A pop video is nothing without its dancers. (Also: an interesting and original concept, but that’s a conversation for another day.) And, despite us often not knowing dancers’ names, backgrounds, or merits, their importance is obvious every time you manage to remember the steps to a 1999 single or spoof on Robert Palmer two decades after “Addicted to Love.”
Don’t believe me? (I’m imaging you to be highly argumentative.) Let’s think about the recent wave of cultural misappropriation we’ve been seeing lately thanks to videos by Lily Allen, Miley Cyrus, Avril Lavigne and now Taylor Swift. Arguably used as props instead of, well, people, these dancers helped bring to light the agendas of the artists they were working alongside. (Which, for the most part, was basically just terrible decision-making.)
So, hello: backup dancers are not to be underestimated. And because I needed a reason to justify watching music videos I once forced my friends to learn the dances to, here are a few of music’s most important backup dancers... and why.
Limp Bizkit, “Rollin”
Honestly I’m as surprised that we’re talking about them as you are but we have to give credit to the band’s backup dancers of yore. Coined the “Bizkit Babes,” these women achieved the impossible: they made Fred Durst almost look cool. They dressed like him, they danced like him, and, as his goatee and blonde hair would have us believe, they also didn’t give a shit (like him). True, they may have been accompanying a man who once claimed he did it “all” for the nookie, but these dancers personified the image the band was trying to achieve: they were hard as fuck. Their moves felt hard, their dancing aggressive, and they certainly weren’t playing to the idea of stereotypical femininity. In fact, without their dancing, Fred wouldn’t have seemed nearly as intimidating.
Robert Palmer, “Addicted to Love”
I know a lot’s been said and written about Robert Palmer’s use of women as... dolls? Props? Mannequins? All of the above? (Yep.) But aside from the tried-and-true comments about the now-infamous video, we can actually go right ahead and argue that these dancers are just fucking bored. Look at them! Look how bored they look! And why wouldn’t they be? Their entire shtick is to play second fiddle to some guy who looks like he works at a bank. I’m guessing it played out a little something like this:
Director: “Right, so you ladies are just going to stand there, aside from these very limited moves you’re allowed to do.”
Backup dancers: “WELP. This is boring.”
And it is. And I’m glad they look bored. These women aren’t staring blankly; they’re reflecting how tired it is to be used as some prop. Their expressions give away how, nearly 30 years ago, this premise was tired, and yet, hello, we’re still using the same formula now. So sure, we can write about their hair and makeup and all-black ensembles, but what I think makes these dancers so iconic is their obvious disinterest in even being there. They are us, watching this video and other videos like this video. And they had the guts to wear it on their faces. (While Robert Palmer remains oblivious, dressed like an accountant.)
Shania Twain, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman”
Meanwhile, in 1999, we see Shania Twain flip it and reverse that. And, sure, these models are actually equally bored, but they are wearing plastic pants, which we can only assume went on to influence the decision-making of Ross Geller around the same time. So don’t say dancers don’t influence popular culture.
Beyonce, “Single Ladies”
Let me say what we’re already thinking: when this song comes on at weddings, it’s time to hide under the after-hours buffet table and nap, regardless of gender or marital status. But current connotations aside (seriously: please stop playing this when we’re supposed to catch the bouquet—you’re ruining Beyoncé for us, which I thought was impossible until now), without backup dancers, this song would be a shadow of what it actually is. Without the rest of Beyoncé's trifecta, it would simply be Beyoncé, in a leotard, dancing around a space.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, because Beyoncé is a force. But as a force, she recognizes. Beyoncé—even in live and touring form—does an impeccable job of recognizing and utilizing the talent around her. “Single Ladies” is called just that for a reason – it’s a song about unification and about power and strength in numbers. It’s not called “Single Woman” or “I Am Better Because I’m Married.” It’s a song about friendship and empowerment, and the video depicts that both through Beyoncé’s equal place among her dancers (they all do the same steps), and the fact she’s made the video solely about the three of them.
Sisterhood, you guys, because Beyoncé is our lord and savior.
Britney Spears, “Baby One More Time”
But where Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” capitalizes on the unification of just that, Britney Spears’ first masterpiece (you’re damn right I went there) capitalizes on the unification of students. Am I reading too much into it? You tell me:
Actually, don’t tell me if you’re not 100% on board. (Because I don’t want to fight with you, and your friendship means a lot to me.) But if you are, you probably noticed that Britney’s fellow classmates reject academia altogether—all of them shed their uniforms and start dancing around Britney at the same time, giving us not just dance moves we still remember, but the “we’re all in this together” spirit.
Without her dancers, Britney would be just a random girl breaking dress code and dancing alone in a school hallway. But with them, she’s damning the man via pop song and fluffy hair elastics.
Christina Aguilera, “Dirrty”
To be honest, I have no idea what the fuck’s going on in this video, or where the fuck it even is. But I do know that if it were just Christina Aguilera dancing in some decrepit boxing space, this video would be much less about Aguilera’s break from her squeaky-clean pop persona, and more the makings of David Fincher film. I’m just kidding you guys, I know this is Million Dollar Baby.
So let’s talk about reclamation. As mentioned earlier, we’ve had a cultural misappropriation-filled couple of years thanks to certain artists who’ve used twerking to establish themselves as culturally or musically relevant. Last month, we were given Nicki Minaj’s answer to that. This is what it looks like when somebody has had it up to here with your/our/everyone’s shit. This is what it looks like when Nicki and her dancers not just take back the twerk but own the fuck out of it, and do it together. This is what it looks like when the artist is aware, and is present, and takes control. This isn’t “Oh whoops! What’s twerking?” ala Taylor Swift or whatever Miley Cyrus has been doing lately (what is she doing lately?). This is power. And it’s power distributed equally among the dancers Ms. Minaj’s chosen to work with, and who confidently and effectively show us how it’s done. If a video could be a mic drop, I think this would be it.
Anyway, please let’s remember the importance of “Hearbreaker” (the video), Mariah Carey’s cut-off jeans, and the fact that her backup dancers were dressed as movie theatre ushers. Do you want to talk about people who don’t give a fuck? Mariah’s dancers were either her “best friends” (who were dressed like any 20-something at the movies on a Friday night... if you were really cool), or cinema employees. They’re wearing actual uniforms. And their moves include jumping up on the corner and patting their upper thighs and/or hips. It’s a blessing and a gift. It’s the promise that even your after school evenings-and-weekends job could lead to a collaboration with Mariah. It’s the threat that you will be sent home from school for cutting off the tops of your jeans. It’s Will2K, I’m pretty sure.
Janelle Monae, “Tightrope”
And so we’ve reached the end. Frankly, as much as we’ve basked in the warm glow of more-than-capable backup dancers for the last few minutes, it’s time to look to Janelle Monae, who has upped the ante of backup dancers everywhere, tenfold.
Yep. Go home, everybody. It’s time for bed. You’ve tried, and we love you, and I know this isn’t a competition, but all of us have lost to what we just saw. Monae has spoken previously about her parents’ jobs having influenced her own uniforms in the past (“When I put on that outfit, that uniform just lets me know that I have a lot of service and a lot of work to do for the community, for young girls, and just as an artist”), and this makes sense: together with her dancers, that’s what they look like. They look uniform. They look like a band; like an unfuckwithable group. (Because if I’ve learned anything about dance films, if you can dance, you cannot be fucked with.)
In fact, her backup dancers don’t really look like “backup” dancers at all because it’s through them she catches her “crazy/dancing feet.” So if not for them, we wouldn’t have “Tightrope” as we know it at all. We’d have just a bunch of people standing around, not dancing. And Monae is dancing. Androids are dancing. And you are dancing, probably, because I made this sweet list.
Anne T. Donahue is available for hire if you're looking for a backup dancer. She's on Twitter - @annetdonahue.