When Hollywood Wants Dancers, It Goes to Atlanta

Georgia’s capital city became both the setting and production locale for ‘Step Up: High Water,’ thanks to a ferociously creative local scene and serious tax incentives.


When writer-producer Holly Sorensen pitched Step Up: High Water, the new offshoot of the 2006 film Step Up, she set the fame-hungry dancers in Oakland, California.

Oakland’s hip-hop history, she felt, would lend reality to a show about life at a next-gen performing arts school, where street dance replaces ballet. But when she got the gig, producers said Oakland was out: No tax credits.

“I said, ‘You’ve got to tell me where we can shoot because it has to have an indigenous dance culture,’” she said. “Atlanta was the obvious choice.”

Georgia’s capital city became both the setting and production locale for Step Up: High Water based on the two factors that have—in real life—given Atlanta’s commercial dance industry the edge over New York and Los Angeles: A ferociously creative local scene and serious tax incentives.

In choosing Atlanta, the series, premiering Jan. 31 on YouTube Red, joins dance-heavy shows like Fox’s drama Star, which features regular dance numbers, as well as the upcoming film Honey 4, the fourth installment of the 2003 Jessica Alba flick.

Between Step Up: High Water and Honey 4 alone, 70 performers were booked from Xcel Talent Agency, a local affiliate of Clear Talent Group, a leading dance talent agency based in New York and LA.

Two other power agencies in dance, bloc and McDonald/Selznick Associates, have Atlanta outposts between their bi-coastal offices.

“It’s given a ton of dancers the opportunity to work. These are SAG rate, actor-rate jobs,” said dancer-choreographer Sean Bankhead, who grew up dancing in Atlanta and now creates moves for Star, Fifth Harmony, Migos and Missy Elliott.

But Atlanta’s dance boom didn’t happen overnight.

To a large degree, music fueled Atlanta’s dance culture. From Usher to Migos, to Outkast back in the early ’00s, Atlanta’s recording artists turned the city into a hip-hop power.

Then, whether through coincidence or culture, the city’s streets responded with ever-fresh dance moves: From the Dab to the Nae Nae, some of social-media’s most viral dance crazes had their spark in Atlanta, keeping urban street dance alive and bringing into online culture.

“It’s in every part of American culture,” said Anthony Rue II, aka Ant Boogie, who danced for Madonna, Jay-Z, Omarion, and others but now coaches young New Yorkers chasing the national boom. “I didn’t expect dance to have the exposure that it did. If you weren’t interested, I wouldn’t have a job.”

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To sustain a professional scene, Atlanta’s professional talent had to be cultivated. But in the late ’90s and early ’00s, the work beyond rap videos was not there, said Bankhead. So dancers didn’t plan to stick around.

“When I first started dancing in Atlanta, at age 16, the dream was to go to L.A.,” he said. “We all thought, ‘We gotta get out of Atlanta.’ The tables have turned.”

What turned is that Hollywood discovered Georgia’s tax incentives in the mid 2000s. The growth has been staggering. Film and TV productions spent nearly $3 billion in Georgia in fiscal year 2017. That’s up from $93 million in 2007, according to information provided by a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

And producers aren’t just shipping crews down: They’re setting up shop. Since 2010, 16 film and television studio have announced plans to locate or expand within Georgia. That includes Pinewood Studios, the British outfit responsible for numerous James Bond films, which choose Georgia for its first American location.

Big-budget spy thrillers may not call for dance, beyond the odd stripper. But along with non-dance productions, like The Walking Dead or Ant Man and The Wasp (filmed in Atlanta), come shows that do involve dance, along with infrastructure supporting auditions for commercials and tours with recording artists.

The Southeast is well known to produce championship competition dancers and choreographers.

When Missy Elliott (who lives in Atlanta) auditioned dancers last year, Sean Bankhead, who was choreographing for her, said so many people showed up—as many as 900—that he had to teach the audition routine outside, in the parking lot.

Commercial dancers—as opposed to “concert” dancers who specialize in ballet or modern technique and work for performing arts companies—are plentiful in the region largely thanks to the competitive dance circuit, portrayed in Lifetime’s Dance Moms.

“The Southeast is well known to produce championship competition dancers and choreographers,” said talent agent Toni Thomas, who runs McDonald/Selznick Associates’ Atlanta branch.

In that world, ballet is in service to competition-winning razzle-dazzle. When those dancers grow up, they land on NBA dance squads, music videos, cruise ships, commercials and film or TV productions.

When TV and film work started expanding, dancers saw they could live and train in the South. “That’s what turned everybody on,” said Thomas, who adds that her dancers might travel to gigs in New York or Los Angeles, but they prefer to live in the region. “The cost of living is fair, and their families are here. A lot of my dancers have children.”

For Step Up: High Water, that meant plenty to choose from when casting leads, extras and students within the fictional school: High Water is based on Sorensen’s vision of what a charter school would look like if launched by Kanye West.

High Water—whose founder is played by Ne-Yo—is a rejection of the classic departments portrayed in Fame. Instead, it’s a reflection of what’s hot now: dance, music, fashion and videography.

To populate this cool factory, the Atlanta-based casting team said they hunted down the hottest figures, from DJs and producers to roller skaters and J-Sette dancers, who perform a drill-team movement style.

Step Up: High Water is far removed from the original Baltimore-based film, which starred the now-married Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan Tatum, who are executive producers on this series.

But Sorensen identifies the through-line of this successful franchise to be a powerful combination of squad goals and youth dreams in so-called second-tier cities. Ironically, Step Up: High Water reveals just how far Atlanta has stepped up.

All episodes of Step Up: High Water will be available Jan. 31; Fathom Events will screen the premiere nationwide, along with the original Step Up, on Jan. 30.