While some fans may think of Paula Abdul as a “Straight Up” pop starlet or original American Idol/X Factor judge, her true entertainment legacy lies in dance. After her humble start as a Laker Girl, she went on to win multiple Emmys and VMAs for her groundbreaking choreography, and her routines in music videos (for herself as well as other artists), film, and television have become iconic.
Paula also been a guest judge on Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance (and a regular judge on SYTYCD Australia); has masterminded her own TV dance competition, Live to Dance; and will be participating in “Celebration of Dance,” a gala presented by Nigel Lythgoe’s Dizzy Feet Foundation, in Los Angeles on July 19.
In preparation for the Dizzy Feet Gala as well as the fourth annual National Dance Day on July 26, Yahoo Music asked Paula to pick her favorite routines from her amazing three-decade career. Come dance down memory lane, as she dishes about what happened onstage and behind the scenes.
Janet Jackson, “Nasty” (1986)
“I’m very grateful, because this was really the big start to my career. When I was introduced to Janet, I was told by A&M Records that Control was going to be an important album for her, and when I started hearing demos, I was really, really excited to work with her. I felt like I had a chance here to really create something big for her. It was so inspiring. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis wrote genius music, and Janet had a really important voice in it. You don’t hear ‘Nasty’ and go, ‘Oh, this is a dance jam.’ It was a very different kind of song, kind of like how ‘Straight Up’ was for me: This could define an artist completely, and I wanted to create something that would be signature moves but also define her as being in charge.
“This video was nerve-wracking for her, because she had never danced with just all guys. But I picked the best in the business, and everything came into place perfectly. I choreographed ‘Nasty’ — this is the craziest thing — in a half hour. I shared an apartment with some Laker Girls and there was no floor-length mirror, so I did it in the bathroom. There was no room in this little old apartment, and I choreographed it with a mirror that I could see from my waist up. That’s it. And everything worked out.”
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Janet Jackson, “When I Think of You” (1986)
“There was only one edit in this entire video. Otherwise, it was all one take. It was very, very, very labor-intensive. I worked with Julian Temple, who was the director, and we brought in [legendary choreographer] Michael Kidd. At the time I think Michael was in his late sixties, and it was an honor to be able to work with someone who was around during the MGM classics, who understood what we were trying to do. We brought him in to work with us to really make it seamless, and it was incredible.
“There were so many performers in that video, and just being able to get every scene knocked out and timed perfectly… oh my God, we probably spent an entire day just mapping it out, without a camera at first, and then an entire day working with the steadicam operator. We used an entire soundstage on the Fox lot. There were so many moving parts to it. It was a lot of rehearsal; I think we had four days altogether on the soundstage. I had a ton of extras, character actors, fire hydrants going off at the right timing. It was insane! But it was so rewarding, and every member of that video — from production to every single extra to every dancer — felt like something huge was accomplished. It was big.”
Coming to America, Wedding Scene (1988)
“This was one of my moments of having to really prove myself, because I was still pretty new in my career as a choreographer. John Landis, the director, wanted the person that choreographed Janet Jackson. I was still a Laker Girl. I went in and he looked at me and said, ‘What are you, a teenager?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I am!’ He basically was telling me, ‘What do you know about African dancing?’ And this is my whole thing when becoming a choreographer: ‘I’ll just tell everyone yes, I know exactly what I’m doing, and then I’ll figure it out later.’ That’s basically what I did. I said, ‘I know a lot!’ And he goes, ‘Hmm, I don’t think so, because I was expecting someone like Debbie Allen to come in.’ And I said, ‘I may be young, but I know what I’m doing.’ So he left me alone.
“When you think about it, back then we didn’t have the Internet, so there was no research you could really do, other than going to the library. I created my own style of what I thought should be right for the movie, and John Landis loved it. I worked with Nile Rodgers on the music and we came up with a drum loop. There were lots of intensive rehearsals, and it was hardcore; it was a lot of work. It was not an easy thing to accomplish, but it’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”
Paula Abdul, “Cold Hearted” (1989)
“I wanted to pay homage to a choreographer that very much influenced me, Bob Fosse. David Fincher was the director; he did a lot of my videos. He was great to work with, but this was the hardest video to choreograph and rehearse. It was intense. I needed dancers that were mature enough to understand and had a vocabulary of really being fans of Fosse.
“Yes, I was the girl next door, but I can also be edgy; I know how to go right to the edge and also rein myself back. I had people who I didn’t think that I should be doing [such a sexy video] because it would just scare people! But it was one of those things where I knew I had a chance to really show people how I choreograph and that I can really dance — and that I don’t take myself too seriously.
“Immediately when this video was on MTV, it took off huge. My videos all took off huge for the innovation and for style. No one had seen dancing like that other than in film. Madonna hadn’t done it yet; no one had. After that, it set a trend for a very definitive style, my style, that I’ve seen a lot of dancers, like Rihanna in ‘Umbrella,’ do to this day. It’s fun for me to see that I was able to create dance trends and styles.
“I think more dancers injured themselves on this video shoot than any other. Just a lot of things, like sliding on our knees, working with raw elements of scaffolding; nothing was very comfortable. We were working with real wood, metal, concrete. Because it had to be gritty.”
The 17th Annual American Music Awards (1990)
* this routine won Paula an Emmy
“The moving platform was all done by remote control! That was in a dream of mine. A lot of my choreography and ideas came from waking up in the middle of the night and documenting what I just dreamt. Almost all my choreography had to do with things that I would remember from my dreams, or I’d actually wake up and immediately write it down. I used to have a tripod and a camera and I would videotape me half-asleep, just getting the ideas down so I wouldn’t forget!
“I remember having the scariest, worst final dress rehearsal. Everything went wrong. I was coming down in a bubble, and the bubble got stuck and my costume still wasn’t sewn and the tailor had left needles in it, so I was getting poked. I couldn’t get out of the bubble and literally had to jump out of the bubble and have stagehands and dancers catch me. And my heel broke. What else? One of the dancers got stuck on the scaffolding. I had so many elements that were working against me. I was wearing a Bob Mackie gown that weighed about 25 pounds to move in. I just wanted to get it over with.
“But you know, as the saying goes: If you have the worst dress rehearsal, then 99.995 percent of the time, you’re going to have a great performance. So everything went perfect in the live TV performance, from soup to nuts. It was like an out-of-body experience.”
The 62nd Annual Academy Awards (1990)
* this choreography was nominated for an Emmy
“It was by this time that my dream came true. After I choreographed the ‘Opposites Attract’ video, that sold like 6 million more albums for me. It was crazy, because that was not even supposed to be a single. But I needed to pay tribute to Gene Kelly. I had paid tribute to Bob Fosse, but I had to do something for Gene Kelly. I’ve often found that when you walk with gratitude, miracles can happen; all I’d ever wanted to do was meet Gene Kelly, and I dedicated the ‘Opposites Attract’ video to him, and two days later he called me and asked me over for tea. And then we became real, true friends. I got to have tea with him every week, the last two years of his life. And the most exciting part for me was when he came down for my Oscars rehearsal.
“I surprised the dancers, the crew, everybody. I didn’t tell anyone that he was coming, and to see people literally faint, literally faint at him… I said, ‘I want you to help critique,’ so he went section by section [critiquing the routine]. It was the most incredible, awesome experience. He was so endearing and charming and wonderful.
“For me, it was always about wanting to keep the legacy alive with MGM musicals. I grew up fascinated by Gene Kelly. The man was my idol. I do believe that the Dizzy Feet Foundation and So You Think You Can Dance really have given an elegant, graceful nod to the art of dance and where it’s come from. But you know, a lot of kids today, none of them have seen Flashdance, a lot of them don’t know any of the MGM musicals. They’re not familiar with Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire or Donald O’Connor.
“So you have to find ways to engage young people — especially with the Internet, you can become a historian and spend hours watching [classic dancing], really look where it came from, and then use those influences to create your own mark. That’s what I did. Everything is historical, everything old is new again; it’s the way you honor it and how you apply what you know now to make it different and make it your own.”