How Beyoncé’s Choreographer Knows She’s Found the Perfect Song
December 16, 2020

For choreographer and teacher James Alsop to choose a piece of music for class, it has to make her groove.

“You’re sitting down and your body can’t help but to move,” she says. A heel tap or a subtle sway of the hips—any organic movement that manifests from her gut—is the sign of a stellar, dance-worthy song.

This visceral reaction to music can be unpredictable, says Alsop, who’s choreographed for artists like J. Lo and Beyoncé, for the Netflix series “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “Soundtrack,” and for The Devil Wears Prada, set to open on Broadway in 2021. “It can happen with Kimbra or something real hood. It just depends on what moves me. Right now, it’s Afrobeats,” she says.

Compared to Alsop’s music-choosing process, her path to becoming a sought-after choreographer was more foreseeable. Though she realized early on in her career that she wanted to be a choreographer, she knew that she had to work as a dancer first. A major break arrived in 2010: While acting in a supporting role in the musical indie film Leave It on the Floor, Alsop was put on the spot to choreograph a scene in an hour by the film’s co-producer, Frank Gatson Jr., who also happened to be Beyoncé’s creative director.

Gatson was impressed. Not long after, Alsop was introducing her signature style—a mix of jazz, ballet and contemporary technique, with accents of hip hop and funk—to Beyoncé in person. The star immediately fell in love with Alsop’s interpretation of her music. This meeting resulted in the iconic music video “Run the World (Girls).”

Working with Beyoncé was like a dream, says Alsop. “She’s an out-of-this-world creative force. A lot of my firsts were with Beyoncé. I learned to work under pressure as a teacher and come up with choreography in an instant.”

Whether she’s working with pop stars or young dancers, music has always been the motivating force behind Alsop’s work, especially as a teacher. She loves challenging students’ musicality: When teaching syncopation or a complicated rhythm, she’ll “say the song” (for example, “boom tap tap, boom tap tap”) with no music, and have the class repeat the sounds back to her four or five times. Then, she’ll incorporate the movement. “This makes it easier for dancers to retain because they’ve instilled the rhythm into their entire bodies,” she says. “Repetition is really important to get the beat.”

Alsop strives to mix up her music selection to energize her classes. “Dance teachers were always the ones who introduced me to new music,” she says. “I always fell in love with new sounds in class that inspired creativity that you might not get from what everyone else is playing.”

Her current hunt for new artists and genres includes asking friends from all over the world for recommendations before spending hours of falling down YouTube rabbit holes. “I’ll type in ‘West African dance’ and find this incredible song with dancers from Nigeria or Ghana, and then I’ll type in ‘Afro-Cuban’ and find amazing Brazilian songs,” says Alsop.

Alsop made Dance Teacher a playlist of her favorite songs to use for class, and shared some of the artists and songs that inspire her:

Janet Jackson’s entire collection

“Any song from any album. I love her forever. She’s always been a reason you wake up and go in the morning. Everything about her musical composition to her production to her lyrics to her background vocals are otherworldly.”

Master KG’s “Jerusalema”

“This is just a global feel-good song. It is literally about spreading love across the world and it comes with its own line dance. How could you not love it?”

Mariah Carey’s Emancipation of Mimi

“This album is a vocal masterpiece. It’s also a reminder to never count yourself out. Mariah had been through a lot, and much doubt had been cast on her career. Then she clobbered everyone over the head with the mastery.”

Beyoncé’s “Freakum Dress”

“This is a go-to dance song for me. From the loud drum and bass of Rich Harrison’s production to the meaning, all the way down to the incredible choreography of Jonte’ & Ramon. This song and video solidify Beyoncé as one of the best to ever do it. I can’t hear this song and not do the original choreo.”

Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure?

“In my personal opinion, this is the best pop album, and I may even dare to say the best album to be released this year. Talk about the most perfect pick-me-up from beginning to end during a year full of quarantine. There’s something for everyone on this album and it’s all based in dance.”

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