Musicians are barely getting a slice of music industry revenue, largely eating off of live performances instead. For ’Tour Tales,’ we dig into the rider requests, delayed shows, diligent preparation, and future of touring by talking with the multitude of people that move behind the scenes. Record executives, photographers, tour managers, artists, and more all break down what goes into touring and why it’s still so vital to the livelihood of your favorite artists. What happens on tour stays on ‘Tour Tales.’
Sean Bankhead is a world-class choreographer for the stars. He’s worked with Beyonce, Kehlani after giving birth, and Summer Walker who battles social anxiety. So, he knows how to work within their limits and make greatness.
“I was always pushing [Normani] to try harder, do that backflip onstage. I told her, ‘Jump into that split on the VMAs. I promise everyone is going to talk about it.’” Bankhead told REVOLT.
In this installment of “Tour Tales,” the accomplished choreographer explains how he got Walker comfortable onstage, why it’s hard to find dancers for Normani, and what it’s like teaching a dance class on Instagram Live during a pandemic.
You’ve worked with a number of great artists. How did you get involved with Summer Walker’s “First and Last Tour”?
I’m a huge Summer Walker fan. I knew Summer when she was doing covers on guitar on Instagram. I always loved her music. I believe either my agent Sophia connected me with her management team or they reached out looking for a choreographer. Once we linked, it was really interesting. I never really worked with an artist who I saw grow from the ground up and knew needed artist development… they were more of an introvert and not that much of a performer. It’s interesting when you work with artists like that because they’re very shy and you have to open them up to make them feel comfortable. Working with a choreographer can be intimidating for a lot of people.
We had a few rehearsals in Atlanta and then we went to L.A. to have band rehearsals. It was really cool. She had these two girls who did incredible pole work that she was a fan of. She was like, “I want to bring them on. I want them to be part of the show.” It was more artistic pole working than just strippers onstage. It was nice sensual energy. I worked with Summer on artist development. I would tell her, “On this part of the song, take a sip of the wine. On this part, let’s do a little choreography. Let’s do a chair routine and something you feel comfortable worth. On this part, let’s do a little pole work because you know how to do pole work.” It was really fun.
How did you use Summer’s music to make her dance moves?
“Wasted” was definitely one of my favorite songs. The interesting thing you can still do is you don’t have to dance. Sometimes you can bring props onstage. Sometimes you can just give moments to the song. For instance, every time she would go, “I wanna get wasted with you,” I would be like, “Take one sip of your wine right after you sing that, as you’re taking a break in between lyrics to insinuate you’re really feeling this song.’ Having those moments gives an extra moment of showmanship onstage.
The first shows were in London. What were they like?
The London shows were a s**t show to be honest (laughs). It was her first time. She was so nervous. Right before the show, she was like, “Sean, I don’t even remember what my song order is.” So, I sat back there with her and said, “We can type this up or write this on a piece of paper.” She said, “Give me a pen,” and she wrote the entire setlist on her hand. She wrote five songs down and was like, “OK, is there anything else?” I was like, “Yes, Summer. There’s like 10 more songs.” She rolled her sleeve up and started writing down her arm. If you go to a Summer Walker concert, they sing every lyric to the top of their lungs. She didn’t have to sing if she didn’t want to. I think it kind of warmed her up to being onstage and having a choreographer. She was looking on the side like, “What do I do now?”
The artist you appear to be the closest with is Normani. How did that relationship start?
Normani was in Fifth Harmony and I was the group’s choreographer for four years, so we had a long relationship while she was in the group. Being in a girl group is tough because you don’t get to be great all the time. You don’t get to show your true colors because you have to go with the tempo of the group or you have to do stuff everyone else in the group could do or sing songs everyone wants to sing. I remember when she was in the group, we always had an eye on each other, so if and when this ever ends, it’ll be time for us to go and be great. She already has such a huge dance background already, so once Fifth Harmony dismantled, it was time to go (laughs). I was always pushing her to try harder, do that backflip onstage. I told her, “Jump into that split on the VMAs. I promise everyone is going to talk about it.” To be honest, we’ve just started. She hasn’t even dropped her debut album yet.
How dedicated is Normani to learning those moves?
She’s that girl that’s like, “Let’s do it again. I want to rehearse for a whole eight hours.” She’s a hard worker and it’s sometimes hard to find dancers who can dance with Normani because she’s so multitalented and she’s a gymnast. She can hit a backflip and her dancers can’t do that. It was difficult at times to find a cast of dancers that can do all of the styles of dance she can do that we wanted to portray on tour. One time, we were rehearsing for the “Motivation” video and she was on tour while shooting that video. So, she would have to fly in from whatever city she was into L.A. where I had a bunch of dancers. She probably flew in three separate times to learn the choreography.
You did choreography for Kehlani after she had a child. What was it like preparing a dance routine for someone who just had a kid?
She was nervous and I do not blame her. To have a child, your body changes and you lose your core muscles. She was like, “I’m not back yet.” Unfortunately, she had to do this music video that required some dance scenes. When she came in and saw the choreography, she actually was like, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this.” It sucks because you want her to feel comfortable and come back strong, and looking good. We changed a few things and she was a trooper. She was like, “I know everyone thinks I dance, but I’m really not the best dancer.” She learned that choreography in a day and shot it the next day.
You danced with Beyonce, right?
Yeah, I danced with Beyonce on “The Tyra Banks Show” (in 2008) when she did “Single Ladies.” That was the only time she had two guys dance with her. It was surreal and still doesn’t feel like it happened. She was very, very, very kind and gracious. It was such a quick process because it was in the middle of her whole promo run for “Single Ladies” and had all of those rehearsals. At the time, I was living in California. I flew into New York. We had a rehearsal the day before the show and then we shot that next morning at 8 a.m. Then, I was on the next flight out.
What is the best part of being a choreographer?
Connecting with people. The biggest blessing is being able to put people on their first tour, music video, or on TV. I was in their shoes as a young dancer trying to make it and be great. So, to give any dancer the opportunity to follow their dream.
How have you been working during quarantine?
I’ve still been dancing. I was [hesitant] to join TikTok, but the minute I hopped on, my TikTok went crazy. I was doing viral videos, artists were hitting me up like, “Can you make this TikTok routine, we’ll pay you.” I was so hesitant to teach a dance class on Instagram Live, but I finally did one for Red Bull recently. I taught Missy Elliott’s “She’s A Bitch” from our  VH1 Hip Hop Honors performance and it went crazy. A lot of people took the class. It was good because I got to connect again. Also, I and another choreographer, Charmladonna, did the choreographer version of Verzuz to raise money for a dancer relief fund to help dancers during this time. We had the entire dance community in there loving it.
What did you notice about teaching a dance class on Instagram Live?
I’ve watched enough people go down in flames before (laughs). In dancer terms, it’s already mirrored. For instance, if you would look at a video and try to learn the choreography, sometimes you feel you have to do it in reverse because that’s the actual hand you’re doing. When you’re on IG Live, it’s actually mirrored, so I didn’t have to turn to the back. It sucks because I’m such an in-person, hands-on choreographer. I like to look at a dancer and go, “Fix that arm. Put more emphasis on this part.” You cant’ really do that because you can’t see the people taking the class. I tried to be as thorough as I could while teaching.