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Choreographer steps out to brings his Atlanta-honed sensibilities to music videos, Super Bowl stage

By Steven Vargas, Los Angeles Times
Published: March 16, 2024, 6:01am

LOS ANGELES — With a comfortable stroll, Sean Bankhead stepped into Evolution Studios dressed in a black Nike sweatsuit. It was January and the Atlanta-based choreographer had just completed a day of rehearsals in Los Angeles. He took one whiff of the stuffy studio following a day’s worth of dance classes and sessions, commenting, “Smells just like I remember it.”

Evolution is his home turf; he has danced in the space throughout his career for classes and rehearsals. Now, he enters the studio with high-profile credits to his name and keen anticipation for what could come next.

In the last few years, Bankhead solidified his name as a leading choreographer in entertainment, choreographing for artists like Lil Nas X, Missy Elliott and Victoria Monét — who recently won a Grammy Award. Just this month, he returned to dancing in front of the camera for Usher’s 2024 Super Bowl performance and choreographed Cardi B’s “Duck Plumper” commercial that aired during the game.

Whether you recognize his work or not, Bankhead has been behind some of the most memorable moments in pop culture. How did he do it? “Paint your own pictures,” Bankhead said.

“Don’t always try to feel like you need to follow behind someone’s footsteps because they have made it their story,” he added. “Their journey is their journey and your journey is your journey.”

Entering the new year, he hopes to tell more of his own story.

Bankhead, 35, started his journey at a young age. He recalled dancing around his grandparents’ house as a kid, teaching his brother and cousins dances at Christmas. He attributes his love for dance to music videos (especially Michael Jackson’s and award shows — the same realm he prospers in today).

“I have always been a natural mover,” he said.

It wasn’t until he was 16 that he intentionally worked with choreography. He was on dance team, step team and drumline in high school. Despite enjoying choreographing dances back then, he couldn’t imagine it as a career.

“I never thought that this was a job,” he said. “I didn’t know that I could dance and be creative and make a name for myself.”

He found a home at Dance 411 studios in Atlanta. It was there that he started to create his style, which is filled with high-energy movement inspired by Atlanta culture, with the support of studio owners Sindy Guerrero and Nefertiti Robinson.

“It was like a safe haven for myself and a lot of my dancer friends,” Bankhead said. “We didn’t know what we wanted to do with our lives, but we knew that we love to dance and we wanted to have a sense of community and family, so we went to Dance 411.”

Atlanta culture is a big inspiration for Bankhead. As he explored his movement style in high school, he was surrounded by snap-era artists like D4L and Soulja Boy.

“The entire Atlanta dance community has always been ahead of its time when it’s creating trends and fads,” he said.

As he got older, he went to parties and clubs where popular dance moves developed and prospered. Dances created in the South, including the Dougie, Walk It Out and Stanky Legg, influenced the choreographer Bankhead is today.

He showcased his own creative moves on YouTube as a teen and went on to have a brief dance career, performing in films like “Hannah Montana: The Movie” and “Stomp the Yard 2: Homecoming.”

Today, Bankhead is known for being booked and busy, working on trending music videos. Each project is filled with an energy he hones through an alter ego filled with confidence, smoothness and aggression.

“My style is like my Sasha Fierce, if you will,” he said, referring to Beyoncé’s alter ego. “It’s a place that I tap into that I don’t naturally feel. Sometimes it’s sleek and sexy and sometimes I’m fluid and funky and very Atlanta.”

His varying artistic personalities can be found through his work. Cardi B’s “Bongos” music video is filled with large and sensual movement, filling the screen with twerking and strong formations. Normani’s “Wild Side” incorporates a mix of poignant frozen moments and bouncy group choreography. Monét’s “On My Mama” is a tour de force video filled with sharp and precise choreography that pulls from attributes of Black internet culture, HBCU culture and the early-2000s music video aesthetic. More recently, Bankhead used flirty and sharp grooves in Lil Nas X’s “J Christ” to enhance a provocative message of inclusivity within Christianity.

Each work is completely different (except for a single groove he carries from project to project as his “signature,” which he hasn’t publicly explained), making it difficult to believe that they were all made by the same person. But for Bankhead, that is the definition of a good choreographer.

“A real choreographer doesn’t go in the room and tell you what to do,” he said. “A choreographer brings out who you are as an artist, and every artist is different. Their music is different, their style is different, their energy is different, their dance capabilities are different, and I take my time to be specific on enhancing who they are as an artist.”

Bankhead balances his artistic sensibilities with accessible dance moves and grooves.

“Growing up watching music videos, you will be able to watch the music video and you will be able to replicate all these iconic choreographies,” he said. “I camouflage those moments in between a whole bunch of craziness.”

He thinks of these moments as parts of the choreography that the whole family can do. It adds a level of connection between the artist and the audience. His methodology has proved to be successful as many of his choreographic feats trend on TikTok, including the viral sound of Bankhead shouting cues “Bookie bookie boo” and “Lean” for his choreography in Cardi B’s “Up.”

In 2022, all of his hard work led to three MTV Video Music Awards best choreography nominations for “Industry Baby” by Lil Nas X ft. Jack Harlow, “Tears in the Club” by FKA twigs ft. the Weeknd and “Wild Side” by Normani ft. Cardi B. However, he still doesn’t feel like he has “made it.”

Up next, he looks forward to creating work that highlights his own story.

“I think being a choreographer, you’re always assisting other people, you’re always creating their dreams,” he said. “I still have a couple of things that I personally want to say with my own story and my own creativity, without having to hide behind an artist.”

This coming year, he feels like he’ll be stepping into intimidating territory — even after stepping onstage again at the Super Bowl.

“I am looking to surprise myself,” he said.

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