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.”