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Normani: ‘Dance Was My First Passion’

Normani and her choreographer, Sean Bankhead, talk about “Motivation,” inspirations and showing the world her dance chops at the V.M.A.’s.

By Siobhan Burke

Normani: ‘Dance Was My First Passion’

Twerking on a chain-link fence; doing a split on concrete in the rain; bouncing a basketball off multiple body parts, between effortless pirouettes: When Normani released the music video for her irresistible single “Motivation” in August, the message was clear. Not only could she sing — she could also really, really dance.

A rising pop singer, on the order of a young Beyoncé or Britney Spears, Normani, 23, was a dancer and a gymnast first. Growing up in New Orleans, she began taking ballet, jazz and tap classes at age 3. After moving to Houston in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, she joined a competitive dance team at the studio Dancezone, eventually putting aside gymnastics to focus on dance. (In 2017 she was a contestant on “Dancing With the Stars,” placing third.)

“Dance was my first passion, before I started singing or doing anything else,” she said in a joint phone interview with Sean Bankhead, the choreographer for the “Motivation” video. “I gravitated to dancing because I’m a more reserved, shy person, so I felt like that was kind of my way of being able to fully express myself.”

Normani first worked with Mr. Bankhead about five years ago, when he began choreographing for the girl group Fifth Harmony, of which she was a member. The two also collaborated on dance videos with Normani at the center.

“He’s really like my big brother,” she said. “He believes I can do things that I don’t even think I can do.”

In the “Motivation” video, shot in Los Angeles, she holds nothing back, finding recklessness inside of confident precision. Her moves — particularly the one in which she spins and pops a basketball into the air with her knee, then her butt — have inspired a flood of fan videos tagged #motivationchallenge. (“Honestly, I’ve seen some pretty good ones,” she said.)

Normani: ‘Dance Was My First Passion’

Her own inspiration for the video came from artists of the early 2000s and her experience watching music videos on the BET show “106 & Park.” While many comparisons have been drawn between “Motivation” and earlier pop and R&B videos — like J. Lo’s “I’m Real” and Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” — she and Mr. Bankhead said that most of the similarities arose organically.

For Mr. Bankhead, 30, watching music videos also played a formative role. “That’s really how I learned to dance,” he said, “so it kind of just happened that a lot of the movement and choreography tipped our hats to those iconic videos we grew up on.”

At MTV’s Video Music Awards last week — shortly after Missy Elliott dedicated her Video Vanguard Award to “the dance community around the world” — Normani cemented her image as a performer who can do it all, commanding the stage in an acrobatic solo during her debut live performance of “Motivation.” Over the holiday weekend, she and Mr. Bankhead (who also choreographed Ms. Elliott’s exhilarating performance at the V.M.A.’s) took some time to talk about the work leading up to that moment. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

In the “Motivation” video, Normani almost never stops dancing. How did the decision come about to make a dance-driven video?

Normani We wanted it to be very high energy. We wanted it to be an opportunity for people to see me have fun. I’ve had records like “Love Lies” and “Dancing with a Stranger,” which are very different from “Motivation” sonically, so we wanted to use this as an opportunity to dance and move from start to finish.

I also knew that I wanted to represent my culture. I wanted it to feel as black as possible. That was very important to me. I wanted everyone to get a sense of who I was when I was growing up watching “106 & Park.”

Sean Bankhead Dave [Meyers, one of the directors] had a lot of creative ways that he wanted to capture dance, which was great for us. Working with someone like Normani, we know that she can dance, that’s to be expected, so we’re always looking for different ways to change up choreography or shoot it differently.

Normani: ‘Dance Was My First Passion’

One part that stands out to me is the long duet between Normani and Christian Owens, where they dance together in the street.

Normani That’s probably my favorite scene in the video. It was very reminiscent of Omarion’s music video “Touch.” I just love the camaraderie between the two. It’s kind of like a cat-and-mouse situation.

Bankhead It goes between having kind of this raw, ’hood choreography, but then she has this really nice beautiful lift, and then goes back into chewing her gum. It’s cool to play with those different textures and different styles of dance, mix them all into one moment.

What do you think makes Normani a great dancer?

Bankhead No matter what, she works extremely hard. I say this all the time, but it’s hard to book dancers for Normani, because she’s actually sometimes more trained and has more technique than some of the dancers in the industry right now. She always has been able to try things. I’ll be like, “Normani, try this, try that!” She’s always like, “Are you sure?”

What’s an example?

Normani I feel like it’s all the time. I am a very hard worker and I do come from those different backgrounds, dance and gymnastics, but I also haven’t done a lot of tumbling or gym in a very long time. So even what you saw on the V.M.A.’s, me doing the back walkover going into the split — there was a moment where I was like: “Wait, I don’t know if I’m going to do the back walkover. I don’t want to stress out over it. I have other things to stress out over.” And he was like, “No, you’re going to do it.” He allows me the opportunity to know that I’m still capable of doing certain things.

Normani: ‘Dance Was My First Passion’
Credit: Mike Coppola, via Getty Images For Mtv

What was your reaction to Missy Elliott dedicating her Video Vanguard Award to the dance community?

Bankhead That was really major. A lot of artists, they have their dancers but really don’t allow them to be part of the moment. They’re just background noise. So to have a legend like Missy, who paved the way and changed and inspired so much in the dance industry — for her to acknowledge that her dancers are so important to her show, it’s very heartwarming.

Normani Especially for me coming from the dance community, I feel really at home when I’m in a room full of talented dancers.

Normani: ‘Dance Was My First Passion’

Sean, why did you feel it was important for Normani to have that solo, with the back walkover, in her V.M.A.’s performance?

Bankhead We had a lot of dancers — 20, 21 dancers. And I remember being like: “Normani, during the dance break, it just needs to be you. Let’s get everybody offstage, let’s put a spotlight on you and just show the world what you can do.” It was probably one of the better decisions we made, and she came through. She can do it.