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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Lyndsey Winship

‘They’re not ashamed of their bodies’: Sean Bankhead on his raunchy dances for Beyoncé, Cardi B, Lil Nas X and more

‘It was crazy and it was freezing’ … Lil Nas X’s tastefully pixelated Industry Baby video.
‘It was crazy and it was freezing’ … Lil Nas X’s tastefully pixelated Industry Baby video. Photograph: Vevo

This year’s Super Bowl was watched by more than 120 million people in the US, almost as many as watched the moon landings. And in the half-time show, right behind R&B superstar Usher, there was Sean Bankhead dancing. “It was a really overwhelming sensory experience,” says Bankhead. “It was hot, muggy, sweaty and it stunk like a football game.”

Bankhead, 35, officially hung up his dancing shoes a few years ago to focus on choreography for the likes of Missy Elliott, Normani, Katy Perry, FKA twigs, recent Grammy winner Victoria Monét and Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion (whose 2021 Grammy performance of WAP he masterminded) but he couldn’t turn down the chance to dance with Usher, one of his childhood heroes. “I messed up so many times. We performed on the actual grass and there were chunks missing. But it was a rush.”

It has been quite a year for Bankhead so far. As well as the Super Bowl, he choreographed Lil Nas X’s controversial J Christ video, and Canadian singer Tate McRae’s performance at the Brits. “I had a baaaaall at the Brits,” he says, in his Atlanta drawl. “The Brits are way more fun than American awards shows. I had no clue! There was a huge party and everyone was drunk as hell.”

Bankhead is the man of the moment, but in some ways his style harks back to the music videos he grew up with in the 90s and 00s: Michael and Janet Jackson, Aaliyah, Britney Spears – that’s where he learned to dance, not taking a class until he was 16. “I didn’t even know what a choreographer was. I was just so enamoured by what I was watching on TV.”

His education came from going to clubs. Snap music was big in the Atlanta hip-hop scene, catchy songs like Soulja Boy’s Crank That coming with their own dance routines. “I could call myself a switch-hitter,” he says, borrowing a baseball term for ambidextrous batting. “I went to the gay clubs and I saw ballroom culture up close. I would go to the ‘hood’ clubs and learn how to do the ‘lean wit it, rock wit it’ dance. I would go to the white clubs and thrash around like Britney and learn my pop style, then go to reggae clubs and learn how to do dancehall and Afrobeats. I would always follow the party.”

All those influences make it into his dance work, but he’s also a trained percussionist. “So I can create rhythms with my body that match the beat or create my own beat. People are like, ‘Wow! Where did that rhythm come from?’”

At first making dance a career seemed impossible. At auditions, he was “a young skinny kid and back then they were looking for buff masculine dancers”. So he started posting his own choreographies on YouTube. There’s one up there entitled Beyoncé Tour Submission – Bankhead didn’t wait to be asked, he just put himself out there. “I was so hungry and ambitious. I would just create, in the hope that someone would see it.”

Ultimately, it worked. These days Bankhead works with some of music’s biggest artists, including Beyoncé. For diamond-selling rapper Cardi B, he choreographed the videos Up and Bongos, featuring Megan Thee Stallion. Both have striking dance routines but are also unapologetic flesh-fests, with curves escaping from bikinis and a lot of booty – the moves as explicit as the lyrics. Does Bankhead ever have the conversation: how sexy is too sexy?

“We don’t,” he says. “In fact, it’s usually more like, ‘I want to show more ass and I want to show more crotch.’ They are not ashamed of their bodies, they love their sexuality. And I’m right there supporting them.”

He insists that Cardi B, whose performing persona is uber-confident and a tad intimidating, is really “so sweet, so kind, the shyest person”. He says the same about himself. “I’m very reserved, very chill. But then you see my work and think, ‘He must be some fabulous diva.’”

With rapper Lil Nas X, Bankhead worked on the “creatively ballsy” video for the song Industry Baby. Set in a prison, it featured a naked dance routine in the showers (tastefully pixelated). This was the final scene of a two-day shoot, on an outdoor set. “It’s crazy, it’s freezing, it’s three in the morning,” he remembers. “People were slipping and falling. I stripped down to my underwear and was jumping and screaming just to make them feel more comfortable.”

Bankhead’s got an eye for a viral moment. The #OnMyMamaChallenge he created with Victoria Monét on TikTok has had more than 150 million views. Visuals and choreography “can make or break music”, he says. So are choreographers getting enough credit? “Yes and no. It’s time for us to be financially recognised. Songwriters will get paid for the rest of their lives if they write a hit song. But choreographers don’t get any type of residual income when we create a viral dance that makes the song blow up. I get a flat fee. I could be owed millions.”

Partly for that reason, Bankhead is now looking to build his own brand. He’s got plans for TV shows and fashion collaborations. You can expect to see him in front of the camera soon. If Bankhead has learned anything, it’s that nothing happens unless you put yourself out there.

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