Early last year, an unassuming teenage guy walked into an L.A. audition for a Michelle Williams video. It was the first time Frank Gatson, Jr.—Beyoncé’s and Britney’s go-to choreographer, who was running the audition—had seen the young dancer. “I liked how he freestyled,” Gatson remembers. “He obviously had dance in his soul. And he had a unique feel—a house vibe meets a retro vibe meets a country, earthy vibe meets a right-with-the-times kind of vibe. It was totally…well, totally JaQuel.” JaQuel Knight, that is, who was then 18 and a recent L.A. transplant.
JaQuel (pronounced “jah-kwell”) didn’t land the dancer spot, but Gatson thought his style was right for the video, and asked him to make up a few counts of choreography. JaQuel put together some spicy house-inspired moves, and Gatson, impressed, brought him on as a co-choreographer. “He was just so organized, so clear,” Gatson says. “He could direct dancers five, 10 years older than he was, no problem. And if I asked him to change something, he could work it out in two minutes.”
Gatson made a point of looking up the young phenom a few months later, when he was beginning work on a video for Beyoncé’s then-unknown track “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” “Oh, wow, do I remember that call,” JaQuel says, laughing. “Frank said, ‘I have this new Beyoncé song. I can’t send it over e-mail. Can you come out to NYC tonight? You have a flight in an hour.’ ”
In hiring JaQuel as co-choreographer, Gatson was taking a leap of faith. “Beyoncé was like, ‘Who is this kid?’ Nobody knew who he was,” he says. “But I told them I didn’t care about clout—I’d never seen someone so young who got it so quickly.” And Gatson’s gamble paid off. JaQuel lent the “Single Ladies” video a sassy, Fosse-esque flair, inspiring hundreds of imitators Saturday Night Live skit!). Even Beyoncé, the consummate perfectionist, was impressed. This new kid had a fresh voice.
“I was always a dancer”
It’s fitting that North Carolina–born, Atlanta–raised JaQuel, whose first big break was a music video, started out by imitating MTV. “I was always a dancer, but my first distinct dance memories are copying the choreo from TLC and MC Hammer videos,” he says. Later he created dances for his middle school marching band and cheerleaders. But it wasn’t until age 14 that he began to take formal dance classes. “A friend of mine was really into the convention scene,” he remembers. “He took me to an amazing workshop with Shane Sparks and Chuck Maldonado, and then I got involved with Monsters of Hip Hop. Monsters introduced me to the whole L.A. dance industry.”
Monsters is also where he met Step Up 2 and Step Up 3D choreographer Jamal Sims (check out our interview with Jamal in the July/August issue of DS). “When you get to a convention like Monsters, it can be hard to make an impression because there are so many kids. But JaQuel stood out to me,” Jamal says. “He was noticeable without being over the top—one of those quiet people who deliver. I asked him to come up on stage and teach the combo with me, because I knew if the kids could see him, they’d be inspired by his movement.”
“Nobody expects that!”
Excited by this introduction to the West Coast dance world, JaQuel moved to L.A. after graduating high school and began auditioning like crazy. Though choreographing was always part of his dream, JaQuel expected to work for a while as a dancer first. “First of all, the energy you get from being onstage—there’s nothing else like it. So I wanted to dance,” he explains. “But I’m also the kind of person who puts a lot of weight on seniority, so I figured I’d establish myself as a dancer and then look for my opportunity to branch out. You have to crawl before you walk—how can you tell a dancer what to do if you’ve never been in their situation?”
So when JaQuel found himself choreographing for Beyoncé just a few months after arriving in L.A., he was surprised. “Nobody expects that!” he says. “But since I was working with Frank, I wasn’t nervous about those first choreography projects. He had the experience that I was missing.” JaQuel and Gatson are also a symbiotic team in the studio. “We’re connected in a crazy way,” JaQuel explains. “Frank will say, ‘I’m looking for a step—help me find it.’ And usually I’m able to jump in and pull it right out of his head!”
The “Single Ladies” video was also one of JaQuel’s first experiences in the casting chair. What has he learned to look for in a dancer? “It’s so much more than moves and counts,” he says. “It’s the story that you tell me as you deliver the choreography. It’s an ‘it’ factor that comes out of pure passion.” (One of the girls who had “it” at the “Single Ladies” audition was our May/June cover girl, Ebony Williams!)
“He’s already big, but he’s going to be bigger”
Since “Single Ladies,” JaQuel has become one of the commercial world’s hottest choreographers, jet-setting all over the country. He collaborated with Gatson on Beyoncé’s “I Am” tour, worked on Britney Spears’ “Circus” tour, and reconnected with Jamal on the set of Hannah Montana: The Movie, which Jamal choreographed and JaQuel danced in. Currently JaQuel is working with some up-and-coming music artists in L.A., staging commercials for the likes of Maybelline New York, choreographing this year’s “American Idol” tour and looking into various film projects.
Sound like a lot for a 20-year-old? Maybe. But JaQuel is handling his crazy schedule with panache. And he says that his age hasn’t kept industry bigwigs from taking him seriously. “When I’m working, I don’t mess around. I’m really straightforward and I get down to business, which helps me earn respect,” he explains. “And whatever I’m working on, you’d better believe that I’m going to be prepared—over-prepared!”
What’s JaQuel’s dream job? “Well, it was to work with a big artist like Beyoncé or Britney!” he says, laughing. “So I can cross that one off my list, although I still can’t quite believe it.” Ultimately, he’d like to end up as an artistic or creative director—“putting shows together, arranging tours, figuring out music video concepts,” he says. He’d also like to return to Woodbury University, where he was studying graphic design until his dance career took off.
JaQuel’s colleagues have no doubts that he can achieve all his goals thanks to his unique talents. “He’s already big, but he’s going to be bigger because he’s different,” says Jamal. “Most choreographers are caught up in the fads happening right now, but JaQuel’s not afraid to reach back into different eras—to use the Fosse style, for example—and mix in older steps with current dance trends.”
Gatson agrees. “A lot of people are going to be after JaQuel,” he says. “I’ve worked with many choreographers, but rarely do you meet one this talented who’s also a good guy. JaQuel’s honesty and realness and sense of fun are going to send people right to him.”
Birthday: August 6, 1989
On his iPod: “Everything! Ev-ery-thing—from random house tracks to Jay-Z to Miley Cyrus. My most-played song at the moment is by a new female group that I hope to work with soon—they’re all great dancers!”
Favorite movie: “Friday, with Chris Tucker and Ice Cube. My friends will kill me if I make them watch that movie one more time. I know every line.”
Can’t live without: “My computer. I have to take it to the shop soon, and I’m afraid—a day without my baby!”
Non-dance hobby: “Hopefully, soon I’ll get back into arranging and producing music—something I used to do years ago.”
Hidden talent: “I can play three instruments: the alto saxophone, the French horn and the mellophone, which is like a trumpet version of a French horn.”
Much of Janelle Ginestra's career has been about helping others shine. She's dedicated herself to supporting and cheerleading her partner, WilldaBeast Adams; the emerging talents in their dance company, ImmaBEAST; and the countless dancers she inspires at master classes and conventions. Her YouTube channel has become a launching pad for young talents like "Fraternal Twins" Larsen Thompson and Taylor Hatala, thanks to viral videos featuring Ginestra's creative vision.
But Ginestra's a skyrocketing success in her own right—an in-demand choreographer, a social media influencer, and a dance entrepreneur, building a legacy one eight-count at a time. It's time for her turn in the spotlight. And she's more than ready. "I want to be a legend in whatever I do," she says. We'd argue that she already is.
Daphne Lee is a queen, and not just in the "OMG Girl Boss Alert" sense of the word. She's an actual queen—a beauty queen. Crowned Miss Black USA in August, she's been doing double duty as she continues to dance with the Memphis based dance company, Collage Dance Collective. Lee's new title has given her the means to encourage other black girls and boys to pursue their dreams, while also pursuing dreams of her own. The scholarship money awarded with the pageant title will assist her as she earns a Masters of Fine Arts degree at Hollins University.
When a choreographer finds a composer whose music truly inspires her, it can feel like a match made in dance heaven. Some choreographers work with the same composers so frequently that they become known for their partnerships. New York City Ballet soloist and resident choreographer Justin Peck, for example, has tapped composer Sufjan Stevens numerous times (last spring, the two premiered The Decalogue at NYCB, to rave reviews); L.A. Dance Project's Benjamin Millepied's working relationship with composer Nico Muhly has spanned a decade and two continents; and when tap dancer Michelle Dorrance premiered the first-ever Works & Process Rotunda Project, a site-specific work for New York City's Guggenheim Museum, last year, percussionist Nicholas Van Young was by her side as an equal partner. Successful collaborations require compatibility between artists, direct and honest communication, and flexible, open minds. But when the stars align, working with a composer can be extremely rewarding.
For ballerinas, it's the dream role to end all dream roles: Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, the type of part dancers spend years preparing for and whole careers perfecting. And it's a role that New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck never thought she'd dance. Though Peck is one of the world's preeminent ballerinas, her short stature made Odette/Odile, typically performed by longer, leggier dancers, seem (almost literally) out of reach.
Then—surprise!—her name popped up on the cast list for NYCB's fall season run of Swan Lake.
Lani Dickinson's power, grace, and raw presence make her a standout with AXIS Dance Company, whose mission is to change the face of dance and disability by featuring a mix of disabled and non-disabled performers. Born in China, Dickinson was adopted by an American couple and started dancing at 8 in Towson, MD. She attended the Boston Ballet School for two summers, studied at the Idyllwild Arts Academy for the last two years of high school, and graduated with a dance degree from Alonzo King LINES Ballet's BFA program with Dominican University of California. In 2015, she joined AXIS and won a Princess Grace Award. Catch her this month during AXIS Dance Company's 30th-anniversary season—and read on for The Dirt!