09.22.09

Beyonce's Moment

Kanye West hijacked MTV last week to declare that Beyonce's "Single Ladies" is the greatest video of all time. Here's the story behind it and its 20-year-old choreographer.

Kanye West’s infamous tantrum at last week’s MTV Video Music Awards is now the stuff of pop culture legend (or at least a major Internet meme). But many have forgotten the real reason West interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech to begin with: to champion Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” music video. Or, in Kanye’s words, “Yo Taylor, I’m really happy for you and I’mma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time.”

All eye-rolling at West’s juvenilia aside, the “Single Ladies” video—with its Bob Fosse inspiration and sassy hip thrusts—is an iconic piece of work. When the single, black and white shot of Beyoncé (as her alter-ego Sasha Fierce) swiveling, dipping, and brandishing a single golden glove hit the Internet on October 13, 2008, it became nothing less than a dance phenomenon (a feat perhaps only matched by Los Del Rio’s “Macarena” in the late ‘90s). Amateurs re-created the moves on YouTube, Justin Timberlake spoofed it on Saturday Night Live, and on tonight’s episode of FOX’s comedy Glee, the “Single Ladies” choreography drives the entire plot line from start to finish (think football players doing booty slaps).

And we have choreographer JaQuel Knight to thank. Knight conceived of the video’s moves when he was only 19, thanks to a lucky break in a Los Angeles audition. Originally from North Carolina, Knight caught choreographer Frank Gatson’s eye in a try-out for a Michelle Williams video in early 2008. Gatson (the favored choice of Beyoncé and Britney Spears) was so taken with Knight’s dancing that he asked him to co-choreograph Williams’ video rather than star in it. Knight heard from Gaston again a few months later. “Frank called me up and said he wanted me for a new Beyoncé song,” Knight says in an interview. “But he said he couldn’t send it to me on e-mail and I had to fly to New York that night.”

Knight is in New York again, but this time under very different circumstances. He is at Alvin Ailey studios to teach a packed master class. (“I love to come back and teach the youth,” he says, though he can count most of his students as peers.) Today, he’s teaching a combination to a track off of (Beyoncé’s husband) Jay-Z’s new Blueprint 3, an aggressive dance that draws heavily on step dancing, krumping, and cocky hand gestures. It is his own style, but a change from the plucky, girl power swagger of “Single Ladies,” a fact Knight attributes to Beyoncé’s unwavering vision.

“When we were filming ‘Single Ladies,’ Beyoncé and the two other girls told me I nearly killed them rehearsing for it,” says Knight.

“B. definitely knows what she wants,” laughs the young dancer, who arrived with a sizeable entourage that included Gatson and his mother. “I don’t know if people know that, but she always knows what she wants and she usually gets it. She saw this clip—the Bob Fosse—which he choreographed from the Ed Sullivan Show with Gwen Verdon, and she said, ‘I want to do this,’ just plain and simple. So between us, we started to dream up a lot of social steps that you might do at a party. She’s from Houston and I was raised in Atlanta, so we thought a lot of the dirty South. Like, ‘What would your little cousin do?’ or ‘What would your auntie do at the cookout?’ It got real country and dirty. That butt slapping move is pure Auntie Joanna, at the family reunion.”

After the video took off, Knight’s career did the same—he choreographed Beyoncé’s “Diva” video and 2009 tour, the 2009 American Idol tour, The Dream’s 2009 tour, and select numbers from Britney Spears' latest “Circus” tour. Next up: A film project with Cher and Christina Aguilera. He has even reached the coveted status of being able to turn down major work. He had to say no to Whitney Houston’s big comeback video this summer. “I know, who turns down Whitney, right? But I was tuckered out. I’m in rehearsals for the film and there’s no time to do anything!”

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James Farrell / Warpt Photo

Knight insists that he wants to be known for more than just choreographing pop starlets’ videos: “Somehow that’s where I ended up, but I’m trying to get out of it somehow. I’m not classically trained—I learned from music videos and going to little teenage clubs. But I really love Bob Fosse. I love what he did with his art. I really want to come for his job. I want to be the next Mr. Fosse, and put musicals together and create my own movement. I give myself 10 years to get there.”

From the energy of the master class, however, it seems that Knight has already started his something of a movement. The dance studio is packed with teenagers all in the same uniform (baggy sweats, hi-tops, sheer tank, confident sneer), each absorbing Knight’s every move as he teaches the combination, the dancers whistling and yelping loudly when he steps up to the mirror to demonstrate. At the end of the class, Knight singles out the best of the pack, asking them to perform for the group—as someone who was discovered in an audition, he knows how to keep an eye out for fresh blood. He pushes the dancers to improve, even though he’s just encountered them. “This is a feeling, ok guys?” he says of a tricky cross-step. “It’s finding the rhythm and then dancing on top of it. But you can’t dance on it if you’re not already in it. It’s a groove. It’s a flow. And I can’t teach you that!”

“Some of these kids are trying to become dancers,” he says outside of the room. “And some never will. But I work them all really hard. When we were filming ‘Single Ladies,’ Beyoncé and the two other girls told me I nearly killed them rehearsing for it. But look how well it paid off.”

When asked if he minds that so many of the bright-eyed disciples still celebrate him for a video he did a year ago, Knight demurs. “This is exactly what we wanted to happen with the project. We didn’t know it would take off so well on YouTube, but we knew we wanted people to learn it and go back to the old days where you used to look at those Janet Jackson videos and Michael’s video—rest in peace—and you knew every step. That’s the vibe we wanted to revive. That love of dance.”

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Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.