Fit for “LeStage”
In an industry crowded with men and women all aspiring to be superstars, only a few will have what it takes to achieve their goals and make it to the bright lights, big screens and bigger stages. Much of that is determined by the hard work and development that goes on when the cameras are off. There are a number of “unsung” heroes and heroines that play major roles in crafting the stars that we listen to and watch every day. Sakinah Lestage is fast becoming one of the key players in the industry behind the “industry”. The talented dancer/choreographer/artist director began dancing at an early age in her native Atlanta, Georgia area and has fused her technical training with a flare and passion for hip hop and urban dance to become a force in R&B and Hip-Hop. She has choreographed videos for Slim (of 112 fame), T-Pain, Young Jeezy, Jagged Edge and most recently Mario (“Break Up”). She also served as one of Ne-Yo’s “Sexy Love” tour dancers and assisted in choreographing his tour. She is currently lending her “Artist Director” talents to help develop new artists including Asia Cruise (Hitz Committee/Jive), Sophia Fresh and Jay Lyriq (Nappy Boy Entertainment/Atlantic), producer Rich Harrison’s group, RichGirl (RichCraft/Jive) and Polow da Don’s group, Felina (Zone 4). In this exclusive interview, Sakinah discusses her background, shares her thoughts on the industry and gives some insight into her plans to expand and already multifaceted career.
D.ShanX: When did you start dancing?
Sakinah: I started dancing when I was about 2 years old…My mom took me to the Roxanne Roxanne concert (Roxanne Shante) and she asked for people to get up and do the snake and I ran onto the stage and started doing it all the way down to the ground and my mom was like “ok, maybe she wants to be a dancer”. (Laughs) And from there I started dance classes.
D.ShanX: Ok, tell us a little more about your background in dancing. I know that you spent a little bit of time in New York studying with Debbie Allen…
Sakinah: Yea I actually did an intensive with Mia Michaels (So You Think You Can Dance). She did a two-week intensive called “Mia Live” and one of the teachers there was Debbie Allen (Fame)…we had Terry Beeman also…we did two weeks of hardcore training and it was really crazy. Not to mention, I used to go to New York every summer for two weeks with my dance studio, Rhythm Dance Center in Marietta, Georgia. We would go every summer after school let out and study Broadway dancing and step really hard. About 40 hours a week of just dancing!
D.ShanX: Ok, so moving forward what was your big break or rather what made you decide to choose choreography as a career?
Sakinah: I always wanted to be the person who made up the routines. Just being in high school, I would always ask my teacher, ‘can I help you choreograph this?’ or ‘can I assist you on that?’ Like one year we had the National High School Dance Festival and all the teachers and students submitted routines all on the same judging scale and I was the only student from Georgia that was picked to go to the National High School Dance Festival and perform my choreography. So right after high school is when I felt like I could really do this and then in college being on the dance team I would always jump up and volunteer to choreograph the next basketball game, etc. Then I started working with Nivea (recording artist)… a friend of mine that remembered me from high school was like “hey, I’m working with Nivea now and you should really meet her…” and he introduced me and it just started to catch. People were like “oh your stuff is really catchy…it’s intertwined with a lot of theatre and drama and ballet but you still keep it hip-hop”. They all talked about my versatility so I used it all to add to my resume (laughs).
D.ShanX: (laughs) Yea and you’re stealing my questions because I was about to ask you if you believe being classically trained gives you an edge on some of the other choreographers out there who might just be street dancers?
Sakinah: Well as far as street dancers, you can learn a lot from them because they have a very raw edge to what they’re doing so when I’m intermingling what I know from hip-hop and what I have in training with ballet, jazz, and modern and it’s just…like I can put on pink tights and a black leotard and go into a dance studio and enjoy myself with classical music but someone who’s never been in a studio might not know they’d enjoy it because they’ve never seen it in a way that they can understand it. So whenever I approach choreography, I like to introduce something new in a way that’s like…I may do a pirouette in pointy shoes in a ballet class but if I throw it in a hip-hop combo it’s like, “yo she just did a crazy turn” and not even realize that they’re enjoying another side of dance that they may not be exposed to.
D. ShanX: You also spent some time teaching overseas correct?
Sakinah: Yea, we did workshops when I was overseas with Nivea. We’d have some of her fans come out and take classes and it was really interesting because they suck up everything we do. They are so into our culture that it was really exciting to just being in that element. Like even having the language barrier…just living in the music and expressing yourself through movement was (is) an amazing feeling.
D.ShanX: So besides the choreography what are you currently working on?
Sakinah: I’m working with a few new artists doing development. One Chance is one group. Asia Cruise who’s on Jive Records as well as RichGirl another group on Jive. I also do workshops for kids. I have a company called Sho Skills and we go to local dance schools and do a full out workshop, me and some other dancers and choreographers that are really respected in the industry and we do a full weekend with a camera crew and show them what it’s really like to be in the industry.
D.ShanX: Ok so you’re like a dancer/entrepreneur? You’re not JUST dancing?
Sakinah: Oh yes, I am the full package. I come to the table with everything. If we’re gonna do it we’re gonna do it right and we’re gonna enjoy ourselves and be creative and passionate and all that but at the end of the day, we all have to take care of our bills so you have to be smart. Can’t just be a pretty face and cute dance steps.
D.ShanX: Shed some light on how important it is in this game, especially for a female, to be well rounded and to have your business straight.
Sakinah: It’s really important for women because sometimes what gets us in the door is the makeup or the fly shoes or the dope makeup and the cute body but at the end of the day, when people want to break money and share money and make money together, it is a business and people want you to know what you’re talking about because that’s what’s gonna keep you in the building. They may let you in the door because of the dope outfit and the cute face but after they let you in and the conversation starts they’re gonna want to know why they should choose your cute face and pretty body over the next girl that’s gonna come in here. Because not only women but a lot of folks aren’t working with the most brains out here so you might want to stay ahead of the game by knowing your industry and being able to articulate your goals and passion. And also knowing your history, you can continue to grow and move forward in your industry.
D.ShanX: What has been your biggest challenge as a female in this industry?
Sakinah: It’s the same thing that a lot of females go through…
D.ShanX: Like getting “hit on”?
Sakinah: (Laughs) Yea, getting hit on…they all wanna holla. Sometimes you may go in with a very professional mindset but they have something else on their agenda but if you know how to handle yourself most of the time you can get passed that and the ones who really want to do business will and the others you’re better off without anyway.
D.ShanX: You’ve been choreographing professionally since about 2003. So far, who has been the most fun or easiest to work with? Who has been the most difficult?
Sakinah: The most fun has probably been…well T-Pain is really a pleasure to work with cause he is talented on so many different levels. Just being around someone with that much passion and such a vision of what he wants to do is just humbling and motivating at the same time so he is probably…if I HAD to pick…my most favorite person. And difficult? I don’t know…a lot of artists may think they know what they want and try to tell you what they want and it may be like ‘well that sounds cute but let’s try this’ and sometimes, especially with new artists, you can run into a communication barrier because it’s a new relationship and they’re so excited about their project. But that’s to be expected from new artists so I haven’t the “bad” artist experience yet. We’ll see what happens in the future.
D.ShanX: Who do you want to work with in the future? Who’s on your dream list of artists to work with?
Sakinah: I would really like to work with Ceelo and Prince. Wait you know what…Outkast. They’re all pretty much equal on my list.
D.ShanX: Can you talk more in depth about your Artist Development career? Who are some of the artists you’re working with and where you want to take that aspect of your multi-faceted, young career?
Sakinah: I have been working with Sophia Fresh, which is T-Pain’s group signed to Nappy Boy through Atlantic Records. I enjoy working with new artists such as them or Asia Cruise who’s singed to Jive or RichGirl because they’re figuring it all out at the same time and I get to ask them ‘what are you trying to get across to your audience?’ , because you have to tell a story. You can’t just go up there and sing a song. So to watch somebody grow from being timid to becoming a star and being able to showcase, not just on stage but in interviews and just to blossom…I love it. I like to see them grinding hard from the beginning. Going to the studio for all-night sessions and all day long just to get it right; that’s really great. With that, I eventually want to be the person in 10 years who a Jive or Atlantic will call in to develop all their new artists because in the past, we haven’t always given these artists the opportunity to develop. They just throw them out there and the audience sees them make it or break it and watches them grow or never hears from them again. I want to be that point person from the moment an artist is signed.
D.ShanX: So you’re like a “swag” consultant?
Sakinah” (Laughs) Yea that’s one way to put it. Swag Consultant!
D.ShanX: Right, you’re choreographing for artists on stage and off. Clothes, image, everything…
Sakinah: Yea. We’re talking interviews, body image, diet, mic control on stage. ‘Who’s your stylist for stage and who’s your stylist for interviews?’ Make-up…all that goes into what people see and what kind of money people want to put into you. This is a real job. We can be a little more creative but there is still a formula and a path for success.
D.ShanX: So in general, what are your future goals? Do you plan to branch out into acting or something?
Sakinah: I’m not saying ‘no’ to acting but I’m not running to any auditions right now either. I did go to a performing arts high school so it’s not a stranger to me but right now I just want to stay focused on the choreography and artist development. And like I said, I have Sho Skills which I said is my dance company and we’re doing the workshops for the kids so I just want to stay behind that and branch out beyond Georgia and the Southeast. I’m also in a dance group here in Atlanta called Femistry and we’re just a network of women who are each doing our own thing. Like I have my company and someone else maybe a stylist but we’re all dancers so we just support each other and I’m the Artistic Director for that group as well.
D.ShanX: Ok so how do fans or anyone in general, keep track or get in touch with you?
Sakinah: I do have a MySpace page. It’s www.myspace.com/remembermynamelestage
D.ShanX: So are there any plans for a DVD ala “Darrin’s Dance Moves”?
Sakinah: Yes there is! Sho Skills puts out promo videos and also with Femistry we post videos so that’s what I’m focusing on right now but in the future that definitely sounds like something dope to do.
D.ShanX: Well we’ll definitely be looking forward to that and more from you Ms. Lestage. Last question, who are some of the dancers or choreographers that you looked up to coming up or who influenced you?
Sakinah: Wow, there’s a lot. Debbie Allen is my all time, all time favorite. I love her! Mia Michaels, Rich ‘n Tone, Jamaica, Fatima, Chuck Maldonado…I could go on for days.
D.ShanX: Thank you very much for your time Sakinah. It has been a pleasure and I know we will be seeing more of you and you’re work everywhere in the future.
Sakinah: Thank you D! I really appreciate it.