Jamal Sims is one of the most in-demand choreographers in the industry.
You know his choreography from movies like “Encanto” and the remake of “Footloose;” live shows and music videos for stars like Miley Cyrus, Madonna, and Jennifer Lopez; and commercials for Microsoft and Volkswagen. He’s also a guest choreographer on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
Sims grew up dancing for his family and drew inspiration from musicals.
“When ‘Grease’ came out, I remember thinking, ‘I want to do whatever they’re doing in that,’” he said.
Now, he’s choreographing “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies,” a singing-dancing TV series now streaming on Paramount+. He’s also directed an episode of the show.
Here’s another full circle moment: When he was in 8th grade, Sims performed Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” From choreography to costumes, the crowd loved it, and Sims knew this was his career path. Later, his first job was dancing in Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” video. He went on to choreograph “Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour.”
Sims, who believes, “once you’re a dancer, you’re always a dancer,” loves the freedom of dancing and the ability to disconnect from whatever’s going on in his life.
Sims, 52, is proud of his career and who he is: Black and gay. He’s worked across a variety of projects, but whatever he does, he’s committed to “speaking truth to whatever I’m doing and understanding that dance is my language.”
He always pays attention to how the younger generation is dancing, because they’re the drivers of culture. Each project he works on is different, and he loves the challenge of creating something new.
“I don’t like to stay the same. I don’t like to do the same things over and over again. That’s why I’m going into directing now,” he said. “Directing is so fantastic for me, because it’s like choreography but on an even bigger stage.”
Spotlight on diversity
Sims doesn’t shy away from talking about equality and race, especially after the past few years in America. He’s hopeful that the country can “reach a place of equality and acceptance.”
He encourages this diversity through his work in projects such as “Beauty and the Beast: A 30th Celebration Special,” which he choreographed for Disney and ABC. In the film, singer-songwriter H.E.R. stars as the first Filipino and Black Belle.
“I get to do projects that have such diversity on screen and off screen, which is very important,” he says. “I think that it opens up so many opportunities for so many younger folks to see themselves in whatever project I’m doing.”
The importance of representation
Sims remembers not seeing representation of himself on TV as a kid, which led to self-doubt. However, he’s witnessed a change over the years. Every job he works on now has a diverse cast, which was never the case when he first started choreographing. He’s happy that major companies and networks are paying attention to diversity, including ethnicity, sexual identification, identity, and body size.
“I want to be putting more faces that we’re not used to seeing on TV, I want to put them in the front,” Sims said, “because the more we can do that, the more people can say, ‘I can do it too.’ That’s really what you want. It’s so inspiring.”
Sims advises others in the industry — and in life — to research your work, work hard, and never give up.
“You have to do what you’re passionate about, and if you don’t, regret will set in and you’ll be so mad.”