JaQuel Knight Commercial Dance Choreographer

by Michael Mahany | 10/8/2019 10:42 PM

JaQuel Knight. Photo credit: Jake Green.

JaQuel Knight is a name you need to know. Why? Well, because he’s arguably the most influential commercial dance choreographer of a generation.

JaQuel Knight has already, at the age of 30, distinguished himself as a luminary in the hip-hop and commercial dance worlds, and yet while his talents merit him a TON of esteem and prestige, his character, artistry, and a rare understanding and sense of the moment make him utterly otherworldly.

In fact, u
nless you’ve been under a rock for the last decade, it’s almost impossible not to have, in some way, been culturally impacted by Knight’s meteoric rise into the current zeitgeist.

Firstly, he’s the choreographer behind Beyonce’s monstrously successful ‘Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It) video. A remarkable achievement in and of itself, and a feat he accomplished at the age of 18, no less.

Now, while the ‘Single Ladies…’ credit alone is enough to knock anyone’s dance shoes right off their feet, that’s only a sliver of Knight’s astounding resume. 

Having worked with nearly every recognizable name on the pop music charts, Knight has collaborated with artists like Zara Larsson, Miley Cyrus, Kelly Rowland, N.E.R.D., Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Jennifer Hudson, Fifth Harmony, and so many more. He’s also created dance numbers for two Super Bowls, two Britney Spears world tours, and was the associate choreographer on the Christina Aguilera and Cher led film, ‘Burlesque’. Knight has contributed choreography to the Grammy Awards, the American Music Awards, the MTV Video Music Awards, the Logo Awards, the BET Awards, the World Music Awards, and to television shows like ‘SYTYCD’, ‘The Voice’, ‘Dancing With The Stars’, ‘The X-Factor’, ‘American Idol’, ‘Ellen’, ‘GMA', ‘SNL’, and the ‘Today Show’. He was even the first choreographer to be featured in 'Forbes Magazine's list of "30 Under 30”.

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It's Knight's work with Beyonce, however, that has really established him as a true cultural phenomenon. After winning his first MTV Video Music Award for his choreography on Beyonce's 'Single Ladies…’ at only 18, he quickly became Queen B's head choreographer. Knight won his second MTV VMA for his work choreographing 'Formation' off of Bey's 'Lemonade' album and has been the key player in creating the dance for her last three world tours: the 2013 'Mrs. Carter Tour', the 2016 'Formation Tour,' and the 2018 'On The Run II Tour' which Beyonce co-headlined with her husband, Jay-Z.

In 2018, Knight was nominated for his third VMA for choreographing the Carter's 'Apesh*t' video. That same year, filming was continuing on Beyonce's Netflix documentary, 'Homecoming,' which followed the artist and her creative team as they prepared for her iconic 2018 Coachella performance — for which Knight served as creative director and choreographer.

Talk about a list of accomplishments.

Knight, who was born in North Carolina but grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, started as a regimented and dedicated saxophone player in his high school marching band before becoming a leading figure among his young student colleagues.

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“I had reached the highest position in marching band, and by the end of it I was drum major,” Knight told Dance Network in an exclusive interview. “I was writing music, I was choreographing, I was the one everyone was listening to.”

One day, however, almost on a whim, and during the height of his marching band career, Knight found his way to dance — seemingly overnight.

“My best friend, who’s still one of my really good friends now, Tiffany Burgess, she was like, ‘hey ‘Quel, there’s this little [hiphop] workshop’, and we went,” Knight explained.

“And that,” the choreographer continued, “literally changed my whole game plan.”

 JaQuel Knight on set with Beyonce and dancers for 'Spirit' from Disney's 'The Lion King'. Photo courtesy: Beyonce.com/JKE

The workshop Knight and Burgess attended, it turns out, was led by a few gigantic superstars of the time. At the dance seminar, huge choreographers like Shane Sparks and Dave Scott of ‘You Got Served’, Chuck Maldonado of ‘Stomp The Yard, and Emmy winner Glen Douglas Packard all taught, and it was ultimately this introduction to dance that blossomed Knight's passion for hip-hop and even led him to create his first group — “TruStylz.”

“After that [workshop] we started TruStylz which was the first hip-hop dance troupe outside of the dance team that my high school, Tucker High School, had ever seen,” Knight said. "We took the group outside the school and we would literally perform all over the city. We did celebrity basketball games, we were on video sets, we were dancing behind artists."

“We were like your high school hustlers,” Knight laughed. “We got the group anywhere and everywhere to be seen.”

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While the opportunity to learn from legends like Scott, Sparks, Packard, and Maldonado may have acted as the catalyst for Knight’s dance obsession, it was the seeds these inspirational industry heavyweights sowed in him, however, that would ultimately bloom into the unimaginable and mind-bogglingly successful career he’s had as a choreographer himself.

After the 2008 colossal phenomenon of Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies...’ video, Knight seemingly found himself roaming in a field of his own successful creation as the in-demand choreographer of the times. The next decade became a non-stop series of meetings, collaborative partnerships, and creative artistry with nearly every name on the pop charts.

JaQuel Knight working with N.E.R.D and dancers for the live performance of 'Lemon' at ComplexCon 2017. Photo credit: Driely S.

“I treat my choreography and work with these artists the same way I look at life — the same way I treat my friends,” Knight explained. “You don’t judge anyone, you meet people where they are, and as a friend, it’s your goal to help — it’s all about the ability to help one another.”

Having collaborated with and choreographed for so many of the top artists of the last decade, Knight has unearthed an uncanny ability to marry complex and story-driven movement with the genuine individuality of the person with whom he’s creating.

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“When I’m initially meeting with these artists, it’s about me listening and hearing them out,” Knight said of his process. “Then, it’s about getting in the studio and creating something that’s not only unique and customized for them, but also finding something that they can look great doing and they can feel comfortable committing to.”

Knight, not only responsible for the viral 'Single Ladies...' choreography, was also the genius behind N.E.R.D. and Rihanna's 2017 'Lemon' music video, which featured rising star Mette Towley. The result of that video led to another viral sensation, the #LemonDanceChallenge.

JaQuel Knight and 'Lemon' dancer, Mette Towley. Photo credit: Driely S.

“I think after working for so long in this choreography game,” Knight went on, “it’s not about steps or giving [these artists] the new hot thing, it’s literally about them feeling good and them being able to give that energy on camera.” 

Most recently released was the work Knight did with Tony Award-winning actor, Ben Platt on the new music video for his original tune, ‘Rain’. In the video, Platt features a rarely before seen talent for dance, and while the recognizable young actor may not be the typical hip-hop dancer with whom Knight often works, Knight inherently knew not only how to make Platt look and feel fierce, but also how to deliver the necessary storytelling movement the piece required.

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“Ben’s not your typical crazy hip-hop dancer — he’s a broadway kid and he’s got an awesome voice and the ability to dance really well,” Knight said. “So, for me, it was really fun to get in a room and do something that’s not your typical commercial dance.”

And, get into the room they did. Platt and Knight had the chance to spend a few days building, creating, and shaping choreography even before the video’s award-winning director, James Larese, joined them.

“It was fun to get into the rehearsal space and explore," Knight said, “[getting to see] what this kind of movement would look like on Ben, putting it on him to see how each step would evolve into the next — and also, getting the chance to see how he moved naturally, and seeing how to include that into the choreography.”

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Ultimately, Knight says, “it’s all about getting ready to be on set. I had been working with Ben for a couple of days before we invited James to the rehearsal. I’m all about my artists being well-rehearsed, so when we get on set to shoot, they know what they’re doing and feel good.”

When ‘Rain’s director, MTV Video Music Award winner James Larese, known for his work directing music videos for artists like Fifth Harmony, Hayley Kiyoko, Ne-Yo, Eminem, Five Seconds Of Summer, and more, finally joined the team in rehearsal, the trio knew the dynamic was going to work well.

“You know, it was really an awesome thing, I’ve been a fan of James for a really long time,” Knight said. “We have a lot of mutual friends, so it was really great to work with him for the first time.”

 JaQuel Knight. Photo credit: Driely S.

The creative flow of Knight, Platt, and Larese quickly gelled and the work the small but dedicated team produced with 'Rain' was clearly reflected in the video's final product.

“With me coming in with my expertise, and James bringing what he brings to the table and Ben just being awesome to work with — you let people do what they’re good at. You trust them, and you put your weight in that.”

So, what is Knight working on next, you might be wondering — well...

“I’m working on some really awesome things right now,” Knight said with a chuckle, “but, everything I’m working on, I can’t talk about.”

Needless to say, though, Knight always has a keen beat on "what's next".

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Aside from Platt's 'Rain' video, Knight recently acted as Creative Director for Pharrell Williams' Virginia Beach festival “Something In The Water,” guest-starred on the Youtube Premium series 'Step Up: High Water', shot Zara Larsson’s “All the Time” video, P!nk’s “Hurts 2B Human” video, and worked with Miley Cyrus as the movement coach for her video, “Mother’s Daughter”.

Knight also continues to manage his own production companies, JaQuel Knight Entertainment, Inc. and Just Kingdom Productions, Inc, too. Through these companies, Knight can oversee artists, songwriters, produce music videos and short films and stay on the leading edge of his artistry. Currently, JK Entertainment is even in the midst of launching a creative department where Knight will be creating and developing scripted, unscripted, and digital content as well.

Knight was also recently "blessed" with his own signature style sneakers this past July as part of the Adidas' #LoveUnites campaign. The campaign, which sought to "spread the message that #LoveUnites all year long with all cultures, all people, all races and all shades," also partnered with producer, DJ Kittens.

And, earlier this past summer, Knight's choreography was featured in Beyonce's latest video, 'Sprit', which was released in part with Disney's live-action remake of 'The Lion King’.

During our exclusive interview, we also asked Knight about the work he's been doing for another passion of his — teaching.

“I just did my second year of industry intensive in London, and we’re currently in the process of bringing it stateside," Knight told us. "We're also exploring some more international projects. I’m really excited to get out there and teach and train because I haven't been able to do that as much as I’d like lately.”

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For Knight, sharing what he’s learned along his way with up-and-coming dancers is just about as important as anything else he’s doing.

“I’m really trying to focus as much energy as I can into getting out there and helping the next generation of dancers, choreographers, creators, and artists be the best they can be — and to pass along some of the knowledge I have to help them go be great,” Knight said.

“All, though," Knight went on, "while I continue to evolve as an artist.”

For more on JaQuel Knight, follow him on Instagram and Twitter. You can also check out his personal website or his intensive site to see when and where he’s teaching. And, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the CNN documentary feature on Knight, releasing later this fall.

Michael Mahany serves as Dance Network’s New York City correspondent. Aside from journalism and hosting he is a professional actor, singer, dancer who appears nightly in the 10th Anniversary production of Rock Of Ages in New York City. Follow him on TwitterInstagram, or Facebook.

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