From Hand to Hand
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Choreographer Fatima Robinson is the dynamic force behind a generation of American pop culture moments — with more to come.
IN HER MORE than 30-year career, choreographer Fatima Robinson has worked with everyone from Beyoncé to Michael Jackson and whipped up dance spectacles for events ranging from the Academy Awards to the Super Bowl. So it may come as a surprise that Robinson, 51, never formally trained as a dancer.
“I always say clubs were my classroom,” she giggles from a car whisking her to the airport, where a plane to Dubai (shuttling her to Mrs. Knowles-Carter, no less) awaits. “I used to go to 18-and-over clubs, and I would just dance all night. Dancing was a hobby, something I loved to do. It wasn’t until later that I slowly began to realize that I could actually make a career out of it.”
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In fact, Robinson’s first big break came through the club scene, after she won a contest at the iconic (now defunct) West Hollywood dance hall Paradise 24. It was there that she and her friends were approached by a University of Southern California film school graduate who wanted to put them in a movie. “We were like, ‘Yeah, whatever!’” she laughs. But the filmmaker (then-unknown director John Singleton) made good on his word and cast Robinson and her friends in his debut feature, “Boyz n the Hood.”
It was also Singleton who, a few years later, gave Robinson another big break — her first real choreography gig. “He called to tell me about this music video he’s doing,” she remembers. “He described the concept and some details: It’s set in ancient Egypt; Eddie Murphy and Iman are in it; there will be a bunch of dancers. Before we got off the phone, I said, ‘This all sounds great, but who’s the artist?’ and he said, ‘Michael Jackson.’ I was like, ‘Oh, OK!’”
The video was, of course, for the blockbuster hit “Remember the Time,” released in February 1992. Robinson blended the angular iconography of hieroglyphics with the explosive, modern feel of the then-brand-new genre of hip-hop dance to create a global sensation.
While the video may have been a dazzling trial by fire, it was just the beginning of a career trajectory that points ever upwards. Today, Robinson’s resume is so stacked with contemporary icons it’s almost comical: Fergie, Gwen Stefani, Outkast, Prince, Pharrell, Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, Mike Nichols, Michael Mann, and Ridley Scott, for music videos, awards shows, concerts, musicals, movies, and more. There’s hardly a corner of the entertainment business that she hasn’t touched, leading her to be dubbed “one of the most sought-after hip-hop and popular-music choreographers in the world” by The New York Times.
To create movement for such a wide range of artists in such a variety of mediums and genres requires a creative process akin to alchemy. Yes, it demands rigor, Robinson affirms, but also flexibility and a sense of improvisation. She reveals that while she often does a prodigious amount of preparation for a project, she sometimes doesn’t have as much as half the dance mapped out when she enters the rehearsal room, fearing that too much choreography can impede on the magic of the rehearsal room. “I’ll come in with a little bit of an idea — more like a feeling — and then the steps come,” she elaborates. And more steps are soon coming our way.
In the pipeline is the forthcoming film adaptation of the stage musical “The Color Purple,” starring Taraji P. Henson and Danielle Brooks, which she choreographed simultaneously with a musical at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, where she also has a studio. Additionally, she was behind the bewitching movement in Beyoncé’s recent concert in Dubai and is now heading to work on the superstar’s much-buzzed-about “Renaissance World Tour.”
Through Robinson’s career, one can chart the rise and evolution of the current dominant cultural style — that of hip-hop. “When I started, people did not see hip-hop as a true art form of dance,” she says. “I would go to dance events and people would introduce me as a choreographer, and they’d ask what kind. When I said ‘hip-hop’ they would walk away! It just wasn’t as respected as ballet; people thought it was a passing fad.”
Robinson definitively dispelled that notion last year when she choreographed the Super Bowl LVI halftime show featuring hip-hop legends Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, and Eminem. “When Dre first called me, he said, ‘I want to do something that has never been seen before. I want to do a choreographed Crip Walk,’” Robinson recalls. “I was like, ‘That is amazing.’ You’re taking something that has been looked at as a gangster thing, and we’re gonna put it on the largest stage in America. And we’re gonna choreograph it so that it stays authentic to life. That, in and of itself, is telling the story of where hip-hop is.”
Max Berlinger is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for GQ, the Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg Pursuits, Men’s Health, and many other publications. He covers the intersection of fashion, lifestyle, culture, and technology.
Sean Sullivan is a Los Angeles—based photographer, curator, and art director.
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