From working with everyone from Madonna to Jennifer Lopez to the legendary Michael Jackson himself to the Las Vegas stage with RuPaul’s Drag Race LIVE!, choreographer (and newly minted director) Jamal Sims is pushing the artists he work with to heights that they themselves may not have even known that they were capable of. His directorial debut film When The Beat Drops is a deep dive into the dance style known as “bucking”, with Sims giving those artists the ability to tell their story on their own terms. I sat down with this consistently busy and multi-faceted performer and we discussed his work with the ladies of Drag Race and why it is important to him, how he brings out the best in the artists he works with, and what the best advice is that he ever received.
Michael Cook: What is the one thing that you think you have missed the most during the past year?
Jamal Sims: The movies! I just want to sit in a movie theater with some popcorn, I want to do that. Everything else I have been able to do, like the beach. I do miss going to see movies.
MC: The film When The Beat Drops is absolutely incredible. Having such a deep passion for dancing and in this case the style of ‘bucking’, it truly reflects in the work as a whole. Can you explain the origin of the dance form known as bucking?
JS: Thank you; I love it and it is something that I have wanted to do for so long. Back in the 70’s, a woman by the name of Shirley Milton who was on the Jackson State University drill team. In those days, there was a drill team that would toss batons; that was the style then. She put down the baton and started “bucking”; that is where it originated. From there, the team started to catch on, then the other drill teams started to catch onto this particular style of dance, and then in the 80’s the boys started to do it. That is where it call came from. The boys would do it in the underground clubs in the South, but it all came from the drill team.
MC: So much like voguing, this came from the African American community, and is “borrowed” and becomes part of global popular culture. Madonna did though, pay homage to the originators of the dance by including the dancers in her video and tour at that time.
JS: That is absolutely right. That is actually why I did it, I didn’t want somebody to come and make it commercial and they do a pop song about it and suddenly it’s “their dance”. I’ve seen it featured in a couple pop artists’ music video, but it was never spoken about. I don’t know if it was the artist not wanting to speak about it or the choreographer, I’m not sure where that disconnect was, but it didn’t get the shine.
Actually, when I originally went to talk to the boys, they didn’t want to do the documentary. They were afraid that I was going to make fun of them or make some sort of mockery to what they were doing. I let them know that I wanted to “have them tell their story before they tell it for you.” Somebody else is going to do it for you and they are going to say that “they got the dance”. I let them know that they should tell their story; that is what actually led them to do the documentary.
MC: Artists like you and Big Freedia for example, are taking your own culture and celebrating the facets of it, rather than letting someone come in and do that for you. Do you think that is very crucial right now?
JS: Yes! Even as far as TikTok or these smaller dances, people are going viral from things borrowed from us. We have to always tell people where it came from and show them “this is us”. If we are not representing it, people are going to start making assumptions that these people are making it up and they’re not. I really wanted to make sure that the creators are credited properly.
MC: You have received significant accolades for When The Beat Drops. As it is a true passion project for you, it must truly make you even a tiny bit more proud that it has been received so well.
JS: Yeah, it can be scary, anytime that you do anything where you represent any sort of marginalized community, you don’t want to get it wrong, you want to get it right. When we premiered in Miami, I invited everybody down and everybody came. They loved it and were cheering in the audience and I was like “whew’; because I was sweating!
MC: We have seen you for many seasons on RuPaul’s Drag Race LIVE! working with the queens on choreography, but it is also evident that you love the art and performance of drag itself. Does it feel like just a natural fit to do it?
JS: Yeah, it is. I am always for the underdog, I have always felt like that. I have always been for the underdog and wanted to help them shine. Drag Race, that is what it does for me. There are some queens who are on the show that people think would not be able to do what they can do, and what they are capable of. I really look forward to finding that raw talent and also cultivating someone that is maybe, not as polished and people are then like “wow I didn’t know she could do that”!
MC: As the lead choreographer for the Las Vegas Show RuPaul’s Drag Race LIVE!, you are probably beyond ready to bring the ladies back to the Vegas stage, right?
JS: We are actually opening August 5th! It’s happening…
MC: When you see artists working with choreographers, much of that relationship is based in the level of trust the performer and the choreographer have developed. When you work with an artist, can it sometimes be difficult to get through that barrier where they are shy, insecure or don’t trust easily, especially when you see something in them that you are trying very hard to bring out?
JS: Yes. You know, a lot of times people are put in these positions that they are not necessarily ready for. We are in a manufactured world where someone is pretty, and they will give them a song and almost throw them to the wolves. For me, it is almost like “what do you do well, what are you interested in?” My first couple of rehearsals are actually just talking. Lets figure out what you are passionate about, what you like, are you a fashion person, lets play to your strengths; that is usually what I like to, I play to what people think that they do well. Even if they don’t really do them well, if they think that they do, we are ahead of the game at that point.
I can do everything that I can do, but if it is not in the person it is just not going to happen. You know the artists that are out there where it is in them. If you took away the lights, the costumes, the hair and the makeup, they could still do it. That is when you know that you have a true performer.
MC: Everything in the life of Jamal Sims is extremely fast; how do you just completely and totally exhale?
JS: I love the beach, I love the water. I can go to a beach and unplug and leave my phone. That usually the best thing for me. Around some warm water, I love it.
MC: Who has given you the best advice in your career that you have taken with you?
JS: It was probably my dad. He would always say that “rejection is God’s protection”. If you don’t get a job, or you didn’t get a certain artist, or if I wanted to choreograph a certain movie and it went to someone else, he would say that “there is a reason you’re not there”. You have to trust that that project wasn’t for you. Nine times out of ten, it would come out and I would be like “whew I’m so glad I didnt do that one” There are a lot of elements that go into projects; there is not just you, you are coming to a team and you don’t know what that is going to be like.
I think that that is something that he told me early on. You get discouraged in this industry where you are hot one minute, you’re not the next, you’re up, you’re down. He would always say don’t get too high and don’t get too low, just try and stay right there in the middle. One day you could be getting an award, the next day you could be looking for work, that is the nature of this industry.
‘When The Beat Drops’ is available on Wow Presents PLUS
Follow Jamal Sims on Instagram