Interview with Saleemah Knight

Interview with Saleemah Knight

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path? 

I originally began dancing as a rehabilitative cure for my long-time struggle with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). At the age of 2, my mother noticed that I struggled with walking and that I preferred to pull myself along the carpet with my arms, rather than attempt to walk. If you look at old videos of me as a toddler, you can see where I struggled with a limp and was very bowlegged (I am still bowlegged today). Upon taking me to the doctor, they revealed that milk products were triggering arthritic symptoms, which were attacking my joints…mainly my knees and later my hands as well. They suggested my mother put me on a cane and that if the limp persisted that overtime I may need a wheelchair. My mom was a dancer and so, rather than succumb to the cane and wheelchair prescription, she decided to put me in dance at the age of 3 to see if the movement would rehabilitate my joints and allow me freedom of movement in order to walk. It worked and by the grace of God, I have been dancing ever since.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started doing this? 

I have been working professionally as a dancer since I was 12 years old. My first major break was the opportunity to audition for the legendary concert dance choreographer Donald Byrd, who at the time was choreographing the World Premiere of The Harlem Nutcracker. I was so young when I booked the job that I didn’t realize the magnitude of what I had done. That opportunity set my career on fire; the show was an international phenomenon. Since then, I have felt like I have had all eyes on me for the entirety of my professional career. If you look on the CBS News website, you can find a documentary dedicated to The Harlem Nutcracker’s World Premiere and within it, pictures of a young me alongside my long-time friend and now former male ballet soloist at San Francisco Ballet, Anthony Spaulding. We were babies then. Little did we know…we were beyond good, we were great. From there, I would say it was then my full-ride college scholarship to The University of Arizona School of Dance that sealed the deal for me as a known up and coming professional, as well as being called a choreographer by Sherry Zunker and Susan Quinn Williams (who are essentially dance world legends from River North Chicago and Gus Giordano Dance Company respectively) based on a piece that I submitted and co-choreographed for The University of Arizona Jazz in AZ Dance Showcase at the age of 17. At 18, I skipped my high school graduation parties to fly to LA and audition for one of the top dance agencies at the time, which is now Movement Talent Agency… and booked the audition, walking away as a professionally signed dance artist eligible for high caliber jobs with major directors, producers, and recording artists. The job I booked was dancing with The Pussycat Dolls and the singing group Tatu at the MTV Movie Awards; I was still in college then and already working as an adult professional dancer. Fast forward to moving to Los Angeles, I then learned that I could really be a hybrid artist as both a concert and commercial dancer. In LA I went on to work with Beyoncé, Chris Brown, Tyrese, Daddy Yankee, Wiz Khalifa, and more. I also choreographed many music videos and live shows for Latin pop princesses, Chiquis Rivera and Wisin (of Wisin y Yandel). Music videos that I have choreographed for Daddy Yankee, Chiquis Rivera, and Wisin combined have a total of 8.6million-180million views and counting. In addition, I was one of the thousands of dancers selected to be featured dancers in The Lion King Broadway Musical. My cast was the first in its history to do a residency in Las Vegas at Mandalay Bay, where we not only received Broadway pay but touring company pay on top of it. Garth Fagan (the original choreographer of The Lion King) stated that our cast of dancers was the best he had ever worked with and went on to revamp all of The Lion King productions (there are anywhere from 7 to 11 running simultaneously worldwide) to look like our show. Working with Garth Fagan and the legend herself Julie Taymor was beyond incredible. On top of it I was singing songs written/composed by the iconic Elton John and Tim Rice; the experience was unreal. With The Lion King, I also had the opportunity to perform on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, The Daytime Emmys, Live! with Kelly and Ryan (formerly Live! with Regis and Kelly), and more. Working with Beyoncé also gave me the opportunity to perform at The Billboard Music Awards. In the midst of all of this, I was also working to receive my Masters’s Degree as a graduate fellow in dance studies (performance and choreography focus), which I completed in 2013 at The University of California, Irvine Claire Trevor School of the Arts.

All of these events led up to me being highly sought after by The University of Southern California in order to become an original founding faculty and help them build what is now one of the leading institutions for university-level dance education, The USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. I am honored to be highly sought after for masterclasses and Q&A’s training young dancers in the area of jazz dance and giving advice/ feedback on how to pursue a successful career in dance and ultimately build a brand as a dance expert. Alongside this information, I also give advice on the benefits of achieving a Bachelor’s and Masters’s degree in dance. In addition to my work as a professor, I am often requested as a guest master teacher and judge for Tremaine Dance Conventions, Radix Dance Convention, and conventions owned by Break the Floor Productions such as NUVO, 24Seven Dance, and JUMP. Separate from my masterclasses, performing and choreography, I am also a featured dance expert on the documentary Uprooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance, which is currently available on HBO Max.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? 

I overly stress the importance of developing a holistic artist in dance; maintaining a balance between mind, body, and spiritual experiences in and outside of the dance world. It is common for any person in the arts to be fully immersed in their craft 24/7, and to be completely content with their artistic passion as their sole focus. I however aim to be and develop dancers who have a variety of interests and the agency to use their voices to relate to the rest of the world. It is beyond important for dancers to develop their intra- and interpersonal skills; part of the reason why dance and higher education appeal to me is the ability for an artist to discover multiple layers of who they are as individuals. Most importantly, the opportunity to watch young dancers bring these layers to their artistry as intellectuals, performers, choreographers, master teachers, future dance educators, and beyond.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story? 

I am first and foremost a believer that with God (or a deep and personal relationship to a chosen spirituality or faith), all things are possible. The person I am most grateful for is my mother, Gail Q. Knight, who introduced me to dance upon managing my battle with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) which has and continues to affect my movement practice in dance.

In addition to this as a dancer, choreographer, master teacher, and entertainment business entrepreneur, I take inspiration from a variety of prominent leaders and personal mentors in the field. I’m also inspired by the work of dance legends, TV & film producers, actresses, professional dancers, dance companies, academic scholars, and business entrepreneurs such as Debbie Allen, Shonda Rhimes, Janet Jackson, Ava Duvernay, Paula Abdul, Issa Rae, Viola Davis, Sherry Zunker, Susan Quinn Williams, Michael Williams, Donald Byrd, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Company, Brenda Dixon Gottschild, and Jennifer Fisher.

My first of many dance mentors was the internationally renowned choreographer Donald Byrd, who gave me my first job at age 12 as a young protege dancing in the world premiere of The Harlem Nutcracker. The performance received global acclaim and its legacy lives in the online archives of the CBS Network; little did I know that this opportunity would be the beginning of my life in the spotlight as a professional dancer and creative artist. Many people who follow my career today, began by noticing me in Donald Byrd’s outstanding production. My next revelational moment occurred when three of my dance mentors Sherry Zunker (former co-artistic director emerita of River North Chicago/former company member of Gus Giordano Chicago), Susan Quinn Williams, and Michael Williams (former company members of Gus Giordano Chicago) spotlighted a work that I co-choreographed for The University of Arizona School of Dance Jazz in AZ Showcase. I was a high school student at the time and little did I know, my choreography and performance of this piece would afford me a full 4-year scholarship to The University of Arizona School of Dance, one of the most prominent institutions for dance in the west coast. As an eager scholar, I finished my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and graduated Magna cum Laude in a short three years. I went on to dance professionally in a series of high-level productions and TV shows, such as the MTV Movie Awards, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, The Lion King Broadway Musical, Beyoncé at The Billboard Music Awards, the Ludacris ft. Sean Garrett And Chris Brown’s music video “What Them Girls Like”, Country Music Television’s “MADE” TV Series, Tyrese, Ginuwine, and Tank on tour, as well as guest performances on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, the Daytime Emmy’s and more. I then went on to complete my Master of Fine Arts degree as a graduate fellow at the University of California, Irvine Claire Trevor School of the Arts, where I wrote a 42-paged thesis entitled “The ‘Non-Traditional Ballet Body’ in the Ballet”, which discusses the history of Black bodies in ballet, heavily supported by the research of author and Ph.D. Brenda Dixon Gottschild and mentored by my Ph.D. lead Jennifer Fisher at the University of California, Irvine.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? 

Yes. I take great pride in training the next generation of dancers, choreographers, and dance educators. I have taught a free masterclass for low-income youth to promote arts education and expose potential future artists to the field of dance. Although I usually train pre-professional to professional level dancers and dance majors within higher academia, I have always felt the importance of reaching those who have not had the luxury of studying dance in the form of fine arts education. The training is expensive and the level of discretionary income and resources that a parent or guardian has to have to give a child the opportunity to succeed may not be realistic for most people. I have made it my mission to provide experiences that help to eliminate the boundary that exists between dancers who can afford elite training and natural-born artists with limited resources.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that was relevant to you in your life? 

People who are successful in life are #1 Kind and giving. Unkindness will eventually catch up to you, and #2, “do what they don’t want to do when they absolutely don’t want to do it”. Successful people are willing to give selflessly to others and simultaneously work harder than the next when the odds are not stacked in our favor. Although healthy work-life balance is key, highly successful people will continue to work when the timing and circumstances are not ideal. We will take the extra step if it means a lifetime of change and progress.

How can our readers follow you on social media? 

Official Instagram: @saleemaheknight Facebook: Youtube: Twitter: Other Instagram: @shopsaleemah