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In 2020, Sean Bankhead thought he had reached his peak. After working with Missy Elliott, Fifth Harmony and Normani, the choreographer wanted to take a break and figure out his next steps. Then, the world stopped due to COVID-19 — and thanks to TikTok, he went viral yet again. This time, it was his choreography for Cardi B’s “Up.”
“When ‘Up’ came out, it was not supposed to be some viral dance. I made it a music video dance, not a TikTok dance,” Bankhead said. “There’s a difference.”
Bankhead is a stickler for perfection, so when he saw people doing the dance wrong, like any good instructor, he sought to correct them. He and his assistant Ahsia got on Instagram Live, gave a one-time mini-tutorial, and that was the end of that. Or so he thought.
He woke up the next day to find his voice had been turned into a TikTok audio: “We said big bag bussin’ out the Bentley Bentayga / Ooo, ooo! A backa backa bop! It’s / Ooo-crack, a bookie bookie boo!”
“I heard my voice on a video that was on my timeline,” he said, noting that he was mortified because he hates hearing the sound of his own voice. “This kid was reenacting the sounds of the video, putting stuff in his backpack and pulling out bags of chicken. I just was like, ‘OK, that was funny.’ I didn’t think anything of it. That night, it was everywhere.”
Shortly after that, Normani’s music video for “Wild Side (feat. Cardi B),” which Bankhead choreographed, was released. Fans replicated the dance moves online, and he gained more and more recognition.
“2021 was just a very surreal year for me publicly and on TikTok,” he said. “I think a lot of the work that I have put in, people were really recognizing that this was the kid that we’ve been watching from YouTube. Now, he’s doing big things.”
Before Bankhead was a choreographer to stars such as Lil’ Nas X, Katy Perry and Latto, before he was a Theta Nu Theta Stepper in “Stomp the Yard 2: Homecoming,” he was a young dancer under the username @seanalator on YouTube, posting concept videos that he shot and choreographed himself, including one for Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls).”
Now, Bankhead, 34, is on the way to becoming a household name. With credits on series such as “Star” on Fox and serving as a judge on MTV’s “Becoming a Popstar,” he is the brain behind today’s most-buzzed-about music videos and online dances.
Born in Philadelphia and bred in Atlanta, Bankhead grew up in a home filled with the sounds of Anita Baker, Maxwell, and Earth, Wind & Fire. You might assume that a celebrity choreographer was an attention-seeking child, naturally gravitating toward stages and captivating audiences, but Bankhead was, in fact, very timid. He was a self-described “nerdy, gay band kid.”
“I got bullied. I was wearing the preppy Abercrombie polos and skinny jeans. It was tough for me because I really didn’t have the confidence that you might assume. You quickly see how kids change on you,” he chuckled.
Occasionally, he would put on family talent shows with his cousins, but his earliest memories of organized dance started on his church’s mime team. Bankhead is a student of Michael and Janet Jackson, Usher, Aaliyah and Britney Spears, and music videos introduced him to the world of performance.
“I watched the ‘Thriller’ video — scared out of my mind, when I was a kid. My mom would say, ‘You would just stand in front of the TV and try to mimic everything that they did in every video that you saw,’” he recalled.
The first music videos that really stuck out to him were Missy Elliott videos.
“I was old enough to really understand what was happening: the creativity, the production value, the choreography, the costuming, the set design, the lighting and special effects,” Bankhead said. “She was a pioneer in music, period, creating these visual moments that you couldn’t wait to see what Missy was going to do next. Times have changed. Budgets have changed.”
Bankhead wouldn’t say that music videos are a “long-lost art,” but the landscape has shifted. He noted that today, there’s often a lack of artist development and care for visually personifying one’s music and identity. Often, artists and choreographers are merely given two days to rehearse, he said.
“I’m at that level of my career now, where if I do something, I want to say something. I want to make a stamp,” Bankhead said. “[With] Normani, I think we have the same understanding. She grew up watching music videos, too. When we first did ‘Motivation,’ everyone was like, ‘Wait a minute, hold on. Videos are back.’”
One music video, in particular, changed his life: Tiffany Evans’ “Promise Ring” featuring Ciara in 2007. Wearing a black and yellow ensemble, baggy jeans and rectangular frame glasses, he danced with Evans as her love interest, earning her coveted promise ring. In just 24 hours, he went from cowering in the hallways to brushing shoulders with Ciara and appearing on “106 & Park.”
“I never really talked about this, but being in that music video and playing the boy she gives the promise ring to,” Bankhead continued, “I was very insecure because I was, at the same time, dealing with my sexuality. I didn’t really feel cool. I didn’t feel hot. I didn’t feel like I could play a straight boyfriend. I was really in my head, but I knew I could dance.”
Bankhead wanted to keep on dancing, no matter the cost. That experience gave him a glimpse into life on set and the life he wanted to create for himself. He went to conventions, such as Monsters of Hip Hop, where students were hand-picked to compete in an end-of-year showcase in Los Angeles. He was selected when he was a graduating high school senior.
“After the week of rehearsal on the show that we put on the next day, I was supposed to start college,” he said. “I didn’t want to go to school. I wasn’t going to school for anything that I wanted to go for. I was going for my parents, so that became a big thing.”
So, Bankhead attended Georgia State University. For four days. Then, he dropped out.
His father was livid, to say the least. “Those were dark times,” Bankhead laughed. In retrospect, he extends his younger self a bit of grace: “I was a bit of a rebellious child. I was an artist trying to figure myself out.”
Bankhead stayed in the dorm for the year and took classes from different choreographers in Atlanta and built relationships with them.
He met Brian Friedman, Britney Spears’ choreographer, and Chuck Maldonado, who later cast him in “Stomp the Yard.”
At 19, Bankhead was hungry to make his dreams come true, and he turned to the internet to build an audience. He taught classes at a dance studio called Dance 411 and posted videos of choreography on YouTube.
His first video, posted in 2006, garnered 1.6 million views. Taking a hands-on approach, Bankhead personally edited every single video he shot. He garnered so much online attention that people across the globe would request him to teach classes. By 22, @seanalator was flying to Poland, Russia, Japan and countless other destinations.
But the online notoriety didn’t exactly translate professionally. The dance industry was slow to catch on to his online appeal.
“There’s always this kind of rank system when you get to certain industry parts of it,” he said. “I had a real struggle trying to break into the industry to choreograph those music videos.”
Known as “the YouTube kid,” young Bankhead still hadn’t landed a major job yet. When an opportunity to choreograph a Beyoncé music video came up, he knew he wanted to get the gig. Bankhead flew to LA, entered a room full of choreographers, but was unable to get to the front of the line. After that missed opportunity, he revisited the drawing board.
“I ran back home to Atlanta with my tail between my legs, and I was like, ‘I’m just going to shoot this choreography by myself with my own girls,” Bankhead said. “I’m going to rent a camera; I’m going to style the girls, I’m going to find a little abandoned location.’ That was the beginning of these highly produced dance concept videos.”
On May 1, 2011, Bankhead published his stylized choreography of Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls),” which has garnered over 8.4 million views. While that video launched him into stardom, he appreciates the years of growth that preceded it.
“That slow, steady rise really works out in the end. It gives you longevity,” he said.
The gradual ascent gave him a good foundation, and he spent the next eight years cultivating performances and creating dance routines for talent such as Migos, Kehlani, City Girls, Flo Milli and so many others.
Though the internet has propelled his career, Bankhead has “a love-hate relationship” with how TikTok has impacted choreography and the dance world. Yes, it has democratized the art, but Bankhead said that it has “overly glamorized simple dance.”
“I’m not a hater. Times change. You gotta stick with the kids. You gotta see what the young kids are doing because back in the day, people would be like, ‘Is the Dougie real dancing?’ or ‘Is the ‘Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It’ dancing?’” he recalled. “But it was culture. It was fun, it’s inclusive. It was a little bit more full-bodied. Now, with TikTok, you might not even be able to see people’s legs.”
On the other hand, he empathizes with the struggles of dancers who ascended to fame online. His ultimate hope is that aspiring dancers become more well-rounded so they can book music video opportunities.
He continued, “A lot of up-and-coming dancers are solely watching TikTok instead of doing real research and taking classes. Because now what we’re seeing is these kids who are blowing up through TikTok, but can’t hold their own in a real, eight-hour rehearsal. They can’t make it when you have to go on tour and do an hour-long show. It’s not allowing the real dance community to expand, per se.”
Visibility has been a double-edged sword, and Bankhead has been susceptible to criticism. In August, Megan Thee Stallion’s “HER” music video premiered, which Bankhead choreographed. It featured wristwork and moves such as the duckwalk that originate from the underground, queer ballroom scene.
Two days after the video came out, transgender ballroom pioneer Leiomy Maldonado tweeted and posted a now-deleted Instagram story criticizing the video and the appropriation of ballroom aesthetics. Maldonado is a judge on “Legendary” who has earned the title of the “Wonder Woman of Vogue.”
The comments sparked online discourse, and Maldonado tweeted that the onus is on choreographers to do better. Bankhead chimed in via an Instagram comments section and offered up an apology and explanation. He said that it’s “a very touchy subject,” but he also respects Maldonado and other pioneers in the ballroom community.
“When you’re not officially in the ballroom scene, people that are in ballroom can take offense to successful or public entities, whether it’s a choreographer or a show writer, involving ballroom culture without them being involved,” Bankhead said. “I get where they’re coming from. I’ve been to so many balls, clubs, classes, and I’ve vogued around my house with my friends since I was a kid. I think that’s a conversation to be had with more members of the community and me. I am not above respecting their opinion and their feelings involving ballroom culture and pop culture.”
Bankhead said his inspiration for the “HER” video was Jonte’ Moaning, who did a lot of early Beyoncé work like “Freakum Dress.”
“Their style was more cunty and feminine and it wasn’t, per se, vogue-inspired,” Bankhead said. “I wanted to speak up and make sure that I don’t want anyone to feel as though I’m disrespecting or stealing.”
Bankhead notes that he always tries to incorporate dance moves that speak to the present. Using his musical roots, he developed and honed a method to his madness.
“I’m a bit of a mad scientist. Making choreography is never hard for me. I grew up playing instruments as well: piano, saxophone and drums. I can never get bored with creating because I know music really well. I understand music. Music paints a picture,” he said, imitating the rising musical scales with a corresponding dance move.
Bankhead likes to choreograph while sitting in the car, zoning out and driving down the highway, which is where he says the possibilities are endless. Feeling dictates the movements as opposed to optics, so he refrains from choreographing in front of a mirror. He tries his best not to be influenced by other choreographers he admires, but rather put his own spin and flair on his work. A lot of that inspiration comes from his home city of Atlanta.
“There is a lot of culture, heart and swag in Atlanta that I’m glad I’m always around because I’m not losing my soul. If it’s hot in Atlanta, it’s gonna be hot everywhere else.”
When Bankhead saw Atlanta native Lil’ Nas X on the rise, he knew he wanted to work with him. Months later, the choreographer crossed paths with the artist and his creative director Hoda Musa, who wanted them to work together.
“In the back of my head, I was like, ‘I already know if I get him, I’m going to take him to the moon.’ I got the job, and we clicked instantly. That’s my little brother. Outside of work we just connected, him having an older, gay Black dude from Atlanta mentor him.”
The first performance Bankhead choreographed for Lil’ Nas X was his performance of “Call Me By Your Name” on “Saturday Night Live.” After that, it was the historic and provocative 2021 BET Awards performance.
“It just was that pop culture moment that every pop star kind of gets to, when it’s time for them to really kind of take off, when they have that creative team or those people that helps them feel confident. It was all intentional. He is so bold and brave, and he’s like, ‘Let’s do it.’ He’ll be nervous as all get-out, but he knows the platform that he has.”
The same could be said for Bankhead, who never takes an opportunity for granted. After being a judge on MTV’s “Becoming a Popstar” series last year, he hopes to continue embarking on projects that put him in front of the camera. With a pending film and four upcoming music videos on his plate thus far, he’s ready to go in 2023.
“Top of the year, I had a good break. I’m ready to hit the ground running. By the time I’m 35, I’m retiring, though. My body hurts,” Bankhead laughed. “My mind is like, ‘Sean, what else can you spit out?’ But clearly, there’s more if I’m getting the opportunity.”