Paula Abdul choreographed the dance for Janet Jackson’s video “Nasty” in the bathroom of her shared apartment. “I shared an apartment with some Laker Girls and there was no floor-length mirror, so I did it in the bathroom,” Abdul told an interviewer for Rolling Stone in 2014. “There was no room in this little old apartment, and I choreographed it with a mirror that I could see from my waist up. That’s it.”
To most, Abdul is known first as a singer and a reality show judge, but choreography is Abdul’s true legacy. She danced for the Los Angeles Lakers when she was 18, becoming the Lakers’ head choreographer. As well as choreographing for Janet Jackson (the two helping cement each other’s dancing credentials), she has choreographed videos and tours for Prince, Dolly Parton, Aretha Franklin, George Michael, Duran Duran, et al. She choreographed some of Hollywood’s most iconic scenes: Tom Hanks’s piano dance in Big (1988), Cuba Gooding Jr.’s end-zone dance in Jerry Maguire (1996), the cheerleaders’ dance in American Beauty (1999), the wedding dance in Coming to America (1988). Abdul’s choreography is the kind that I, like millions of other pre-teen dancers, learned in jazz ballet classes in the ’90s: sharp extensions, quick footwork, the stunts of cheerleading with the subtle sensuality of Bob Fosse. Her influence reaches far, appearing in unexpected places; when Swedish experimental choreographer Mårten Spångberg was asked to name the choreographer who’d most inspired him, he said Paula Abdul.
Just before New York officially went into lockdown for the COVID-19 pandemic, a friend showed me another video of Abdul’s choreography for the 1990 American Music Awards. Abdul, who won an Emmy for the dances, performs her song “The Way That You Love Me,” and Janet Jackson performs “Escapade.” also choreographed by Abdul. Looking for ways to entertain ourselves in our respective quarantines, my friend and I decided to learn these dances—he Janet, and I Paula.
Abdul said the choreography for the 1990 American Music Awards performance came to her in her sleep: “Almost all my choreography had to do with things that I would remember from my dreams, or I’d actually wake up and immediately write it down,” she said. “I used to have a tripod and a camera and I would videotape me half-asleep, just getting the ideas down so I wouldn’t forget.” This is how I started learning the dance, first thing in the morning and half-asleep having just woken up, still in whatever clothing I’d fallen asleep in the night before.
While my friend quickly lost interest in the task, it became an obsession of mine to recreate, as faithfully as possible, Abdul’s entire number in my apartment. I ordered a red blazer online to match hers, only realizing after the purchase that I’d ordered it from Lithuania. I pulled out a pair of old black tights and borrowed a diamante-studded catsuit to approximate the Bob Mackie that Abdul wears when she returns to stage on a revolving platform. That was another obstacle: the set pieces. Throughout the performance, Abdul climbs scaffolding, walks up the dancers’ backs to then dive into their waiting arms, and dances in the middle of a remote-controlled roving stage. My alternatives: to climb the sofa, to walk up my kitchen chairs to my table, to dive onto my bed, and to spin across the floor in my wheelie desk chair. The thought of Abdul choreographing dances in her cramped bathroom or waking up to film herself in the middle of the night only made these absurdities seem more appropriate.
The pandemic has forced many of us to remain in our homes while the spaces where we used to dance—the clubs, stages, dance studios—have closed. As such, our living spaces are becoming our dance studios. Thousands of people are sharing videos of themselves dancing online: families learning TikTok dances together, dance classes taught over Zoom, “quarantine clubs” where groups of people collectively dance to streamed DJ sets. Dancers from the Trisha Brown Dance Company recently performed an indoor version of Brown’s Roof Piece (1971), the original isolation of being positioned on different rooftops finding a new interior relevance. Even the dean of NYU’s Tisch dance program responded to her students, who were requesting tuition reimbursement after their dance classes were all shifted online, by posting a video of herself dancing in her office to R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” the dance equivalent of flipping her students off.
Deciding to learn Abdul’s choreography, more than just a means to pass the indistinguishable days, was also an escape into nostalgia. When I was young, I learned to dance by watching music videos in my family’s living room. My sister and I recorded music videos on VHS tapes and then paused and rewound the tapes over and over, committing the detailed choreography, usually of Janet Jackson, to memory, until we could master every detail: the shoulder switch, the arm combo, the knee slide.
First thing I recognize learning Adbul’s dance, she takes up a lot of space (I’ve given up on the apartment and moved to my building’s roof to perform). She travels and slides and struts across the stage, her blocking akin to a large Broadway number. Abdul has her trademarks: swift changes in direction; dancing on the two and four beats, syncopated; jumping into a wide stance and buckling one knee inward; ending a complicated phrase with a sharp turn of the head to face the audience. Her physicality references the sharp isolations and extensions of Fosse, the gliding and stomping pleasure of Gene Kelly (both acknowledged inspirations of Abdul’s), the acrobatic stunts of the Lakers and the fast-breaking precision of ’90s hip hop. Yet amid the moments of spectacle—as when she jumps to sit atop another dancers raised palm, a callback to her cheerleading roots, or when there’s a break in the song for a tap dance—what makes her choreography so pleasurable is the moments where she simply bounces her shoulders or bops her hips side to side, exactly how you would dance listening to the song in your bathroom. Somehow Abdul, on the stage of the Shrine Auditorium in 1990, makes it look as if her dance couldn’t exist with any less space, but replicating (to the best of my ability) her dance in close quarters is a reminder of how dancers can expand the most confined of spaces. Abdul only needed a bathroom and half a mirror.