60 Voices: Jalaiah Harmon and Sean Bankhead on going viral

"When I was younger, I didn’t really have dance class. I was watching Missy Elliott videos."

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Jalaiah Harmon
Jalaiah Harmon’s “Renegade” catapulted her to viral fame in 2019.

Photograph by Alex Martinez

Earlier this year, choreographer and dancer Sean Bankhead, 32, went viral on TikTok for a hilarious video teaching fans of Cardi B’s “Up” how to do the choreography he created. The video featured audio of Bankhead’s instructions in the form of nonsensical sounds such as “baka baka bow” to notate each individual step. These sounds are commonplace in dance classes, such as the ones Bankhead taught at local studios like Dance 411 before the pandemic. The Atlanta resident isn’t a stranger to virality—he’s choreographed for the likes of Missy Elliott and danced alongside Beyoncé—but this was the first time his voice has taken center stage.

Jalaiah Harmon, a Fayetteville dancer who long has had dreams of training at Dance 411, didn’t get a chance to attend one of Bankhead’s classes before they shut down last year, but she’s since gone viral in her own right. The “Renegade” challenge, created by the now 15-year-old in 2019 to the tune of a K Camp song titled “Lottery,” went viral last year, just as the pandemic brought the world to a halt. In the time of increased isolation, it provided novice and advanced dancers a chance to stay active and entertained. Spurred primarily by the challenge, the song, now titled “Lottery (Renegade),” has amassed more than 30 million videos on TikTok.

JH: When did you first get into dancing and really choreographing?

SB: When I was about three or four years old, I used to watch Michael and Janet Jackson music videos. I think I’ve always been a natural dancer. I really got into the scene in Atlanta and [learned] what a choreographer was—because I didn’t even know that was a career path. I got introduced to Dance 411 when they first started and met a lot of incredible choreographers like Jamaica Craft, Fatima Robinson, Chuck Maldonado, Jamal Sims. So, I want to ask you something. What kind of goals have you been setting for yourself?

JH: On the choreographing side, I’ve been trying to choreograph my own dances.

SB: You’re not trying to choreograph. You’re choreographing. I’ve seen you.

JH: I’m just trying to build a platform. I can do jazz, tap, ballet, lyrical, stuff like that, but my favorite is hip-hop.

SB: This whole pandemic has put such a [hardship] on a lot of industries but, specifically, the dance industry. When I was your age, I was able to train and take a whole bunch of classes. For your generation, quarantine has made you stay at home and really focus in on yourself and your craft and what your choreography style is. I love teaching and would be teaching right now if I could. I feel like there’s a newer generation that’s not getting a chance to take my classes and take a lot of people’s classes to show other ranges of choreography.

When I first started going to Dance 411 Studios, I was about 15 or 16. I was very ambitious. I kept asking the owners, Can I teach a class? Can I sub? I remember one day going to class, and one of the teachers couldn’t come, and I was the only one there who could [substitute]. Someone from Bad Boy [Records] came into my class, loved my choreography, and was like, Can you choreograph this music video for Cheri Dennis? Long story short, my first time choreographing a music video was when I was 16. Before I even had a dance career, before I was even teaching classes, I was thrown this opportunity. It was terrible, but I learned so much from it. I hear you just choreographed a video as well. How did it turn out?

JH: It was a good experience. It was really fun. I wasn’t ready because I didn’t know what I would have to do. I was really nervous. It was a team of women, so it was really supportive and homey to me. What is it like working for Missy [Elliott], Cardi [B], and Megan [Thee Stallion]?

SB: It’s still surreal to me. It doesn’t feel real, especially Missy because [she] was my idol. When I was younger, I didn’t really have dance class. I was watching Missy Elliott videos. I learned pocket, swag, groove, and style from watching her videos. To be able to be working with her, it feels like a dream. It really can come to fruition if you stick to it.

The thing that I’ve picked up about your choreography and your swag is you have a nasty bounce. A swag. A groove. A pocket. At the beginning of quarantine, I was like, Let me learn this “Renegade” challenge. You kicked my ass. It was really hard and intricate. You have this consistent bounce that you did during the dance.

JH: I didn’t know that this was going to happen. I used to make dances all the time, so that was something normal for me. A lot of opportunities have come my way. It’s really new to me. I still have to get used to some stuff like interviews and being on TV. People are trying to get me into acting and modeling.

SB: And, if I can give you a piece of advice, try your hardest to stay in the present. I was teaching classes, and I would play “Renegade,” and the entire room would be doing the challenge. I’ve been blessed as well to kind of have viral moments or people really appreciate my work. I really wish that I was more present in the moment.

Soak it up. You deserve it. You’re representing a lot of the young Black creatives that come out of Atlanta. I’ve been watching you, and I can’t wait to get you to do something with me or choreograph something. I think you’re super, supertalented, and you have a superbright future ahead of you. Just keep grinding.

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