Celebrity dance choreographer Sean Bankhead has come a long way from imitating Michael Jackson in front of his television set as a kid.
For the past decade, Bankhead has dominated countless music videos of popular artists with his sleek, cutting edge dance techniques.The Philly-born entrepreneur has also been credited for elevating the Atlanta dance scene.
When the 26-year-old dancing machine is not onstage alongside Beyonce or touring with Britney Spears, he’s helping others develop their skills during his weekly workshops at Dance 411 studios in Atlanta, Georgia.
NBCBLK contributor Alex Titus talks with the man whose method for success all started with talent, passion and a YouTube video.
Thousands of dancers have used your tutorials as a template to improve upon their skills. When did you first realize that YouTube would lend a great hand in extending your reach?
SEAN BANKHEAD: I realized how big of a platform YouTube was in terms of branding and marketing myself at an earlier stage. It was a huge stepping stone for me and my career. I remember first starting off teaching classes at a random dance studio in Atlanta and the mother of one my younger dancers Diamond Cruz, videotaped the whole class and uploaded it on YouTube.
A week later, the video received over 1 million views. I was in complete shock and instantly realized how I should capitalize off of this. It was sort of like free television promotion for dancers. I edited all of my own videos so I had all creative control. I took the chance of putting my work out there for the world to see and thankfully everyone caught on.
How hard is the process like sequencing a routine together for the first time?
SEAN BANKHEAD: It’s still very nerve-wrecking, but interesting. I still second guess myself at times and ask, “Is this going to be hot?” First, I’ll find the song that I want to teach to. Then, I’ll meditate on it — meaning I’ll repeatedly listen to it before I try to get a step.
I do this so I get the vibe for what I want to convey through the song and what kind of musicality I want to hit. It’s like having an outline and filling in the gap. I usually lock myself in a room for an hour or put on some headphones and dance it out in the street. Overall, the process is very spontaneous and never quite the same thing every time.
You’ve been credited for popularizing some of Atlanta’s biggest dance trends through your choreography in music videos. Do you have a favorite dance that you’ve helped catapult?
SEAN BANKHEAD: Everything that has come out of Atlanta since I’ve been in high school has literally been my dance [laughs]. Whether it’s the “Lean With it Rock it”, ”The Soulja Boy”, “The Nae Nae” or “The Whip”, Atlanta has been the premiere location where people quickly catch onto contemporary trends.
I love inserting my own little dash of edginess and incorporating my own style to fit the current trends. Doing this also inspires dancers to think outside the box to be more creative with their approach. That’s what most fun about dancing, but all of the Atlanta stuff has always been my niche.
You’ve had incredible opportunities to work with everyone from Usher and Ciara to The Black Eyed Peas. Do you have a favorite memorable moment from working with any artist in particular?
SEAN BANKHEAD: I have tons of memorable moments working with super talented artists, however my favorite isn’t a music artist. I got the chance to work with Will Ferrell for Anchorman 2. That was a dream come true because never in a million years did I think I would be doing private sessions with Will Ferrell at 7 in the morning. He was working so hard because he can’t dance at all [laughs].
One day, he was like, “Do you think we can meet up tomorrow morning?” I had no idea he had meant as early 7am. It was cool to see other people like him in other fields work just as hard as a Beyonce would to learn new steps.
Based on your experience, is dancing back up for an artist more fun than choreographing?
SEAN BANKHEAD: I love every single thing. Just as much as I love to choreograph, I love to be a dancer as well. So anytime that I can dust off my dancing shoes and hop on stage for the Grammy’s, I’m so there! I really love doing everything equally. Whether it’s creating a music video, being behind the scenes or being in the forefront, I get a kick out all of it.
Speaking of music videos, in terms of preparation, is it more difficult to prepare for a music video shoot or a performance?
SEAN BANKHEAD: It’s all one in the same with different aspects. Overall people really don’t know how much hard work it takes. They only see the end result with the glitz and glam, meanwhile the fans don’t understand how much time and effort a large production requires.
Just the pre-planning and prepping alone is stressful. You have to come up with the concepts and ideas, approve budgets, then scope out and audition dancers who can come in, then schedule your rehearsals around the artists who have already have demanding schedules.
Next you have to find a director who can pull out your vision, then shoot it and then having an editor who can come in and slice everything up. Whether it’s a music video or a performance, there’s a lot of pieces to the puzzle. But I’m way more used to it now than I was in the beginning. It’s entirely more work than just being a dancer.
You performed “Happy” with Pharrell at last year’s Oscars and then again at this year’s Grammys. How exciting was it working with Skateboard P?
SEAN BANKHEAD: I was working under one of my mentors, the legendary choreographer Fatima Robinson. Fatima really respects me and values Atlanta culture. She allowed me to include my own part in the mix. Of course I had to put the ratchet “Nae Nae” in there. Ha! It was just incredible and Pharrell was amazing. To be around him and watch his work ethic was enticing. I was more than ‘happy’ to perform one of the number #1 songs of the year.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that you choreographed Janelle Monae’s “Yoga” Video. Like yourself, she’s a genre-less artist. Do you have a favorite genre that you prefer to dance to?
SEAN BANKHEAD: I really love more R&B, Neo-Soul, Jazz and Funk music. If I were to choreograph something on my own time for a class, I’d usually go with a song by D’Angelo, Sade or even Tank. That’s actually more of my personal style. But I genuinely love all music in between, from Rae Sremmurd all the way up to Miley Cyrus.
Funny you say that because I recall coming across a tutorial of you dancing to “You’re Making Me High” by Toni Braxton. I didn’t know that a song with that type of tempo could see such intricate dance styling.
SEAN BANKHEAD: Exactly, that’s more of my lane and style. I grew up listening to songs like that. It’s more in my soul to perform those 90s feel good, mid-tempo R&B records. Not only do those songs tell a story that make you feel good, they have a lot of substance through the songwriting and the melodies. I aim to match my choreography to the same kind of emotions those types of songs entail.
You have a tremendous following on both Twitter and Instagram. How positive of an impact has social media had for you while building your brand?
SEAN BANKHEAD: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have allowed me to be more aware of who’s watching. When you know a certain demographic is focusing their lens on you, you have no choice to but to cater to them. It’s about the reaction. Sometimes, I’ll test something out and depending on how the feedback is, I’ll know if I should use it or not.
SEAN BANKHEAD: For instance I have been able to put out the Stripper Kicking video and it went viral due to all of my followers who retweeted and shared the post. It’s a vital way for me to keep everyone afloat of the versatile style of dance that comes out of Atlanta and with the help of my supporters, I can get more exposure along with seeing what works well with different audiences.
Fifth Harmony has been on a roll, how fun was it working on their debut project?
SEAN BANKHEAD: These five girls are professionals and work so diligently at their craft. It can be challenging at times because you’re dealing with so many distinctive personalities and different moods but I’m finding out that working with girl groups is my specialty. I came from choreographing the OMG Girlz with three girls so transitioning to five wasn’t so much of a stretch.
Which artists would you like to work with in the future?
SEAN BANKHEAD: Definitely Chris Brown and Janet Jackson. Janet is one of the only living legends we have left. I’ve learned so much from her. She is our template, the original!
What have you enjoyed most about teaching your workshops?
SEAN BANKHEAD: I love teaching dance classes. I’ve been teaching for approximately 10 years at Dance 411 Studios. I would upload segments from my classes on YouTube and from there, people all over the world would request me to come to their country to teach.
So I’ve been really blessed to have the opportunity to receive great exposure by traveling abroad and absorbing so many different cultures. The most important lesson that I learned by teaching these workshops is that dance really is a universal language. I can travel to Japan and don’t have to speak Japanese in order for them to understand choreography.
Do you have any advice for any up and coming dancers trying to break into the business?
SEAN BANKHEAD: It’s very competitive but you must have tough skin. You have to remain positive, stayed prayed up and always have goals. I’ve always set goals and tried to accomplish to them, whether they’re big or small. For me, writing stuff down is important because it’s the first step in making them come to fruition.
Also, it’s not just about the talent, sometimes it’s your work ethic, how you brand your business and network. In my opinion, success is equally composed of 33 percent talent, 33 percent work ethic and the 33 percent remainder is all networking.