Galen Hooks, choreographer for Ciara and Justin Bieber, wants fair pay for dancers

Jeffrey Mac-Nack

Galen Hooks is a famed choreographer, dance instructor and fair-pay advocate.

Picture it: 1993, fluorescent blue lights flood the stage of the Ed McMahon-hosted entertainment television show "Star Search" and the five-person dance troupe "Girls of Paradise" is named "junior dance champions." Applause ensues.

A star was born.

Galen Hooks, a then seemingly introverted 7-year-old, was on the team. At the time, she cared more about going to Disney World with her older sister than being on a show that introduced the world to a few of pop culture's most dynamic talents, such as Justin Timberlake, Destiny's Child (which was previously named Girls Tyme -- yes, and Beyoncé) and Usher.

The show would serve as Hooks' introduction to the professional dance industry. By her early teens, she was working with famed choreographers Marguerite Derricks ("Showgirls," "Charlie's Angels" and Katy Perry productions) and Michael Rooney ("The Jungle Book," "Hit the Floor" and Taylor Swift performances). By age 15, Hooks had danced in "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me." However, her big break came in 2004 at age 18, dancing beside megastars Janet Jackson and Timberlake during their infamous Super Bowl halftime performance.

By 2010, the shy kid from "Star Search" was now the leading lady for Grammy-winning R&B artist Ne-Yo's conceptual album "Libra Scale." Hooks was a choreographer, actress and dancer for the project, appearing in multiple music videos and performances alongside him.

Sean Hurd

The "Galen Hooks Method" includes song and dance move synchronization on camera.

After establishing herself as one of the top creatives in the industry, Hooks, now 31, has set her focus on training the next generation of dancers using the knowledge she has gained throughout her career. She calls it the "Galen Hooks Method," a series of two-day dance intensives where Hooks combines small class sizes, personalized feedback, improvised techniques and activities to help aspiring dancers reach then next level in their careers.

At a studio in the Flatiron District of New York City dubbed the "The Shop," Hooks held one of her intensives for 15 dancers, some of whom traveled from as far away as Japan just to absorb a bit of her know-how. The class, titled "Artist Development," is the first step in Hooks' program and is designed to help dancers refocus. It's a reset of sorts for those who have been disenfranchised by the stresses of the dance industry or have become complacent within their careers.

"It saddens me to see young people, 99 percent of them are under 30, and they've got crazy mental blockage, insecurities and self-doubt, which comes from being in an industry that is so cutthroat," Hooks explained while on site.

"I'm trying to get people to be happy and enjoy dance [again]. A lot of dancers lose that [joy] because of the competition in the industry or because they get jaded after working for a long time."

Hooks' goal is for her dancers to channel their "visceral" selves. They should be clear of premeditated technicality and self-judgment. If successful, the result, according to Hooks, is a vision of a dancer in their purest, most personal form.

"Do you see the value in being yourself?" Hooks asked her students after an exercise, all of whom were smiling. "You're the only person standing in your way."

Sean Hurd

Hooks, far left, instructs a group of students at "The Shop" in New York City.

Hooks' methods are unique. Some of her most compelling activities don't include any instructed dancing at all. While sitting in on a class, the exercises varied: At one point the students walked single-file in heels across the mirror-lined studio to build "confidence in moving in front of peers." The class proceeded on to lip-syncing the lyrics to Gwen Stefani's 2004 hit song "Hollaback Girl" with a camera focused only on the face, an act that forces the dancers to listen and connect to the song without movement.

Hooks closed the course by having her students dance individually to a combination she choreographed. One by one the dancers performed the choreography in front of a makeshift set, constructed from soft box lights, with Hooks behind a camera filming the performance. This particular exercise acted as an encapsulation for the weekend as the dancers applied lessons learned over the intensive. 

The dancers, many of whom were brought to tears of joys through the workshop, expressed gratitude for Hooks' instruction post-class.

"I realized what I'm dancing for," said one dancer from Japan, who described the two-day intensive as a life-changing experience.

"What [Hooks is] doing, people aren't doing," echoed another dancer from New Jersey.

Courtesy of Galen Hooks

Hooks, right, has collaborated with Missy Elliott.

Hooks' style mixes nuanced movement with traditional acting, both of which are organized by her innate musicality, setting her apart from her colleagues.

As an example, Hooks' class choreography to Rihanna's 2016 hit "Love on the Brain," has amassed more than 4.5 million views on YouTube. In the video, Hooks delivered a powerful performance that evokes raw emotion, complementing the lyrics of the song.

"A lot of people think [the choreography] was drawn from personal experience. But, it wasn't. I was acting," Hooks laughed. "I wanted to reflect the feeling I got when I saw Rihanna at the 2016 Billboard Awards."

Hooks' ability to bridge song to dance has caught the attention of colossal recording artists, including Justin Bieber and Britney Spears, who have all employed her expertise.

In February, Grammy-winning artist Ciara made a viral video in which she joyously danced around her home, while visibly pregnant, to Whitney Houston's 1992 song "I'm Every Woman." The masterminds behind the video were creative director Jamaica Craft and Hooks, who both have a longstanding relationship with Ciara.

"We thought about the energy of that song, and it came to us: 'We should just shoot it in your kitchen.' It felt natural and inspiring for Ciara," said Hooks, who enlisted leading videographer Tim Milgram to shoot the 55-second video.

"We rehearsed it and shot it the same day."

The video's cameos included Ciara's 3-year-old child, Future Wilburn, and her husband, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. That idea was all Hooks as well.

"[Ciara] rehearsed it herself, and I was like, 'Oh, we should put your son, Future, in it,'" Hooks said. "Then I was like, 'Russell, please, come sit on the couch,' and eventually he was like, 'Yeah, I want to be in it.' It was just perfect."

The video amassed more than 18,000 retweets and 37,000 likes on the popstar's Twitter page and became a source of empowerment for moms-to-be around the world.

"I'm so happy that it did well, because you don't see pregnant women having fun, dancing around, feeling beautiful and feeling themselves.'"

And the Hooks "brand" is a huge part of the magic that draws broad audiences into these choreographed videos.

Courtesy of Galen Hooks

Hooks has choreographed Justin Bieber, right, for a music video.

"To be [a brand] back in the day, you had to be Savion Glover or Mikhail Baryshnikov," Hooks said, referring to the Tony Award-winning tap dancer and the internationally renowned ballet dancer. "Those were the only household-name dancers that existed. Now the dancers can be famous."

The rise of social media has revolutionized the dance industry, adding to its increased global popularization. For dancers in today's industry, one three-minute video posted on YouTube can now launch a career. It's a development that Hooks embraces with caution.

"Dancers are now known from just being seen in class videos," Hooks said. "They haven't danced for artists. They haven't worked industry-wide. But they're famous, more famous than some of the artists, and that wasn't the case before."

When social media started creating heightened buzz around particular dancers, solely based on popularity, Hooks thought about leaving the industry. She didn't agree with dancers being hired based on their followings rather than on their proven mastery of the craft.

"As a choreographer, it was frustrating," Hooks said. "It didn't seem fair."

However, Hooks stuck with it. She has made it her job to ensure that the industry she loves, loves its dancers right back. 

Courtesy of Galen Hooks

Hooks, right, has worked with Grammy-winning artist Ciara on several occasions.

As one of the leaders of Dancers Alliance, an artist advocacy group that dates back to the 1990s, Hooks has helped to advance dancers' rights in the entertainment industry. She led a campaign that resulted in the unionization of music video dancers, a victory she described as being "historic" after days of negotiation with record labels.

Hooks said that achievement helped ensure dancers would receive increased rates, get paid on time under a union contract and work under regulated conditions.

"I looked around and thought it was ridiculous that the rates [dancers' are paid for music videos, etc.] hadn't changed in 30 years," said Hooks, who studied law as an undergraduate at Penn State. "There are very few industries where the rates don't go up, and you don't get a raise for 30 years. Those protections make a big difference when you're a dancer living paycheck to paycheck."

"We never thought we'd be able to get that level of protection. We deserve it." 

Sean Hurd is a Digital Media Associate for ESPN. Follow him @seanahurd

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