room, brought a whole lot of clothes that were ‘90s inspired. I always head into the studio and play the song and start moving to it and listening to the words of the song. The beat felt very tropical and great for summer, so it led me to create [that kind of] movement for the song. Everything takes place in the studio — it really is just a matter of pressing play and then starting to choreograph.
The time constraint was a challenge: We rehearsed on Saturday, shot the video on Sunday, and then edited it through the night and sent the video to Scooter on Monday. It’s also been amazing to see how well the video did without the actual artist in the video, which doesn’t really happen much and brought the dance to the forefront of the song. I think it resonated because of the simplicity of everything. The whole video is just girls dancing together and having fun. The video was shot in New Zealand, and all the girls are from ReQuest Dance Crew and my studio, the Palace Dance Studio. The outfits popped, and the video allowed everyone around the world to get up and dance.
ROBYN, “CALL YOUR GIRLFRIEND” (2011)
Maria “Decida” Wahlberg: Robyn and I had been working together for about a year and a half, and I’d been helping her out with creating a more versatile body language for the Body Talk albums and tour. My ambition from the start with her was to coach her to develop her own way of dancing, rather than pick up a perfect choreography or mimic my style. We’d been watching everyone from Tina Turner to Freddie Mercury: People who weren’t “good dancers” in the typical sense, but rather “body talkers” with their own unique, liberated styles.
Director Max Vitali had an idea to spotlight that work for the “Call Your Girlfriend” video. By then I’d had lots of time to understand Robyn’s own motion spectrum, so for the video I wanted to create something that really looked like freestyle. When I started working with the choreography, I didn’t know it would become a one-take — I think Max wasn’t sure either, because he had booked two weeks of editing that never really came into use. It was just chop-chop because of Robyn’s amazing performance! She just did about seven takes before nailing it, and it was a wrap.
The biggest challenge was being up all night before the shoot while Martin Phillips and Eric Belanger programmed the perfect lighting for every part of the choreography. On set, Max and I were hiding in a very, very small tent — we didn’t want to be seen on camera since Robyn moves around in every angle of the hangar. The director of photography, Crille Forsberg, also did a brilliant deed: He was basically dancing with Robyn and the big camera while filming it, and his assistants were working just as hard to not to get the cables in the frame.
Seeing the reaction has been truly amazing. Remember, this was 2011, so the digital landscape was a bit different. Because algorithms and big data weren’t in our daily vocabulary, it felt like really authentic attention. Seeing somebody other than a trained dancer move like no one was watching seemed to strike a chord for many. A particularly fun moment was when were at SNL, where Robyn was performing, and Taran Killam suddenly said he filmed a little something that he wanted to show us.
CIARA, “PROMISE” (2006) / “RIDE” (2010)
Jamaica Craft: “Promise” was the first time Ciara and I worked together with director Diane Martel. We wanted to do a video of vignettes, all these cool little moments. For inspiration, we were looking at Bob Fosse choreography and other visuals that were simplistic but iconic. We were in a new album phase, so we also wanted to show Ciara a little more grown with heels, tight jeans, and silhouettes. I wanted to take it to a modern-jazz-meets-hip-hop place.
I won’t take the credit for the microphone scenes — that was Tina Landon’s idea, and she’s a legendary choreographer. We knew Ciara was a superhero dancer, and because of our love of Michael and Janet Jackson, we thought, “How could we make it magical for her audience?” We put one of my friends in a green-screen suit, and he’s holding her. That was super crazy to choreograph because Ciara needed to make it look effortless, not like someone was holding her. But the sky’s the limit with Ciara. She’s like an athlete. She’s always like, “Give me two weeks, and I got it.” That’s the only limitation she’s ever given me. “If I can train for it, I’ll be good.” And she’s always good.
With the “Ride” video, Ciara and I went to Diane and wanted to do video that was just dance. We rehearsed “Ride” for two and a half weeks, maybe three weeks, the longest we’ve ever rehearsed. We took inspiration from male exotic dancing — when you see her slide out and hit the ground, that’s something a male exotic dancer would do, like Magic Mike. We also wanted it to feel 3-D. Diane had to figure out a way to capture Ciara so that the choreography punched through the screen. It’s not edited because we’re hiding anything; it’s edited because we’re trying to show something. We wanted to show every little piece.
When BET refused to air an unedited version, it hurt our feelings. We thought we were giving you the next level! What did we do wrong? What should we have done? I was like, “Oh shit, did I talk her into a style of movement that got her here? Should we have done something different?” But she was like, “No! We did exactly what the record told us to do.”
DUA LIPA, “NEW RULES” (2017)
Teresa Toogie Barcelo: Dua had the original idea. She wanted to shoot in Miami, she wanted flamingos to be a part of the video, and she wanted a video that displayed women supporting each other. Director Henry Scholfield had seen a video that I had choreographed and found out that I was from Miami, so it was a perfect fit. He and I met for the first time in L.A., where he brought some ideas about using a hotel room and creating a path for the camera that can be repeated, so by the end, the dancers’ roles are reversed and it’s Dua helping her friends.
When I choreograph, I obsessively listen to the song and pull out every detail — every percussive element, every lyric. I write down the lyrics just to get a sense of the rhythm and flow of the song. For this, I watched as much flamingo footage that exists on the Internet. I love pulling inspiration from non-human places. The jerky head movement and some of the body positions were very much a flamingo inspiration.
I do a lot of site-specific choreography, and I don’t do the moves until I am on the site. I was able to get to Miami to the hotel a couple days in advance. We had a full day of rehearsal with the steadicam guy. We rehearsed the camera blocking with the dancers, and then Dua came in. I am Dua’s stand-in — I make up what she’s going to do, I film it, I send it to her, she watches it, and then she comes into rehearsal. I do it once in-person to show her, and then she jumps in. She picks up blocking really quickly. She’s a bad-ass. I’ve been continuously choreographing for Dua since “New Rules,” and the dancer she’s becoming through the process of working with me is amazing. She works her ass off.
One of the reasons I don’t necessarily link movements together beforehand is that you never know what kind of dancers you’re going to get. When we were casting dancers, I was like, “I’m going to book the best dancers, Miami is where I grew up, I know the cream of the crop.” But through the label having a say in the casting process, I ended up not being able to cast the all the dancers I wanted. I cast a bunch of young girls that fit the look. Two of them were not even professional dancers, they were just models. I was thinking, “The video is going to be cool, but it’s not going to be the thing I imagined.”
But when the video came out, I loved it. In hindsight, I love that they weren’t the “best” dancers, because it would have been a completely different video, and it might not have resonated so much if those girls didn’t look like regular girls.
SIA, “CHANDELIER” (2014)
Ryan Heffington: Sia and I had worked together before, but she had actually asked another choreographer to be a part of it first. That didn’t work out, so she contacted me, and we went through a series of concepts before landing on the idea of having Maddie Ziegler be the star. Sia hooked us up through a Skype conversation, so we got to know each other, and then Sia and I met at a coffee shop and went over specific details that she envisioned. She wanted physical glitching — repetitive movements as if you were caught in one motion. She also wanted to feed off of the space, and a lot of my work has been inspired by that. Beyond that, though, she really trusted me to create a scenario with Maddie about a younger girl in this room that was dilapidated and abandoned.
The music really drives my choreography a lot, but not the lyrical content or the story per se — it’s more about the emotional quality, the highs and lows of Sia’s voice. During the higher tones when she’s pushing, I want the choreography to be complementary to that. When I present stuff to Sia, I usually pretend like I’m the camera: Where should it go? What is coming next? I work with the cinematographer and making sure they know what a good vantage point is. Sometimes you create a piece of movement that looks great from the front, but then if you shoot it from a three-quarters angle, it doesn’t have the same impact.
It wasn’t an exhausting day filming — we didn’t overshoot it. A lot of the takes were absolutely one-takes, and Maddie could kill it from beginning to end. She’s such a perfectionist and is so damn talented that she was never the reason we needed to keep shooting. Sia wanted other options — different angles, close-ups — so we got those to make sure we captured it fully. It wasn’t a lot of takes, though, I’ll say that. It was the minimal amount to get what she wanted. At the end of the day, we were so happy with all of the elements: the set, the choreography, the performance. It was like, “Okay we did our jobs.” We had a great day.
KIESZA, “HIDEAWAY” (2014)
Ljuba Castot: I was Kiesza’s backup dancer the year prior to her writing “Hideaway,” when she was on her artist grind in NYC. She asked me to choreograph the video based on a concept she and her producer Rami Samir Afuni had conceived: “Dancing from one corner of the street to the next corner.”
We started working on the video on Monday and shot it Sunday, so I literally had to put one foot in front of the other and go. Kiesza and I went location scouting, and a lot of the video development happened as we were walking up and down streets in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The choreography was motivated by the song — I like to tap into the first instinctive response and develop from there. The first piece of it I created was the first “drop,” when the choreography goes into that house [breakdown] after Kiesza and the three girls do that canon peel-off. Kiesza requested ballet and locking moves, and that totally fit. I brought in Val “Ms. Vee” Ho, who dances in the video, specifically to help me with a locking phrase for her and Kiesza. Rami, our co-director, insisted on the running man being in there, which was a good call, so I did two variations of the running man.
The day prior [to the shoot], myself and the director of photography almost got robbed on location — we had to literally chase the guy down. Daylight was also a challenge. We only got to shoot six takes.
I think myself, Kiesza, and the dancers underestimated the video’s impact at first, but it was clear that it touched people from seeing all the videos people made of themselves imitating it. People of all ages, genders, and races found it inspiring and approachable. Every time Kiesza got booked for TV, the show would ask me to create a new version specifically for them. Letterman let us travel outside the studio and get Kiesza soaked by a fire hydrant. Ellen wanted her to travel all the way through her set. On Jimmy Kimmel Live, we had Kiesza exit a DeLorean car and make her way down Hollywood Boulevard. The EMAs made a path through the entire venue that I could use. The Much Music Awards drove a yellow cab onstage for us. And the list goes on — everyone wanted a “Hideaway” moment.
FEIST, “1234” (2007)
Noémi Lafrance: The Feist video was the first music video that I ever did. In my artistic work, I do modern dance that often involves architecture or large groups of people, so I tend to be asked to do things like that. The director, Patrick Daughters, was in a phase where he liked to do one-take videos and use interesting equipment, like the spiderweb camera. I was also compelled to do a one-take videos because it brings in an element of reality and tangibility. You can hide a lot of things when you’re cutting between everything. There is one trick cut at the beginning — well, it’s not really a cut, but the people standing behind her in the beginning were erased in post.
Some of the ideas were mine, and some were Patrick’s. I wanted to do these flock-of-birds movements. I always wanted to reference crowd-surfing. We wanted to do that spiral formation. There were a lot of images, and we found a way to weave them all together. We had moments in the song where we were like, “This is the part when this moment happens, this is when that one happens.” I love when they criss-cross and separate into their colors — it all comes together visually and rhythmically in that section.
I started working with 12 dancers to get some of the moves down, and then I brought in the rest of the people. I always start with a smaller group knowing that it’s going to be echoed by many more people. Working with a lot more people takes time: 50 people need to go to the bathroom, 50 people need to ask questions. You always have to account for that. We practiced for a few days, and then we did 25 takes on the day of the shoot.
As an artist, you don’t come up with ideas like this overnight — sometimes these things have been in your process for a long time and mature, and then something comes out of it, but it depends on the right collaboration. Me and Patrick was a good collaboration, a good moment for us to show our strengths.
*NSYNC, “BYE BYE BYE” (2000)
Darrin Dewitt Henson: Johnny Wright, who was the manager of *NSYNC at the time, asked me to come up with choreography [while] they were presenting at the Billboard Music Awards. I flew to Las Vegas and said, “Leave me alone in a rehearsal space for about six hours, and then come back after the sixth or seventh hour.” When I was left alone in the studio, that afforded me the opportunity to just be myself and organically develop the moves. I would play the music over and over and over until a piece of the choreography felt right, and then I would match it with another piece until the choreography was done.
The group came back, and we started working on the choreography for the awards. I later finished the full choreography in Los Angeles at Alley Cat studios, which is what everybody got to witness in the video.
The choreography simply was a combination of a few things: the puppeteers-style dancing, which came from them singing about feeling like puppets on a string on the original track; then the black power fist — at the time the group did not know where the move come from, they just enjoyed doing the move. This is the first time I’ve actually talked about it. And then there’s the talking hand, which was a quintessentially New York move. When a person was talking too much crap, you gave them the talking hand, the opening and closing of the first. The creation of “Bye Bye Bye” happened from me growing up in the Bronx. It’s the signature move, and it will exist forever — that’s why it’s my favorite.
P!NK, “TRY” (2012)
Nick Florez and RJ Durell of the GoldenBoyz: P!nk had the idea of doing an emotionally raw, modern-based dance for the video. The director, Floria Sigismondi, thought it would be interesting to fuse that with a French dance style called Apache, which is a physically acrobatic and violent dance that was popular in the early 1900s and is said to mimic a pimp and his prostitute.
We approached the performance from an emotional storytelling standpoint first, beyond just choreography. We studied old Apache dance videos to better understand that style of dance, and how it can encapsulate subtle, beautiful movement that builds into something explosive and unexpected. We planned to use both the structure of the house and the furniture inside it, to [make] the internal struggle [physical]. We love how Floria then took the narrative outside of the house once the dance reached its boiling point — the house could no longer contain the energy.
P!nk was down to try anything and gave us the green light to push her physically and emotionally. We started to build the choreography on dancers in a studio and it took shape very quickly, within a few hours, especially when we explored how anger, frustration, love, vulnerability, and pain would look like as a dance expression. What seems like a graceful dance at first quickly escalates into a fight. We collaborated with Sebastian Stella, a stunt and fight choreographer, who helped us to fuse the dance elements with fight and acrobatic sequences. We met up with P!nk at a sound stage and had our dancers perform it for her. She cried. It was awesome.
Because the choreography and stunts were so physically demanding, P!nk took on a rigorous schedule of training for the video. It wasn’t something you could work on for a couple of days and then shoot, so we rehearsed over a span of two weeks. She is the only artist we have worked with that did that kind of preparation. On set, Floria threw in some colorful explosions of powder as the dance climaxed. It looked amazing, but P!nk and her partner, Colt Prattes, inhaled the powder as they were doing the choreography and could not see or breathe. The struggle was real!
On set, we loved watching P!nk dance and joked that this choreography could never be done while actually singing. Later, after the video was released, P!nk decided to perform the routine in its entirety while singing live on the American Music Awards.