Last year, when Cardi B’s team reached out to choreographer Sean Bankhead to help her create dances for the “Up” music video, he asked her if she had two months to devote to their apprenticeship.
It turns out she did. Mr. Bankhead wasted no time. The dance, with its lunges, jumps and squats, feels like something straight out of a high-intensity interval training class. “I pushed her, and it’s really hard to learn the balance when you’re working with a top celebrity like that,” he said. “You have to know how to push, but not push them too far off the cliff.”
Pushing has become one of its characteristics. Mr. Bankhead, 32, is the choreographer behind some of the year’s biggest music videos – including Lil Nas X’s “Industry Baby” and Normani’s “Wild Side” – and he’s in high demand, despite the weather. expects its loads of celebrities. .
From the premiere of the video for “Up” in February, people started posting choreographing on Instagram and TikTok – much to the sound of Mr. Bankhead’s TikTok tutorial, created with his co-choreographer Ahsia Janaé. – helping the song stay at the top of the charts for weeks.
Mr. Bankhead doesn’t think of himself as an emotional person, but seeing his creations turn into viral challenges can make him scream like a baby.
The inspiration for almost all of his movements comes from the tightly choreographed music videos of the late 1980s and 1990s. Citing influences such as Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, Aaliyah and Missy Elliott, Mr. Bankhead said he admired some of them. pop stars who have been able to stand out and establish themselves in the culture because of their choreography and creativity.
“I was a self-taught dancer of those music videos,” he said. “This energy, this life and what these videos made you feel is exactly what I’m trying to put into my designs today.”
“In a music industry focused on TikTok, it’s easy to get away with mediocrity,” he added. “So when you see an artist come out who’s actually trying, it’s almost refreshing because I’m like, ‘I remember when that was the norm. “”
He was especially impressed with the hard work of Lil Nas X, who simultaneously learned the choreography for his recent music video “Industry Baby” and his performance at the BET Awards in June (where he made headlines for kissing the girl). ‘one of his dancers on stage).
“He’s like a little brother to me,” Mr. Bankhead said. “We’re both from Atlanta, young black gay men. We sort of had the same education so we immediately clicked.
The only thing Mr. Bankhead wanted to accomplish for both sequences was to show “you can be a cool, successful young black gay man and have a lot of people watching you,” he said.
Despite this, he was surprised at how risky the Lil Nas X game had to take, including for a scene Mr. Bankhead choreographed for “Industry Baby” in which dancers strip down for a steamy shower sequence. before the rapper stages a prison Pause.
“Let’s do it,” Mr Bankhead recalled, telling Lil Nas X. “’Period.’”
“Sean is a beast,” Lil Nas X wrote in an email. “He’s on it and he knows exactly what to do to get what he wants from an artist. He has been one of the biggest helpers for this new chapter of my life. The best part is that you don’t feel like you’re working!
He added, “It’s the time when it comes to choreographers, shaping the new generation. I am grateful for him.
An early taste for success
Growing up in Atlanta, Mr. Bankhead remembers his mother telling him stories about finding a very young Sean, around the age of 3, watching TV watching MTV and BET and trying to ‘imitate dance moves from videos like Michael. Jackson.
His earliest memories of his love for dancing, however, came with the Praise and Worship dance team at his aunt and uncle’s church when he was around 9 years old.
Singing in church, playing three instruments (piano, saxophone and drums) and knowing how to read music gave her a different ear to develop her dance skills. “Because I could read music, I could create rhythm and percussion with my feet and hear a different musicality in the music which really influenced my style of dancing,” he said.
He got his first break in high school, in 2006, when a YouTube video of him teaching a young girl a choreographed dance to Gwen Stefani’s “Wind It Up” reached 1.5 million views in just a few days. “It shocked us all,” Mr Bankhead said. “We didn’t expect that at the time. Making those kinds of numbers on YouTube was unheard of. Especially for a dance video from a cell phone in a dance studio.
He also landed a role as a backup dancer (and onscreen boyfriend) in Tiffany Evans’ 2007 “Promise Ring” music video. “I was still in high school,” he says. “I remember the video came out on ‘106 and Park’ when I was in school, and I went from being a loser to everyone loving me and wanting to be my friend.”
At 18, he traveled to Los Angeles despite his parents’ wishes (they urged him to go to college) to participate in “Monsters of Hip Hop,” a convention and touring dance competition. “I kept booking jobs, started making money out of them, and then I kind of forgot that I was trying to pursue something else in life,” Mr Bankhead said.
In 2008, at the age of 19, he booked his first major work and television performance: he danced with Beyoncé during her performance of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” on “The Tyra Banks Show “alongside his friend and fellow choreographer JaQuel Knight. The memories of that day that stand out, Mr Bankhead said, were “the fact that Miss Tina Knowles is doing our hair” and “the fact that JaQuel sticks this plastic frontal wig on my head and cannot take it off before my flight. and rip me off. “
“It was all a blur,” he said, “and I was just like,“ Oh, that’s absolutely what I want to do with my life. “”
Find a muse
In the music video for her new song “Wild Side” (featuring Cardi B), Normani glides across the floor, then levitates, passing through the ceiling on a roof-like structure, while performing effortlessly intricate dance moves.
Dancers jump around her as she slides between their legs as the lyrics “drip, drip, drip when you slide in” play. During grueling month-long rehearsals, Mr Bankhead asked Normani to kneel on a towel and dance, while sliding it across the floor.
“Each scene had a different energy and mood,” he said. “And we wanted each scene to keep moving forward and getting bigger and more elaborate.”
Normani is closest to Mr. Bankhead to have a muse. The dynamic between them, he said, is in the tradition of choreographer Fatima Robinson and singer Aaliyah, or in the choreography of Tina Landon of Janet Jackson’s many world tours.
Mr. Bankhead has worked with Normani since joining girl group Fifth Harmony in 2014. “I feel like I have this artist I’ve always dreamed of having,” he said. declared. “Doing these kinds of music videos that I watched growing up.”
His music videos show off the complicated and intricate layers of movement he loves. They are also full of little moments of humor. (In Normani’s “Motivation” clip, from 2019, she fluently bounces a basketball off her butt.)
Working with Normani is a real challenge for Mr Bankhead as she is a remarkable dancer who he believes can do it all. He said he was constantly looking for ways to challenge her, to “make it look like she was breaking the rules of gravity,” he said.
“The thing with Normani is that she always says ‘Yeah, I want to do that’,” he said. “She will try anything I suggest, and that’s the confidence we’ve built.”
Next, Mr. Bankhead hopes to start his own dance hall in Atlanta, with a multi-purpose rehearsal room, a professional stage area, and a center where dancers can rehearse for tours and awards.
That plan has been put on hold by the pandemic, but Mr Bankhead is busier than ever.
“I really tapped into a place where I worked so hard to even get to,” he said. “I’ve set the bar high enough for myself that if anyone knows that you are working with me on the choreography, I won’t perform.”