fatima robinson

Emmy nominee Fatima Robinson

Stephan Schacher

Beyoncé's Renaissance World Tour

Getty Images
Fill 1
Fill 1
May 14, 2024
The Interviews Archive

Foundation Interview: Fatima Robinson

The famed choreographer on working with Michael Jackson and becoming Beyoncé's director of choreography.

An iconic choreographer who has worked with a long list of culture-shaping performers and brands, Fatima Robinson developed her skills dancing in hip-hop clubs in the late 1980s. Her extensive work in music videos across multiple genres — for artists like Michael Jackson, Aaliyah, Backstreet Boys and Meghan Trainor, to name a few — helped introduce hip-hop dance to millions of music fans. 

Born in Arkansas and raised in Los Angeles from age 5 on, Robinson developed an early love of dance that blossomed into a career. She found work as a dancer and quickly became a choreographer, developing a prodigious résumé including two Super Bowl halftime shows, the live television production of The Wiz and a wide range of commercials. Her work has been featured on Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, American Idol and The Voice. She was a choreographer for the 2006 film version of Dreamgirls starring Beyoncé, and in 2023 she was the director of choreography for Beyoncé’s Renaissance World Tour.

Robinson has been nominated for an Emmy three times; twice as a producer (for the 63rd and 64th Grammy Awards) and once as a choreographer, for the 2022 Oscars (for Beyoncé’s performance of “Be Alive”). The New York Times recently called her “the most elevated hip-hop and R&B choreographer working today,” and director Blitz Bazawule chose her as his collaborator for the 2023 movie musical The Color Purple.

Robinson was interviewed in October 2023 by Adrienne Faillace, producer for The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation. The entire interview can be screened at TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews.

Did you dance when you were little?

I would make up routines, stuff I would see on Soul Train or on Solid Gold. My sisters and I would put towels on our heads and act like we were Darcel [Wyne Leonard] from Solid Gold.

How did you first get involved with music videos in L.A.?

I started going to these 18-and-over hip-hop clubs, and I formed a dance group with a few other girls. We entered a dance contest, and John Singleton saw us. He was just graduating from film school at USC and was like, “I’m going to put you in my movie.” We were extras in Boyz N the Hood.

People would come to these clubs when they were looking for dancers. Record label people would come looking for talent. The clubs were really where hip-hop was being created. You had to be in the clubs to enjoy it, to be around it, to discover it.

What was the feeling that you got from being in the clubs:? What was it that you enjoued about hip-hop?

The one thing I would describe it to people as — and definitely to my mother, who was quite religious and didn’t want me dancing — for me, dancing felt like where I was closest to God. It was my church, the clubs. And ultimately, as I grew up, I realized clubs were my classroom. That’s where I was doing all my dance lessons, all night. It was a very untraditional way to enter into a dance career, but for me it really worked and cultivated my style.

Was it around that time that you met Lionel Martin and Hype Williams?  

Yeah, I met Lionel first. I had an audition with Lionel. I showed up a little late, and when I got there one girl had talked herself into being the choreographer. The casting director had this cassette player that played the cassettes a little too fast, and when he asked us to get up and dance after explaining the concept to us, one girl complained about the carpet in the room, and another girl complained about the music being too fast, and I just got up and busted and did whatever. And he stops the music and points at me and says, “She’s going to be the choreographer, and you two are going to be the dancers, because she adapted to the situation the best.” I was like, “Okay.” It was definitely a wake-up for me to start to look at choreography seriously.

Did you embrace that right away?

I casually embraced it. Rosie Perez called me and was like, “You have to call yourself a choreographer, and you have to charge for that service.” That was something really surprising to me, because we just had been doing it all the time. Then along the way when people would ask, “Do you dance?” I started to speak it. “Yes, I’m a choreographer.” I slowly transitioned myself into it.

Then was it John Singleton who brought you on for Michael Jackson's "Remember the Time" music video?

Yeah. A few years later, after the movie [Boyz N the Hood] was a hit, he cold calls me and is looking for a choreographer for a music video. He’s telling me about everybody that’s going to be in it, and I’m like, “Wow, this sounds great. Yes, I would love to do it.” And then before we got off the phone, I said, “Who’s the artist?” and he said, “Michael Jackson.” I’m like, “Okay, great.” I was 21 at the time.

What were the first steps to creating the choreography? 

With all choreography, for me it starts with the music. So once I got the music and understood the concept of the Egyptian video, that’s when you start to study and create the moves. I like to go in a room and let magic happen as you’re listening, as you’re flowing.

Did you have a creative meeting with John and Michael?

I had a creative meeting with John. I didn’t meet Michael until we were in the studio working. It was really nice, because Michael put a lot of trust in John for who he was bringing to the table. He was so used to working with Vince Paterson and Michael Peters, and people that I had respected and loved their choreography so much. So to come in and do a video like this, I knew was big for me, but also big for hip-hop, because Michael was very curious about this new style of dance that was bubbling in the clubs and starting to show up in places.

How did choreographing that video impact your career moving forward?

That video put me on the map. It put my name in so many people’s mouths, like, “Who is this girl who did this video?” I did it along with another choreographer, [Buddha] Stretch, out of New York, who’s amazing. It really set the tone for me. It was also really interesting, because I went back to working with and dancing with the hip-hop artists that I’d worked with — Heavy D, Mary J. Blige, Bobby Brown. I worked with the top of the game and went back to my roots and kept building from there.

You also choreographed commercials. You did the "Khaki Soul" commercial for Gap in 1999.

Yeah, that’s one Hype got called to do. He brought in all his people, and as we went through the casting and they understood my energy and vibe, they immediately liked me. When one of the dancers didn’t work out, they asked me, “Fatima, would you be interested in dancing?” And I was like, “Okay, if I must,” even though it was like a dream come true for me.

They said, “We want you to go to the dressing room and dress yourself. We love your individual style.” So I cut up a linen shirt, and I made my headwrap, and I put on my khaki outfit. They were really particular about people wearing their own personal jewelry — to the point that they wouldn’t hire certain people if they didn’t like the style of jewelry; they didn’t feel like it worked with the brand. They asked me, “Fatima, can you take off the big hoop earrings?” So I take them off, but as I see my reflection of myself in the camera, I’m like, “Guys, I can’t do the headwrap without the hoop earrings; they just go together.” And they’re like, “Give her the hoop earrings.” So I did the commercial, and I open and end it.

It was a wonderful experience, and it ended up being a years-long relationship with Gap. But a month later, I was leaving New York for L.A. on an early morning flight. I’m in the back of the car service to the airport, and we stop at a light. I look over and there’s a Gap store, and in the store there’s a mannequin dressed exactly like me, with the headwrap and the hoop earrings. And that’s a moment where I realized I can push culture forward in a whole different way; that I’m not just a choreographer. I have more to offer. And then I started doing more — adding more of my ideas, cultivating directing, creative directing, all those things.

Is there one space where you feel most free — working in TV, film, music videos, stage? 

I think concerts are where I feel the most free.

Why is that?

I really like concerts because you’re able to control the emotions of people and see it in real time. It’s really beautiful to sit in an 80,000-person venue and watch people scream for your choreography or for what they just saw, to watch people have fun and turn to each other and laugh and sing and dance. I get so much joy from putting together a stage show and watching how it affects everybody at the same time.

A perfect example is the Beyoncé concert: She has a song where she says “mute,” and in rehearsal she put a stop in there. When we first did it, she would say, “Mute,” and people would continue to sing the song, and they’d be like “Oh!” But after a while people got hold of the “mute,” and to watch 80,000 people go quiet and then kick back in with the music, that’s some serious power.

You were the director of choreography for that concert run — Beyoncé's Renaissance World Tour. What does that entail?

The role hadn't even existed before that. We made it up. Because I direct music videos and I choreograph and I creative-direct, there's so many different things that I bring to the table. When you hire me, you're going to get it all. We did the Oscars with her and a commercial, and we knew each other from Dreamgirls, but even before that I had worked with Destiny's Child. So we were just trying to figure out what my title is, because she's the director of the show. That is her brainchild; it comes from her imagination. She needs someone to help execute it and put all the pieces together, throw ideas at her to see if something could work. It's like, "We know that you're not just a choreographer; we want to respect you there. So what about director of choreography?" And we were both like, "That'll work." I like it a lot. A lot of people think that choreographing is just making up dance moves, and that's less than half of it, to be honest. It's so much more that you have to be able to deal with. I love director of choreography, and I'm gonna run with it.

Starting in 2014 you were creative director for several performances on The Voice.

Once Pharrell became a judge on The Voice, he brought me in to work with his team. I was a segment producer. I did Pharrell's and Gwen Stefani's teams — whoever their contestants were, we would create all their performance looks, and I'd create Pharrell's performance looks and some of the other artists that would come on to perform. So I basically creative-directed — picked out the lighting, the staging, the wardrobe, the whole overall look of what that performance is going to be.

You choreogaphed the halftime show for Super Bowl XLV in 2011, with the Black-Eyed Peas as headliners. What are some of the challenges of working on a halftime show?

There's the fact that it's going to be the [most-watched] thing at one time in America. Is that a challenge or is that pressure?


And the fact that you have to do it on this football field and roll out a stage that can't be damaged. And sometimes you have to work with up to a thousand people to choreograph them. It's quite a big feat doing Super Bowls.

And you returned to the Super Bowl in 2022 here in L.A., with the all-stars of West Coast hip-hop.

Yeah, I was on a commercial shoot, and my phone rings, and it's Dr. Dre. I'm like, "Oh, I haven't heard from Dre in a very long time." And he's like, "I'm thinking about doing the Super Bowl Halftime Show," and I'm like, "Tell me more." He started describing how he wanted to roll it out, and I was like, "This is going to be amazing." I know that music so well. I'd worked with all the artists except Eminem, and everyone was there to support Dre. I got to work with Jesse Collins, who I work with a lot on the Grammys and BET Awards. It really felt like a collective family coming together to figure out how to push this big monster up a hill and make it the most dynamic thing. Adam Blackstone, the music director, is also one of the people I work with a lot. Creatively we push each other and bring out the best in each other. Everybody was on their A-game.

Going back to the Grammys, tell us about Lil Baby's performance of "The Bigger Picture" at the 2021 Grammys.

That was the first time they had gone with new producers for the Grammys, and I was brought on as a producer. There was so much going on in the world with the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd, and he wanted to highlight what had happened in his city, so he wrote this great song, and we decided to remake one of the incidents that happened in Atlanta. That was pre-filmed, and we aired it the night of the Grammys. Bringin' a little theatrics in the streets.

Art as activism.


You received your first Emmy nomination for that 2021 Grammys show.

Yeah. That wasn't even for choreography. My first and only choreography Emmy nomination was Beyoncé for the Oscars.

What advice would you give to an aspiring choreographer?

Learn your craft. Learn all different styles of dance. It's just about not giving up. Keep on creating, if that means creating for family members or getting a collective of dancers together. Just keep on creating, because you'll get better and better. And just stay ready so you don't have to get ready.

The contributing editor for Foundation Interviews is Adrienne Faillace

Since 1997, the Television Academy Foundation has conducted over 900 one-of-a-kind, long-form interviews with industry pioneers and change-makers across multiple professions. The Foundation invites you to make a gift to the Interviews Preservation Fund to help preserve this invaluable resource for generations to come. To learn more, please contact Amani Roland, chief advancement officer, at roland@televisionacademy.com or (818)754-2829.

Click here to see more interviews.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #4, 2024.

Browser Requirements
The TelevisionAcademy.com sites look and perform best when using a modern browser.

We suggest you use the latest version of any of these browsers:


Visiting the site with Internet Explorer or other browsers may not provide the best viewing experience.

Close Window