Who run the world?
From strut to slut drop, Beyoncé has given modern pop its most iconic moves. Lyndsey Winship asks her choreographers and other experts what dancers can learn from Queen Bey.
‘I’m going to teach you a nice classy twerk’, smiles dancer Bonnie Parsons, about to transform a studioful of 20-something Lycra-clad women into an army of Single Ladies. ‘Your hip rolls want to be dancing with fire!’
This is Beyoncé Beginners, one of the Seen on Screen dance classes Parsons runs, inspired by the routines of top pop performers. Full of bright enthusiasm and sassy moves, Parsons promises to have us ‘ticking’ our hips and whipping our hair in no time. We start with a strut, lined up and striding towards the mirror, hips rocking, hands pertly on waists or snaking up our sides to flick our hair. I feel powerful. It may just be walking, but what walking!
There are plenty of pop stars who dance, but there’s something different about Beyoncé. As soon as a DJ plays those opening bars of Crazy in Love, whether in a nightclub, school disco or wedding party, you can guarantee the dancefloor will fill in seconds with booty-shaking women (and probably some men), channelling their inner Sasha Fierce.
Since going solo from the group Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé has carved a niche as one of the most significant performers in the pop world. Her voice, her songs, her rapper husband, her mastery of social media: all these things are part of her success, but her dance skills and video choreography have earned her admirers among professional and amateur dancers alike, with thousands of fans (of both sexes) copying her moves and posting videos of themselves online. The Single Ladies video in particular spawned myriad imitations by YouTubers showing off their own attempts at the routine in their kitchens, bedrooms, school halls, car parks, and even one on a snow-covered mountain.
So what’s the key to Beyoncé’s style and appeal? For Adriana Lizardi, Beyoncé fan and artist with English National Ballet, it’s her image as a strong, independent woman and her compelling stage presence. ‘The energy and power she puts in, it really reads, you know? And it captures the audience. She has her own kind of technique, her own style.’ Does Lizardi break out the Bey dances in her bedroom? ‘Only if I’m alone and watching her videos, then yes,’ she giggles. ‘I mean, who doesn’t know Single Ladies, right?’
For Parsons, part of the key to Beyoncé’s success is that she creates dance moves that function like a pop song’s catchy chorus. ‘She uses social dance, very simple moves that anyone can get – like the Single Ladies hand wave – so the minute that song comes on, people start doing the dance.’ she says. ‘I’ve seen backstage footage of her telling her choreographers not to over-choreograph. From a professional dance perspective, the moves that she’s doing are simple because you’re not catching every other beat, and you’re not doing big jetés and pirouettes. It’s all about doing simple things well. The style is hard to do – people might not look the same as her doing it – but they’ll still get the gist.’
The first person to spot Beyoncé’s inimitable star quality was Frank Gatson Jnr, creative director and choreographer, who in the late 1990s was working with En Vogue and Usher when he was introduced to a 15-year-old Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child. ‘I’ll never forget it,’ he says, on the phone from LA. ‘They brought in Beyoncé and I remember her so clearly, dressed in a white terrycloth short set, very quiet and focused. But when I left the rehearsal that day I told all my friends: “I just saw the second coming of Michael Jackson!” Of course, everybody laughed. But it was just something about her. I knew I was right. A lot of people didn’t see it, but they see it now.’
It was when Beyoncé went solo in 2003 that Gatson took her dancing to another level. He had trained at, among other places, the Alvin Ailey Studio in New York, and wanted to bring a deeper technique to her dancing. The first thing Gatson did was bring in new dancers to work with her, including former Alvin Ailey company dancer Anthony Burrell, and take her to ballet classes. ‘She put on the tights, she really worked hard, trying to understand all the positions of dance, and it paid off,’ says Gatson. ‘She’s like a sponge. When you bring in these talented dancers around her, she’s like a vampire – in a good way – draining that energy and style from them.’
Recruiting dancers with a broad, often classical background, is one of the ways Gatson makes his choreography different in the current pop and R&B scene. The dancers in the Single Ladies video, for example, are both classically trained: the ex-Juilliard student Ashley Everett and former member of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, Ebony Williams.
Gatson also brought influences from vintage Hollywood and Broadway. ‘My whole goal is to look back at Cyd Charisse, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and these artists,’ he says, also name-checking the original Dreamgirls musical (choreographed by Michael Bennett and Michael Peters), where he saw the female dancers ‘epitomising what a sophisticated woman was.’ Then there’s the quirky, sexy jazz of musical theatre legend Bob Fosse. ‘Me and Beyoncé love Fosse,’ he says.
The Fosse influence has been noted by fans pointing out the similarities between Single Ladies and the routine Mexican Breakfast by Gwen Verdon (Fosse’s wife and collaborator). Beyoncé has admitted that was the original inspiration but it’s not the only source. The Single Ladies promo also uses J-Setting, a formation style from American marching bands made popular in gay clubs. She and Gatson have magpied from many other styles – the video for the song Partition was made at the Crazy Horse cabaret in Paris imitating the style of the dancers there.
Some may think ‘inspiration’ is occasionally too close to plagiarism. Like Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, for example, who had chunks of her classic Rosas Danst Rosas lifted for Beyoncé’s Countdown video. And while there’s an argument that it’s great for such a mainstream, global artist to bring under-the-radar dances to people’s attention – certainly it’s unlikely most of us would have seen the dancers from Mozambique who featured in her Run the World video otherwise – some acknowledgements are probably in order. For Gatson, however, it’s just about trying to show something we don’t see in every other music video. ‘Everybody’s just re-editing the same hip hop steps,’ he says. ‘I love a nae nae, but how many times can you do that?’
In dance, there is a gulf between the commercial and classical worlds, not least the economics (Gatson says a dancer with Beyoncé can make nearly $300,000 a year). Stylistically the two are in opposition – the moves at Parsons’ class embrace the bodies’ curves, the concave tilt of the back, bum and boobs pushed out, everything rotating in different directions. It’s the antithesis of classical ballet, where everything is held in, tight and upright.
And yet even if you’re not looking for a career as a backing dancer, there’s still much to be learned from Queen Bey. Her work ethic, for a start. ‘She’s so professional,’ says Spanish choreographer Blanca Li, who worked with Beyoncé on the Mrs Carter tour promo. ‘She learns very fast and you can tell she’s very disciplined. Sometimes with artists, if they feel like something’s wrong they will start to freak out and will find excuses not to do it. But she’s like, “Ok, I have to throw myself to the floor 1500 times and find a way to do this, I’m going to do it.”’
Gatson says other dances are in awe when Beyoncé thinks nothing of dancing a whole eight-hour rehearsal in heels. ‘She’ll go all night,’ Ebony Williams once told me. ‘She is full-out every moment and she sings in the studio just like she’s singing on stage.’
As a ballet dancer, what Lizardi takes from Beyoncé is her attitude. ‘I could certainly take a lot of her power and energy and individualism,’ she says. ‘I think when she’s dancing she’s fearless, she just does it, and that’s a good element to have in your dancing no matter which style you’re doing. First of all you want to be an artist and an individual.’
Part of that fearlessness comes from embracing an onstage alter ego, Sasha Fierce, and that’s something Parsons likes her dancers to try. ‘When you dance you can have that freedom to explore sides of your personality you wouldn’t normally address,’ she says. ‘Or you can express yourself in a way that you wouldn’t normally be able to. If you’re feeling aggressive, angry, in love, sexy, whatever it is: feel first, dance second.’
‘There’s something very sexy about Beyoncé, and very fierce, as she would say,’ says Gatson. ‘But off stage, she’s none of those things, she’s a sweet, humble individual. But when Sasha Fierce comes to life, she just has a diva mentality. When it comes to moves, she’s going to go for blood, as we say. She’s going to give it 100%.’
As I get to grips with Parsons’ class and start to discover my own dormant diva, I think to myself: we could all be a bit more Beyoncé. And if you’re wondering about the secret to a classy twerk? Don’t overthink it. Relax, and just give that booty a good shake.
Can you bring Bey to ballet class?
I often use different music to bring different styles out of my dancers. All of Beyoncé’s music would be great to work with, but I wouldn’t just do a tendu exercise to Halo or Single Ladies, I’d build on the story of one of her videos, using it as a brief to create new ballet choreography.
I would use Run the World: the video has a concept I really like. The uniformity reminds me of a corps de ballet. Beyoncé does a move and they follow with the same move in a different way. But it also has a storyline: boys versus girls. How would you describe that in a classical context? Maybe Montagues versus Capulets? I would show the class the fight scenes in Romeo and Juliet, so they had an understanding of a classical foundation.
Then I would show them some neo-classical style and we could put those two things together. That would take out the overt sexualisation, especially for younger students. The way Beyoncé uses her hips and body is very sharp and co-ordinated. It’s edgy, everything just off-balance, a bit more abrupt, exactly like the neo-classical style and that’s the link I’d be going for.
Pointe shoes would work well here because Beyoncé does so many sassy walks in heels. When they all line up and walk to the back, it would look so great on pointe: dynamite!
Marsha George is an RAD teacher in Denver, USA
These articles originally appeared in Dance Gazette issue 3, 2017.