When Cardi B’s team reached out to choreographer Sean Bankhead last year to help create dances for the “Up” music video, he asked if she had two months to learn them.
Coincidentally, she did. Mr. Bankhead wasted no time. The dance, with its lunges, jumps and squats, seems to come straight out of a high-intensity interval workout. “I pushed her, and it’s very hard to strike a balance when you’re working with such a well-known celebrity,” he said. “You have to know how to push, but don’t push them over the cliff.”
Pushing has become one of its hallmarks. Mr. Bankhead, 32, is the choreographer behind some of the biggest music videos of the year — including Lil Nas X’s “Industry Baby” and Normani’s “Wild Side” — and he is in high demand despite the time commitment he expects from his celebrities. .
Once the video for “Up” premiered in February, people started posting themselves doing the choreography on Instagram and TikTok — much to the sound of Mr. Bankhead, created with his co-choreographer Ahsia Janaé – to help keep the song at the top of the charts for weeks.
mr. Bankhead doesn’t consider himself an emotional person, but seeing his creations turn into viral challenges can make him cry like a baby, he said: “It was so heartwarming to see his efforts.”
The inspiration for almost all of his moves comes from the tightly choreographed music videos of the late ’80s and ’90s. With influences from the likes of Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, Aaliyah and Missy Elliott, Mr. Bankhead that he admires certain pop stars who were able to stand out and push themselves on the culture for their sharp choreography and creativity.
“I was a self-taught dancer of those music videos,” he said. “That energy, that life and how those videos made you feel is exactly what I’m trying to put into my creations today.”
“In a TikTok-powered music industry, it’s easy to get away with mediocrity,” he added. “So when you see an artist come out and actually try it, it’s almost refreshing because I say to myself, ‘I remember this used to be the standard.'”
He was particularly impressed with the hard work of Lil Nas X, who was simultaneously learning the choreography for his recent music video “Industry Baby” and for his performance at the BET awards in June (where he made headlines for making love to a of his male dancers on stage).
“He’s like a little brother to me,” said Mr. Bankhead. “We’re both from Atlanta, young gay black men. We kind of had the same upbringing and so we clicked right away.”
The only thing that Mr. Bankhead wanted to achieve for both sequences was to show “you can be a cool, young, successful gay black guy and a lot of people look at you,” he said.
Still, he was surprised by the way Lil Nas X had to take risks, including for a scene Mr. Bankhead choreographed for “Industry Baby” in which male dancers undress in front of a steamy shower room before the rapper puts on a prison break.
“‘Let’s do it,'” recalls Mr. Bankhead recalls the statement of Lil Nas X. “‘Point out.'”
“Sean is a beast,” Lil Nas X wrote in an email. “He’s working on it and he knows exactly what to do to get what he wants out of an artist. He has been one of the greatest helpers in this latest chapter of my life. The best part is that it doesn’t feel like work!”
He added: “He is the moment when it comes to choreographers, shaping the new generation. I am grateful to him.”
An early taste for success
Growing up in Atlanta, Mr. Bankhead remembers his mother telling him stories of finding a very young Sean, around age 3, in front of the television watching MTV and BET, trying to mimic dance moves from Michael Jackson videos.
However, his first memories of his love of dance come from performing with the praise and worship dance team at his aunt and uncle’s church when he was about 9 years old.
Singing in church, playing three instruments (piano, saxophone and drums) and being able to read notes gave him another ear for developing his dancing skills. “Because I could read music, I was able to create rhythms and percussion with my feet and hear different musicality in the music that really influenced my dance style,” he said.
He had his first high school break in 2006, when a YouTube video of him teaching a young girl a choreographed dance to Gwen Stefani’s “Wind It Up” was viewed 1.5 million times in just a few days. “That was shocking to all of us,” said Mr. bank head. “We didn’t expect that then. It was unheard of to do songs like that on YouTube. Especially for a dance video from a mobile from a dance studio.”
He also landed a backup dancer (and on-screen friend) role in Tiffany Evans’ 2007 music video “Promise Ring.” “I was still in high school,” he says. “I remember the video came on ‘106 and Park’ when I was in school, and I went from a nobody loser to everyone who loved me and wanted to be my friend.”
At age 18, he went to Los Angeles despite his parents’ wishes (they insisted he attend college) to participate in “Monsters of Hip Hop,” a touring dance convention and competition. “I kept booking jobs, started making money from it, and then I kind of forgot that I was trying to pursue something else in life,” said Mr. bank head.
In 2008, at the age of 19, he landed his first major job and performed on television: he danced with Beyoncé during her performance of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” on “The Tyra Banks Show” along with his friend and fellow choreographer JaQuel Knight. The memories of that day that stand out, said Mr. Bankhead, were “Miss Tina Knowles styling us” and “JaQuel glued this plastic frontal wig to my head and was unable to get it off and my skin off before my flight.”
“The whole thing was a blur,” he said, “and I just thought, ‘Oh, this is definitely 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 soars, goes through the ceiling to a roof-like structure, effortlessly performing intricate dance moves.
Male dancers jump around her as she slides down their legs as the lyric “drip, drip, drip when you slide in” plays. During a month’s grueling rehearsals, Mr. Bankhead had Normani kneel on a towel and dance as he let her slide across the floor.
“Each scene had a different energy and mood,” he said. “And we wanted each scene to progress and get bigger and more expansive.”
Normani is the closest thing to Mr. Bankhead to have a muse. The dynamics between them, he says, are in the tradition of choreographer Fatima Robinson and singer Aaliyah, or Tina Landon’s choreography of many of Janet Jackson’s world tours.
mr. Bankhead has been working with Normani since she was a member of girl group Fifth Harmony in 2014. “I feel like I have that artist I’ve always dreamed of,” he said. “Making these kinds of music videos I grew up with.”
Her music videos show the intricate, intricate layers of movement that he loves. They are also full of little moments of humor. (In Normani’s 2019 music video, “Motivation,” she smoothly bounces a basketball on her behind.)
Working with Normani is a real challenge for Mr. Bankhead because she is a remarkable dancer who he says can do anything. He said he’s constantly looking for ways to challenge her, to “make it look like she’s breaking the rules of gravity,” he said.
“The thing about Normani is she always says, ‘Yeah, I want to do that,'” he said. “She will try everything I suggest, and that’s the confidence we’ve built.”
Next, Mr. Bankhead to start its own dance facility in Atlanta, which will include a multi-purpose rehearsal facility, a professional stage space, and a center where dancers can rehearse for tours and awards.
That plan has been shelved by the pandemic, but Mr. Bankhead is as busy as ever.
“I’ve really tapped into a place that I’ve worked so hard to even get there,” he said. “I’ve set the bar high enough for myself that if anyone knows you’re working with me on choreography, I’m not going to play.”