All that glitters is not gold, but when Britney Spears stepped on the stage at the MTV Music Video Awards 20 years ago, drenched in body shimmer and sparkling temporary tattoos, she debunked that famous aphorism. The year was 2001, the song was steamy sex anthem I’m A Slave 4 U and the performance-defining albeit PETA-enraging prop was a seven-foot albino Burmese python.
According to the performance’s snake-wrangler, Spears was “extremely, extremely scared” during rehearsals. On stage, she was pop greatness personified, resting the snake on her shoulders as she somehow managed to twirl across the stage and wiggle her hips through the fear. It was truly iconic and left a star-studded mark on music history, emblematic of an era in pop when doing The Most was standard practice. Less a cultural reset, more the pinnacle of its contemporary culture.
“Any of those old MTV VMA performances are my all-time favourites,” says JaQuel Knight, choreographer for the likes of Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé (he’s responsible for the Single Ladies, Formation and Beychella choreography, by the way). “N’Sync did that crazy performance with TVs over their heads. It was the best awards show.”
Two decades later, a fresh cohort of stars are continuing the legacies of their all-singing, all-dancing Y2K predecessors. At last night’s VMAs, Chlöe Bailey showed us how to graduate from the school of Beyoncé with the dance break in Have Mercy, Lil Nas X repped for the boys with Industry Baby’s choreography, Doja Cat got into her contemporary dance bag after being suspended in the air and Normani, well, out-Normani’d herself with some steamy Janet Jackson references during Wild Side. After a period in pop when many stars eschewed the tradition of razor-sharp, jaw-droppingly choreographed performances, it was a breath of fresh air.
Music comes first, naturally, so it’s understandable when the likes of Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift prioritise vocals over dance rehearsals. But for those who spent their childhoods gripped to the TV trying to replicate Janet Jackson’s slick isolations at the Super Bowl halftime show, the return of proper pop star choreography via Normani and co is a reminder of the magic and indomitable stage presence of the artists who made us first fall in love with music. Of course, Bey has held the fort down throughout her career, but it’s nice to know that there are now a few more people knocking about who might one day also pull off something as epic as Homecoming.
“I’m really proud because there was a second where we lost it, it was gone for a minute,” says Knight of the performances we’ve seen from artists over the past year or so. “I see the rap girls like Megan and Cardi B really stepping up their game, getting into dance rehearsals. Normani is doing her thing. People sleep on Kehlani, but she’s really at the top of her game.”
As Knight notes, the reason crowds and sofa fans went crazy for the performances of the early ’00s is because they epitomised what a pop star should be. “They had that fire and that came through in those performances. You could see it in the back of the eye,” he says. “That requires a certain talent level and a commitment to the art. Now, I feel like artists are so afraid of committing to the art, talents and skill level that it takes to be a pop star. It’s a lot of hard work and it takes time.”
Contrary to what TikTok air traffic control dancers might believe, Knight cites social media and how a track can become an instant viral hit as one of the reasons for the toned-down choreography we’ve seen over the past few years. If there’s been any dancing at all, that is. “Success is a different thing now,” he says. “I think people feel like, ‘Why do I need to go and do eight-hour rehearsals a day when it’s all working like this?’ But that work ethic is really the heart of being a true pop star. Thankfully, there’s a few girls – and guys, Lil Nas X is doing his thing – who want that pop stardom.” When Knight worked on the WAP music video, for instance, Cardi B wanted to start rehearsals a month before the shoot.
But going viral for all the wrong reasons can push a pop star to new heights, too. Lest we forget the Dua Lipa meme, which saw her dancing become a viral punchline in 2019. As Lipa pointed out in an interview with GQ, the joke was a little unfair and incredibly gendered, recounting a gig where she saw “a male artist that actually doesn’t do anything on stage”, who later got a five-star review. “But then you have women who get up on stage and they’re practically doing cartwheels, costume changes – it’s a spectacle. And then [reviewers] nitpick every little thing,” she said. Still, Lipa returned to the stage with a vengeance when performing Future Nostalgia’s disco anthems. No more static hip twists; she’s been giving dance breaks, body rolls and hair flips.
“Dua works really hard at perfecting her craft,” says Charm La’Donna, the choreographer behind Dua’s dancing 2.0, who also choreographed Kendrick Lamar’s 2018 Grammy’s performance and was the only dancer to accompany him on his Damn tour. “The whole album [Future Nostalgia] makes you want to dance, so [the choreography] was organic to the situation, it pulled these songs to life.”
La’Donna’s approach to choreography is focusing on “what feels good” to artists, collaborating with them closely to make them “the best that they can look on stage”. But like Knight, she believes that great performances with unforgettable choreography start with an artist’s dedication. “It stems from the artist and them wanting to push [themselves]. These routines aren’t easy,” she says. “Seeing this generation of artists push themselves is amazing. It makes everybody want to level up.” Has the impact of a pandemic that saw most live performances scrapped also lit a fire under our biggest stars’ twerking arses? “For sure,” says La’Donna. “Everybody’s ready to perform and practice, so the performances have upped the ante. I’m here for it.”
Equally, after 18 months of tragedy and uncertainty, the return to the glitz, glamour and high-impact choreography of early ’00s pop is a delicious treat for fans. Thank God for the bright, new stars who are putting in the hours in dance rehearsals, hitting every beat with moves that rival history’s greatest performers. And those watching at home, get in formation. Five, six, seven, eight…