Famed choreographer started career as Tucker High’s drum major

JaQuel Knight, who has worked with Beyoncé, Shakira and Cardi B, has created all-new steps for “The Wiz” in Atlanta Nov. 14-19.
The Broadway in Atlanta production of “The Wiz” comes to the Fox Theatre from Nov. 14 to 19.  Photo: Courtesy of Jeremy Daniel

Credit: Jeremy Daniel

Combined ShapeCaption
The Broadway in Atlanta production of “The Wiz” comes to the Fox Theatre from Nov. 14 to 19. Photo: Courtesy of Jeremy Daniel

Credit: Jeremy Daniel

Credit: Jeremy Daniel

“Now put your hands up.”

So commanded Beyoncé back in 2008 when she raised and flicked her hands in the iconic video for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” So too did millions of her fans in one of the most copied dance moves in recent decades.

The young man who got Beyoncé to put her hands up was JaQuel Knight, who was just 18 when he choreographed that video. Freshly graduated from Tucker High School in DeKalb County, he was barely removed from long days as a drum major at summer band camp and had recently relocated to Los Angeles.

He has since gone on to choreograph dance moves for Shakira’s Super Bowl halftime performance in 2020 and Cardi B’s “WAP” video the same year. And now he has created an entirely new set of steps for the national touring company of “The Wiz,” which runs Tuesday, Nov. 14, through Sunday, Nov. 19, at the Fox Theatre as part of the Broadway in Atlanta series.

“Marching band summer camp is the foundation of everything that I am in a professional sense — the discipline I carry with me,” the choreographer said.

“We used to have a thing we had to recite if there was any mess up.” He rattles it off rapidly and perfectly, almost 20 years after he first recited it: “Excuses are tools of the incompetent used to build monuments to nothingness, and those who specialize in them seldom succeed at anything.”

“That stuck with me forever,” he said.


At 35, Knight is now one of the best-known choreographers in the business.

JaQuel Knight, choreographer for the touring version of “The Wiz” and for stars such as Beyoncé, Shakira and Cardi B, began his career at Tucker High School. Photo: Courtesy of Jake Green

Credit: Jake Green

Credit: Jake Green

Knight’s family moved from North Carolina to metro Atlanta when he was 6. His father and a younger brother still live here. He started his journey in music and movement at Smoke Rise Elementary School in Stone Mountain.

“My music teacher, Mr. Lee Jennings, saw something in me,” he said. “I was learning classical composition alongside what was happening in the Atlanta music scene — TLC and later Usher and Ciara — and it started to blow my mind.”

By high school, he played several instruments, formed his own dance troupe and became drum major for the marching band, which meant choreographing its routine. He wanted to take tap dance lessons, but his family couldn’t afford that, so instead he joined the clogging club at Tucker High, the memory of which now elicits a hearty laugh.

“That just started to play with my mind: the musicality of the feet,” he said.

There is little formal instruction or book learning available in choreography, he said. “You see people dancing. You know somebody’s making it up. It was figuring it out myself: ‘OK, y’all, let’s make up a dance.’”

He’s done that yet again — this time for “The Wiz,” a retelling of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” within contemporary Black culture.

Knight takes pains to credit the choreographers who came before him on the show: George Faison for the 1975 Broadway original and Louis Johnson for the 1978 film version that starred Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Richard Pryor. He also makes sure to credit the teachers and mentors throughout his life.

“That’s something I learned from marching band: to pay respect to the alumni that would come back to work with us,” he said.

As for “The Wiz,” Knight said that the original Broadway version and the film version have been “huge” inspirations for him. “The energy of what they’ve done — I tried to keep that. But the steps and movement are all ‘now.’”

Managing to work one of the show’s song titles into the conversation, he quipped: “It’s a brand new day, right?”

“We as a people have been through so much. All that experience and living plays into that show. I want people when they go to the show to see that the spirit of dance is alive.”

This version of “The Wiz” uses many styles of dance, he noted.

“There’s plenty of modern ballet as the show starts. Then as the show progresses, I tried to progress through the choreographic vocabulary as well,” he said.

“Every number feels different, shows another side of who Black people are as a culture, as people who just love dance.”


“The Wiz”

Nov. 14-19. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. $39-$199. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 855-285-8499, foxtheatre.org.

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