From Aaliyah to ‘Save the Last Dance’ and ‘The Color Purple,’ Fatima Robinson reflects on 30 years of her most iconic dance moments
There’s a moment in Beyoncé’s Renaissance film in which the global superstar confers with her choreographer and, of course, why wouldn’t it be Fatima Robinson? For the last three decades, Robinson has crafted some of the most iconic dance moments in music, TV, and film, but her latest project, the new musical film adaptation of The Color Purple, might be the closest to her heart.
“Out of my 34 years of choreographing and dancing, I watched this movie and for the first time I didn’t critique it,” Robinson tells EW. “I didn’t feel like, ‘Oh, I wish I would’ve done that. Oh, I should have moved that over there.’ A lot of times I’m very critical of my work and this is the first time where I finally said, ‘That is a masterpiece.'”
Robinson’s influence was felt even before filming of The Color Purple began. The first time she spoke with the director, Blitz Bazawule, she says the Ghanaian filmmaker told her about performing Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody” at a high school talent competition. Robinson recalls, “He was like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening!'”
Here, Robinson takes us back to her first choreographing gig — Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” video (no big deal) — and talks us through her impressive career, landing finally on The Color Purple, in theaters Christmas Day. Get your stretches in, kids. And 5, 6, 7, 8…
“Remember the Time” (1992) — Michael Jackson
There was a club called Paradise 24 in L.A. and John Singleton would see me dancing there. Me and my dance crew entered and won this big $5,000 dance contest. At the time he just graduated from USC film school. He was like, “I’m going to put you in my movie.” And we’re like, “Yeah, whatever.” And he put us in Boyz n the Hood as extras. I was 18 then. And as I continued to work and choreograph, years later when he was looking for a choreographer for a music video, he kept coming to my name and he’s like, “I know her. I know her from the club.”
So he cold-called me and told me all about the concept — the Egyptian of it all, and Eddie Murphy and all the things. And before we got off the phone I was like, “Yeah, yeah, this sounds great. I’m super excited. Count me in.” And then we go to get off the phone and I say, “Wait, who’s the artist?” And he says, “Michael Jackson.” And I’m like, “Okay…okay….” And then I hung up the phone and just ran around the room screaming.
“Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” (1997) — Backstreet Boys
They sent me a videotape where [the group] had done their own choreography and they were asking me to come down to Florida to work with this unknown boy band. As I watched the video, there was something about them, kind of charming and funny — their moves were reallybad — but they were trying really hard.
I went and I worked with them for a while, before they became big in America, because they became big in Europe first. We had all that time to work out the kinks. And then I was able to travel a lot in Europe and see the world. And because they were so popular and had so much more money than hip-hop did, I was able to make all my ideas that I had for them come to life.
“Are You That Somebody” (1998) — Aaliyah
Working with Aaliyah was so amazing because I had never worked with an artist that just moved exactly like I moved. It was like when we danced, it was synchronized swimming. So I always say I lived out my…like, if I could sing, I would be an artist like Aaliyah. I gave her everything. She was like a sister to me.
We had such a great time doing [“Are You That Somebody”] because, actually, Hype Williams was supposed to direct that video but got pulled into something else. We had been in rehearsal, so all we really had was the dance. And when the next director came in and saw what we had done, he was like, “The dance is so strong, why don’t I just put it inside beautiful architectural pieces and build some pieces inside of a cave and stuff like that? Let me just focus on the dance.” You rarely get music videos anymore where they’re just focusing on the dance. I think it resonated with everybody because of that.
“Save the Last Dance” (2001)
I’ve always had to fight for hip-hop dance to be looked at as a true art form of dance because it really wasn’t taught in dance studios at the time. It was just probably getting started. But when I started as one of the pioneers of hip-hop dance, if you weren’t in the clubs, you would get all the moves from music videos. So for the film to focus on ballet and hip-hop dance felt like finally, someone’s paying attention to this art form.
That club scene was just what we used to do in the clubs back in the day. Clubs were always full of battles and circles, and people would jump in and dance and that’s how moves would be shared. New York dancers came in town, they would jump in and you’d be like, “Oh, well what’s that?” And you would learn what the New York kids were doing or the Atlanta kids were doing. So doing that movie was just so much fun. I didn’t expect the reaction from that film to be like that. That was pretty amazing to see. But it was a testament to the power of hip-hop dance and how everyone was so hungry for it.
Everything about that film — the costumes, hair, makeup, sets — everybody was at the top of their game. I had worked with Beyoncé with Destiny’s Child — and so to work with her again and really drop into those characters…finding such beauty and simplicity, that’s what I love about Dreamgirls. I have two younger sisters, so I would always make up routines whenever my mom would have company over — we were the entertainment. So it was [as] if I was back in my living room with my two younger sisters creating dance moves. It really felt like I had trained for that movie my whole life.
Super Bowl LVI Halftime Show/The Oscars (2022)
I have a really great team that I’ve been working with for years, and that’s the only way we did it. I mean, I was in the middle of Color Purple when I went off to do both jobs, the Super Bowl (featuring Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige. Eminem, and Kendrick Lamar) and the Oscars. The Super Bowl, I was able to negotiate that in my contract because it was before I signed on for Color Purple. And then the Oscars I was able to do because we pre-filmed it on the weekend and Beyoncé trusted me that I could mount some of it on dancers while I was in Atlanta doing Color Purple, send her video, get her feedback, and then come to L.A. and put it all up on dancers there. A really tricky thing to do, but I figured it out and it started our relationship.
Beyoncé and I are both Virgos, just like Michael [Jackson], and we have this perfectionist thing and work ethic in us that is just beyond. So getting back in creative alignment with her was so wonderful because she has so many great ideas, and to be part of the team to help execute those ideas, it’s so rewarding. So yeah, I was working my butt off. But it’s funny, if you just reach a certain level where you understand your strengths and your weaknesses, and I empower the people around me on my team and allow them to step in when they have a creative idea and let them see it through, it just really makes for a better and more amazing project.
“The Color Purple” (2023)
The Color Purple was the first movie my mom came to me and my sisters and said, “I have to take you to go see this movie.” And we all went together. I remember feeling that relationship with Celie and Nettie, and the sisterly love is what I had with my sisters. My sister, when she sends me the double-hand emoji, then I know that she’s doing the patty-cake hands from The Color Purple with me. So we’ve always had this love for that movie.
When [the film] came up, I was super interested and curious about what the new iteration of it would be. And then when I met with Blitz, our director, [his] vision for it was so amazing. And his creativity and our conversations about Africa and our ancestors and all of that really excited me, and I knew that we were going to take the brand of Color Purple and elevate it in a whole different way. I was just like, “Sign me up.”
I felt every number. Every musical number felt good to me. Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson) coming to town was so wonderful and rewarding to see. The work song with Corey [Hawkins] — he’s just so good and pulls it off so lovely. I love when the sisters all get together and Danielle [Brooks] kicks open the door and she’s coming to collect her clothes. I just love it so much. And I love that they explore the relationship deeper with Shug and Celie (Fantasia Barrino), and I was able to do that with a simple, beautiful ballroom scene. It makes me well up just thinking about how great it is. I can’t wait for the world to see it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.