JaQuel Knight Foundation is here to make a difference
© Juan Veloz
Find out how and why JaQuel Knight's non-profit organization was created to help dancers across the country.
Over the last few months, creative director and celebrity choreographer JaQuel Knight has been full of emotion. In fact, the Atlanta-raised dancer admits that he’s been feeling way more emotional than ever before. Between COVID-19 and the recent social turmoil that has rocked the world, his mood fluctuates through frequent peaks and valleys. Despite the chaos, Knight has chosen to let his emotions fuel him into action and into better connecting and uplifting the dance community.
Earlier in the year, Knight, who has choreographed dances for the likes of Beyoncé, Pharrell, and Megan Thee Stallion, launched the JaQuel Knight Foundation, a non-profit organization designed to support dancers across the country. The non-profit’s first major initiative is the Dancer Relief Fund, which provides grants to financially assist Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami, and New York based dancers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since launching, the fund has raised over $200,000 to provide relief to dancers, many of whom work as independent contractors and rely on payment from live dance performances or music video shoots that were postponed or cancelled at the beginning of the pandemic.
Knight witnessed firsthand the significant impact COVID-19 related to the dance industry. In March, when Coachella announced that it would be cancelling its highly anticipated music festival, Knight was about to begin booking 85 dancers to perform alongside the festival’s three headlining acts. “For me, the best part of working on Coachella is being able to give back to dancers, being able to put money in dancers' pockets,” says Knight. “The moment that opportunity left, I was heartbroken. I was so worried, not even for myself, but for my friends, my family. I was wondering how people would be able to put food on the table.”
Almost immediately after Knight was alerted about Coachella, dozens of other projects were put on hold or cancelled altogether. That same fate swept over the dance community, leaving many of his peers out of work and wondering how they would pay bills and buy basic necessities. As an established choreographer who has experienced significant success over the years, Knight decided to leverage his network and prominent position in the industry, and invest his time and money into building the non-profit organization that he had always talked about launching.
After hosting a successful meal giveaway in Los Angeles that served 2,500 meals, Knight set his sights on making an even bigger impact across the nation. Through his foundation, he continues to raise money for the JaQuel Knight Dancers Relief Fund. Members of the entertainment community, including hip hop legend Missy Elliot as well as several casting directors and dance-friendly companies, have all contributed to the fund. The reach has extended beyond the industry through JaQuel’s current work with SELECT CBD, who matched every donation up to $10,000 during a recent foundation initiative. With an initial goal of $300,000, Knight's ambitions will soon be achieved. However, even then, he plans to continue raising more money and finding new ways to invest in dancers beyond the pandemic.
“It's been really rewarding, people have been super grateful and extremely appreciative,” says Knight. “At the end of the day, beyond giving the money back to the people, it has brought us closer together as a community. Also, these efforts have inspired us to figure out how we can continue this love and support for each other and represent and be there for each other through the gigs, the tv shows, films and the videos. How can we start to build a system that looks out for us as individuals? So when times get tough, we're there and when times are good, we're there.”
In an entertainment industry where dancers get paid and treated drastically less than other talent, the apparent lack of support and opportunities dancers have received in the wake of COVID-19 has ushered in a strong cry for permanent change. “In general, dancers have it harder than any other job field out there,” says Knight. “The number one most competitive job in the country is being a dancer and a choreographer. Then on top of that, generally, the least paid on any gigs. The respect level doesn't match the level of impact that dance and dancers have on the job and on the culture.”
Just as he’s done in the wake of the pandemic, Knight continues to step up and advocate on behalf of dancers to ensure that their rights are protected and that they are being fairly compensated. As an authority figure in the industry who recruits and hires dancers of his own, he makes sure to negotiate on behalf of his peers every chance he gets. “For some reason when people get to the dance department, they have the budget locked in already. So for me, as I start to step more into directing, I have been very vocal on not accepting what's been pre-given to us as a department,” says Knight.
Despite the hardships he knows his community and the world are facing right now, Knight feels hopeful. He has formed even stronger bonds with dancers and is working on plans to develop an agency that elevates his mission of advocating on behalf of the dancers that help fuel his creativity and bring joy to millions of others.
His dedication to fighting for better wages for dancers has even compelled him to turn work down if the production team cannot agree to fair terms. "It's not even worth doing the job if you can't provide certain things,” says Knight. “For me, it's a waste of time and it's not moving us forward as a whole. We have been fighting tirelessly day in and day out. I hope moving forward, everyone can get on the bandwagon and recognize that this is a community that needs your support. Companies, not just with a retweet but financially as well.”
To quench their immediate need for resources while the future of live performances and large-scale productions are in the air, for money, many dancers have shifted their focus to digital subscription-based platforms like Patreon to host special dance classes or performances. However, even with the money earned from these digital platforms, the income does not compare to the amount often made when hosting classes at packed dance studios.
“I have been super aware and present in the midst of everything going on. I have been way more inspired, way more creative, way more hopeful for the future looking forward to some bigger, better, brighter days to come,” says Knight.