Meet JaQuel Knight, Choreographer and Creative Director for Beyoncé and Big Sean
From ATL dance crew to Queen Bey's stage
Leading one of the top dance crews in Atlanta during the mid-2000s while still in high school is an achievement anyone could be proud of. It was a big moment for hip hop dance, and JaQuel Knight was still in school while appearing in many of the videos and performances of that era. This was just the start though, and as soon as he got his diploma, Knight set out to L.A. with bigger goals in mind. And he certainly met them.
He’s been a choreographer for Beyoncé since “Single Ladies” and has worked on some of her biggest projects, including Lemonade and the 2017 Grammy Performance. Once that first Bey video dropped, it’s been a non-stop rollercoaster for him, and he’s been working on choreography and creative direction with everyone from Big Sean and Tinashe, to Christina Aguilera and Zedd.
MASS APPEAL caught up with him to find out about how technology has changed the dance world, the process behind bringing an artist’s vision to life, the audition that started it all for him and how he chooses his own dancers now.
What are you working on right now?
This week I have a series of dance intensives and video shoots. Liam Payne is shooting two videos, one with Zedd, so that’s this week in L.A., and then recently Tyga, a video I just choreographed by him, “Move to L.A.” with Ty Dolla $ign. The BET Awards with Big Sean was about a month ago, so I’ve been doing some really cool things.
How long did it take to put Beyoncé’s Grammy performance together?
The Grammy performance was a work in progress for a couple of months. It’s never anything quick with Beyoncé, there’s a lot of thought there.
How much input did she give you for the final choreography?
I like to work super close with my clients. The more input they have in the project, the more personal it is, and the more it connects with that fanbase. So I let them have plenty of input. Beyoncé’s 20 years now in the game, so that’s 20 years of, “No, I like this” and “No, I don’t like that.” So my job, even with artists I’m working with now, is to try and get them to that point. Let’s get down to the nitty gritty of it: What’s awesome? What works for you? And what doesn’t? I try to have all my artists there.
So what’s the process like?
We have a chat beforehand, they’ll send me a song, and depending on how dance-heavy it is, we’ll go in the studio, I’ll bring in anywhere from two to six dancers, sometimes eight, and I’ll vibe for a few hours and put a lot of stuff on tape. I’ll do that for anywhere from one to three days, before I send something over to get feedback, and then that’s when the dialogue begins. Sometimes they come in the studio and vibe, and I just watch them, and then put that on dancers.
You were a creative director and choreographer for the Big Sean BET performance?
Yeah, creative and… movement, I ain’t gonna call that choreography [laughs]. For the BET Awards with Big Sean, he has a creative that he works with constantly, so I came into the mix to just kind of amplify things. Then you have other projects where they give you a treatment, and you just kind of have to figure out how to make different moments work. So that process is sort of different depending on the job. Your video creative position’s gonna change from your live performance, so that’s always super interesting.
How do you work with video effects?
So Mike Carson, the guy Sean works with, had this cool idea to use effects. He had a guy he was working with out of London and we worked out what could look good with that, and what looked good on Sean. We played around with a couple things and recorded some. Even once you get the final edit from the video guy, from the editor, then you still keep going. “Oh this is dope, maybe we can double this, take this out, let’s try this…” It’s ongoing, literally up until days before the performance.
Motion effects were in the Beyoncé performance, too. How has technology affected your choreography?
I think that’s where dance is moving towards, combining technology with dance, and figuring it out. That’s the beauty of art. Being able to get in the space, a room full of nerds, whether music nerds or tech geeks, and working on something super cool and memorable. You can’t just put yourself in a box and say, I’m only here to do dance. Especially when you’re working with artists who want to elevate the level of artistry, like Beyoncé or Big Sean. They all want to go to the next level, do things that people haven’t seen—researching those cool tech and motion graphic things and seeing how to make them come alive on stage and how you can do that in a video.
There’s no rules yet. It’s still very uncharted, right?
There’s no fuckin’ rules. Nothing is wrong, and nothing is right. It’s all taste level. “What’s cool to you?” and “Where do you see this for you?” It’s taste level, I say that all the time.
How do you choose the dancers that end up in the final piece?
I’m super hard on the dancers. I have a crew that I go to, a number of dancers I love and admire, artists who I know can come on set and knock it out, and not be too much to deal with. That’s important to the artist, as well, because you don’t want people on set who are talking too much, or being noisy or putting things up on Instagram or Twitter. There’s a lot now that we have to be cautious of. A lot of these projects are top secret. I handpick the dancers and a lot of the times, the artist is a part of that process. They go through a really hard rehearsal process.
How many dancers are you regularly working with?
I have a pool of maybe 20 girls that I love and ten guys that I love, those are my go-tos. For any job, I check on those people first. They get text messages from me to see if they’re available. Then, however many aren’t, I reach out to agencies and ask friends who they recommend, who they’ve worked with on jobs recently, who they were impressed by.
What other qualities do you look for in dancers, style-wise?
We usually want a dancer that can do whatever you need. It also depends on the job, too. I have girls that’ll be great with Beyoncé, they have a nice bond, they can pull up and have a technical foundation. But then if we’re doing Big Sean, you gotta be able to be funky, you gotta be able to get down and shake your ass a little bit, move your hips a little bit more, be a little bit more street. The same with the guys. You’re gonna get on a J-Lo job, she’s gonna want them to be funky, and have a little bit of flair. Have a little bit of that Latin sauce in them. And then they’re gonna go to a hip hop job, and have a little more balance, a little bit more in the dirt. So that varies from job to job.
Do you work with many dancers from street scenes like Miami jook or Bay Area turfin’?
Not so much in the specific areas like that, but I work with a group of dancers who are super, super dope in jooking. One of my favorites is Lil’ Buck from Memphis, a really good friend of mine, so whenever I have jobs where I can call in a specialty act, I have my go-to. There’s a group of them. I love the Les Twins from Paris. There’s this group of girls called the Bad Girls Club in Atlanta that are sick—a group of nice-sized women, all have great curves and are super funky. There are some guys there too, all into all those new Atlanta dance scenes, all the new dances coming out of Atlanta. So it’s always cool to go back and see what they’re doing.
And for dancers like that, what type of specialty jobs do they normally get?
Music videos. Like, “Who do you know in New Orleans who can do bounce?” For commercials even, I just had a job where I needed two guys who can krump but are also good looking and can do some tumbling. So I have my two guys in L.A. that I love, B Dash and Konkrete. So whatever the job is, I always try to have a stash of my favorites in the pocket, ready to go.
So you had a competition recently. How did that go?
I recently did a choreography competition via Instagram and that was pretty awesome. To see people from all over the country compete at putting choreography sets together, it was really cool. I was like, “Dog, people are really getting into this!” It was some really awesome art. Leila Henry out of Chicago won. She was super creative and talented to me and was just knocking each round out of the park. I can’t wait until we do it again. We had like 30 people enter and it was like March Madness. You win, go to the next round, you lose, you’re out! So it was as simple as that, and people would share their input in the comments section. Most of my regular friends, none dance, none in the industry, I would get text messages every morning like, “Oh, so-and-so is killin’ it.” So that was crazy to see.
What type of dancers did you get entering the competition?
All types. I think we had some Spanish dancers from Brazil or something, we had some crank dancers out of Atlanta, we had some street dancers from New York, of course we had people from L.A. who are in the scene there, Chicago, just all types of people with all types of vocabulary. I want to say it’s all hip hop, but it’s just all creative energy and movement, cause the song choices switch from house to hip hop to pop. That was kind of the idea, to see how versatile you were as a choreographer, so they were really adapting to those different genres. Each week we gave them a new song. Some of them were really good friends of mine, and some I had never heard of at all, just fans of my work. It was cool to see the mix of talent.
What was the goal behind the competition?
The goal behind it was just to inspire the dance community, the next generation of artists, and let them feel like someone is watching, and someone is here to guide you and help you through this process of wanting to be a choreographer. There are so many people out there focused on dance solely, but choreography is something completely different. You have to be able to visualize and dream, and see it and execute it, and place it on people, and teach it to people, and communicate to people your vision so they can help you bring it to life. I think people forget that. It’s more than dance steps, it’s more than a boom boom bam. That was my goal behind it, was to inspire the next crew of choreographers and give them feedback, and let them see how they can work and how they can grow and look at others, and all be in the same pot. That was it.
How did you get your start in dancing?
I’ve always danced as a child, but I think at 16 my best friend took me to my first dance workshop in Atlanta. That workshop kind of changed my life. At the time, I was in a marching band, the head of the dance committee and drum major and section leader, so this was a new world to me, as far as commercial gains. After that, we went and started our own dance crew and the rest is history. We were doing everything in Atlanta. I moved there when I was six, from North Carolina.
What type of stuff were you guys doing in that crew?
Our name was the Tru Style Hip Hop Dance Troupe. We were doing all the celebrity basketball games, all the talent shows in the city, music videos for all the new artists coming up, you know that was a big time for DJ Unk with the “Walk It Out,” and the “Poole Palace,” D4L with “Laffy Taffy.” It was a lot of that, and we were on the set of all of those videos for the most part. I was just 15, 16 when I was doing that.
What would you say was your main break? That’s pretty successful in itself, but you reached another level, eventually.
Yeah, I moved to L.A. right out of high school, two weeks after I graduated. My big break choreography-wise was an audition for Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child. She was looking for dancers and working with the guy who I started working with Beyoncé on, Frank Gatson. I thought he’d never hire me, “I’m too skinny, I’m too short, I’m not buff enough, but let me go to this audition and somehow I can be a part of his team.” They taught the longest dance combination in my life, and at the end of it, he asked folks who could freestyle to do it. I was like this is my moment, let me kill it. He loved it. He pulled me out, was like, “Yo, I really love what you was doin’, what you call that? Can I bring Michelle into the room and can you do it again for her?” I did it and she loved it, and then he called me the next day and was like, “Hey can you come in and choreograph a few steps for us, a few grooves, give us a few pockets and vibes, for a couple hundred dollars?” And I was like, “Yeah, sure.”
Then through that he saw, “Oh, you know how to teach, you work well with dancers, you know how to work with the artists.” Because this is everything I was doing in Atlanta. So I was pretty experienced in terms of working with people and teaching and making up stuff and being clear. He saw that and brought me on board. He was like, “Hey, can you come on and assist me with choreographing the video and come onto the team?” After a while, he brought me on for “Single Ladies” and it hasn’t stopped. Oh my god, it’s been a rollercoaster since.
How many people were at that Michelle Williams audition?
Oh, it was a few hundred, easily.
That’s a lot of people to try and be noticed from.
Yeah, and they’re only looking for like 10 or 12 guys. That was for “We Break the Dawn.” Everyone wants a spot, especially with someone like Frank who’s auditioning. He’s working on a few gigs at a time, it’s never just that one job. And once you get on one job, they call you in for the next one if it all goes well. That’s where I went from. That’s kind of how I am now, too. Once I get you in on a job and I enjoy you and I love you, then you’re doing every job. You’re here, you’re stuck with me.
What are auditions with you like?
I usually have one big audition a year in L.A. and they blow my mind every year. It’s crowded with people, literally 400 to 500 dancers show up. I have people outside rehearsing things, I have people inside, I have people down the alleyway going over their routines, people filling the streets. The police sometimes show up and have to tame things down. The dance studio’s like, “Oh my god, Quel, you gotta book another studio for a holding room…” They get pretty crazy. I’m super blessed that people come out and they all want that chance. I have my three big ol’ books of thousands of headshots of dancers who have auditioned for me and whenever I just need a face or something, I go through those headshots and I’m like, “Oh I remember him” or “I remember her.” We pick a few people that kind of rocked with me from those auditions, and it gives me a chance to see the new talent out there. I do a lot of things where I just want to get in a room with new and fresh energy to inspire me. So if you’re hungry, hopefully I can find you.
So it’s just to meet new people or you have jobs in mind?
It’s kind of for both. I try to have them happen around a job at the time, and then I’m usually doing three to four jobs at the same moment. So it’s like, “Hey we’re looking for dancers for Tinashe, but we’re doing Big Sean next week, but I also need girls for Zara Larsson in a little bit.” All my jobs overlap usually, and then I’m like, “I know I’m gonna start needing people for Beyoncé in a few months,” depending on where we are in her break schedule. So I’m always open to fresh new hungry talent that I feel can inspire the people I work with.
What type of advice would you give to dancers that are looking for a come up?
You have to work hard and dream big. You have to go beyond what you see on Instagram. Open your minds and dream, and put in the work, because it pays off in the end. Don’t sleep, don’t ever sleep, and go get it.