Single Ladies Man

by Ariel Osterweis Scott

Dancer Magazine, July 2009


Dance has always been the realm of the young, but JaQuel Knight gives precociousness a new name. At just 19, this dancer-choreographer has already choreographed for the likes of Beyoncé Knowles and Britney Spears. You might ask, how does this happen? The answer: it starts in the womb.

While pregnant with Knight, his mother danced with Northwest Halifax High School’s marching band in Littleton, NC, in the style becoming famously known as J-Setting. While many people are altogether unfamiliar with J-Setting, not recognizing its influence on Beyoncé’s video phenomenon, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” others know of J-Setting through its increasing popularity in gay clubs in the South. Knight sets the record straight, “The band is where the whole J-Setting thing came from. People think it’s a dance style that’s just made up, but it came from historically black colleges and universities with a marching band and the auxiliary [section] in front with the moves.” The name comes from the Jackson State University’s marching band dancers, the Prancing J-Settes (originally the Prancing Jaysettes), formed in 1970 by ballet-trained majorette Shirley Middleton, who convinced university authorities to allow the auxiliary to focus on dance and “drop the batons.”

However, recognizing the dance’s evolution, Knight clarifies, “I don’t even like to call it J-Setting, to be honest. I don’t have a name for it. I just call it “˜the thing that the girls do in front of the band.'” Thus, “J-Setting” throughout the remainder of this portrait of Knight means something closer to “that dance the girls do.”

Beyoncé went directly to the source to learn her J-Setting technique for “Single Ladies,” hiring Knight to co-choreograph the video with her longtime choreographer, Frank Gatson Jr. You see, Knight not only danced the style in the womb and emulated videos throughout his childhood in Roanoke Rapids, NC, he also played instruments in his middle school marching band. After joining the Tucker High School marching band (just outside Atlanta, GA) as part of the dance committee, Knight became a drum major by sophomore year. “I was able to do everything the girls did,” Knight explains. The drum major is “in front of the band with the whistle, dancing the entire time.” Tucker High takes band seriously, sending its members to band camp each summer. According to Knight, “The discipline is out of this world. We would spend hours in the sun, hours marching from 8 to 5, from one football field to the next.” By the time football season came around, Knight tells me, “We were the best.”

The “Single Ladies” video picks up on the playful components of J-Setting’s underground iterations in gay male club culture, where men mimic the feminine moves of the majorettes and add another layer. If traditional J-Setting depends on highly structured female unison performances, Beyoncé’s version””via Knight and Gatson””is a case of girls playing boys playing girls. Structured on eight-count phrases, Knight explains that J-Setting is “based on lines in the arms and a certain bounce… You have to make sure you have the right groove, and you’re in the correct pocket when you’re doing the dance. People think you have to [be] flamboyant… or full out [but] it’s not the most difficult thing.” Terrance Dean (author of Hiding in Hip Hop: On the Down Low in the Entertainment Industry-From Music To Hollywood) contributed an article to Vibe Magazine that points to the fact that college men imitating J-Settes on the sidelines were forcefully pushed away, resorting to clubs to express their adoration for the form. Dean suggests that much like Madonna catapulted vogueing into public consciousness, Beyoncé has brought mass visibility to J-Setting.

According to Knight, Beyoncé’s preference for a relatively underground form is actually being consciously employed to appeal widely to fans. “She wanted the “˜Single Ladies’ video to be something everyone could do. That was very important to her,” says Knight. “We knew people would catch onto it.” But Knight had no idea it would become such an international phenomenon, with YouTube imitators, video competitions and Saturday Night Live impersonations.

So, how did Knight find himself in Beyoncé’s rehearsal studio? He started dancing professionally in 2004. In early 2008, Knight auditioned as a dancer for a Michelle Williams video, only to find himself hired as a co-choreographer after callbacks. A former Destiny’s Child member with Beyoncé, Williams’ choreographer at the time was Gatson, who recognized Knight’s talent. When Gatson asked the dancers about their expertise, Knight never mentioned J-Setting, answering, “house and hip hop, with a specialty of Atlanta crank (an underground Atlanta dance). I freestyled a little house combo for him. When I’ve got my house game helmet on, I have a certain groove and bounce that’s almost different from everyone else. Being from the South, I groove all the time. I’m always in the pocket. I’m always just chillin.'” Now mainly labeling himself a “hip hop head,” Knight claims, “I love house, but then I started to get too old and my legs started to go out on me.” By “old,” Knight refers to a period around age 17 and it does not appear as though anything will “go out” on him for quite some time. Yet, this is a dancer expert in the nuances of specific popular and underground forms, which require just as much detailed attention as ballet.

In August, 2008, just months after working for Williams, Knight was called in to co-choreograph Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” Though he had choreographed stage shows for emerging artists in Atlanta, Knight’s career working in video and tour choreography only began in LA in 2008 (with Williams)… barely one year ago! Knight recounts having to “fly same-day red-eye,” from LA to New York, then arriving at a “morning rehearsal for Beyoncé.” At first, it was not an obvious match, at least not to Knight, “I heard the song… and I’m like, oh lord, what am I going to do with this? So I just started dancing to try to find my pocket and the groove of it. The song is so… jazz.”

Experimentation was an important part of the process. Knight says, “Every aspect about that project we studied. For the first few days, [there was] lots of sitting down and talking.” Eventually, Beyoncé had the idea to introduce the Fosse influence. Gatson, too, “looked up to Fosse’s work and musicals from back in the day,” so they chose to emulate Fosse’s choreography from Gwen Verdon’s “Mexican Breakfast.” Asked if this is the type of quotation that constitutes theft””as some have suggested””Knight likens Beyoncé’s gesture to homage, especially since so much time has passed (“It’s dance, and you can quote.”) Furthermore, he is aware of his own contributions to the video, bringing contemporary underground Southern dance forms into the rehearsal process. He introduced Beyoncé not only to J-Setting, but to a “club dance from Atlanta… the Whoop Rico. There’s a part where you see the influence: the two girls in back do a little side-to-side hip movement.” Despite his own ability to execute the most complex of movements, Knight explains, “We tried to use little movements that anyone would do at the club: step-step-double-double, like a little slide, and embellished it.”

The process was also one step at a time. “Every day we would come up with phrases of eight [counts], and Beyoncé would say whether or not she looked good doing it or if was too much of this or that.” Knight says, “We rehearsed for two weeks before shooting,” which was very necessary considering “the whole video was a single take.” Knight, Gatson, and the three performers of “Single Ladies,” Beyoncé with dancers Ashley Everett and Ebony Williams, found themselves with a hit. “It takes time to realize how ingenious the song is because it’s so catchy… You just have to dance,” says Knight. “Whether you like the song or not you’re gonna dance, and that’s a hit.”

In a very short amount of time, “Single Ladies” has catapulted Knight’s career such that he “now has to say “˜no’ to so many people” who want to hire him. Since “Single Ladies,” he has choreographed Beyoncé’s tour, her video, “Diva,” and, most recently, two songs for Britney Spears’ current “Circus” tour: “Radar” and “Get Naked.” Directed by Jamie King, Spears’ tour is in the round, and she “had to make sure she was moving because she wanted to entertain everyone,” says Knight. If Spears places more emphasis on dancing, Beyoncé is “not going to do every step in the world because she wants to be able to sing the song well.” Knight claims Spears has assembled a diverse group of dancers””eight male and four female””who can “do it all,” but specialize in styles such as ballroom, jazz, martial arts and hip hop.

Ever versatile himself, Knight “enjoys surprising people with different styles.” He says that when he teaches, “People come into class thinking I’m going to teach a “˜Single Ladies’ combo and they get the most ghetto routine they’ve ever seen. You never know.” He’s also not afraid of upsetting dancers’ comfort levels, “I just want people who think they know, [to find out] that they have no idea.” Overall, though, Knight wants to communicate a “love of dance” that transcends the concerns of many dancers who move to LA and “get so caught up into wanting to work with this person or that person, or wanting to do their hair or buy new clothes.”

Although he works more now as a choreographer than a dancer, Knight still takes class frequently and hopes to fulfill his other goals, which include artistic directing tours and working on movies and commercials. In addition to writing and producing music, Knight “was a graphic design major in college” and would like to do “creative directing for billboards [and] cover artwork for CDs.” With his unique combination of rigor, humor and youth, there’s no reason this choreographer cannot achieve all that and more. Who knows… if a 19-year-old can choreograph for internationally acclaimed pop stars, a “hip hop head” can design billboards and a drum major can direct films, then perhaps we can all conceive of dances like J-Setting not only as “that dance the girls do,” but embrace it as “that dance the boys do” too.

For the history of the Prancing J-Settes, go to:
http://sonicboomofthesouth.com/history/the-prancing-j-settes/

To keep up with JaQuel Knight, go to:
http://www.myspace.com/quelbird

Ariel Osterweis Scott, a PhD candidate in performance studies at UC Berkeley, is a contemporary dancer, choreographer, educator and scholar. She can be reached at aos@berkeley.edu.