This dance performer and choreographer has worked with everyone from cheerleaders to drag queens to the cast of a major movie musical. And now, AJ Blankenship is teaming up with one of “Drag Race’s” biggest stars to make more magic happen in Brooklyn. [Cover photo: Robert Riese]
Thotyssey: AJ, thanks so much for finding time in your busy schedule to chat with us! I was wondering if you watched the recent Grammys, which featured lots of amazing choreo from the likes of Lil Nas X, BTS and Jon Batiste. If so, did anything stand out to you as great, or not so great?
AJ Blankenship: I legit thought all the performances were great, but Lil Nas X came to slay! He’s been outta the public eye for a few months, so seeing a performance like that was so satisfying. The dancers were eating. Sean Bankhead is one of the best, if not the best, choreographers of our time.
As a professional choreographer and dancer, when you see a large dance performance like that–are you forced to see it in this very technical way, or do you ever just get lost in the moment like a regular audience member? And, do you often catch signature moves and moments that signal who the choreographer of the performance is?
I’m definitely always watching dance with a critical eye, because it’s art. I’m witnessing someone’s intentions, decision-making, creativity, and craftsmanship in real time, which is what makes it so thrilling to me. It’s the ultimate form of communication, and the best choreographers are simply the clearest communicators. And just like the way we individually will regularly use certain words or phrases or inflections when we speak, choreographers naturally have particular moves or qualities or structures that are very them. When you can watch a piece and tell who choreographed it, that artist has found their voice.
Besides choreographing dance performances, you’re also prolific in creating the moves in the world of competitive cheerleading. How did that begin… and does creating cheerleading routines require a much different skill set than traditional dance choreo?
I. Love. Cheerleading. I was a hardcore competitive gymnast growing up, turned show choir nerd, then started cheering in college at Ohio State, where I was also studying dance. So initially as a way to make some money in college, I started choreographing a few high school squads–but I’ve been doing it ever since. It def requires a particular skill set because, for me, I choreograph every cheer routine on the spot, 100%. I use the skills that the squad has that year to create a bunch of puzzles for myself to solve.
I’m the most “in the zone” when I’m creating cheer. But the goal of cheer isn’t to communicate emotions or storylines, it’s to showcase skills. So my creative process for other work takes a lot more time and intention-setting.
Dance is an activity that can be viewed as equal parts artistry and athleticism. As someone who’s also been a competitive gymnast, which part of that appeals to you more, do you think?
Well… if you think about moving objects in the universe, everything is either orbiting something, moving in a straight line, or getting knocked around by something else. We living beings are the only things that have the choice to move. And as far as we know, we’re the only living things that exist. We are the most rare and perfect thing in the entire universe. So when we intentionally choose to move, we are experiencing the highest level of being alive. Moving with softness, or power, or whatever… it’s all very appealing to me.
You’re from the small town of Circleville, Ohio. What was it like to grow up there, and how did you begin as a dancer and athlete?
I have an incredibly loving and supportive family. When my parents saw how in love with gymnastics I was when I was just five years old, they sacrificed a lot to give me the absolute best training. For a working class family from small town Ohio, that was extremely rare–and I realize just how lucky I’ve been to have them.
They are the reason I am who I am today, because the rest of the community was terrible to me. I would never wish the level of bullying I endured on anyone. As a small feminine “boy,” I was teased and shoved around every single day. In middle school I was jumped by two kids and beaten and kicked, and they were hardly punished at all. I was obviously the queer weirdo, and I think being talented put an even bigger target on my back.
But I didn’t let it stop me from fighting for my own happiness. And I know several amazing queer people here in NYC from small towns in Ohio who have taken their struggles and transformed them into triumphs: Nick Laughlin, Michael Warrell, Jeremy Ward, Pete Freeman, David Brentlinger, Jeff Dingfelder, Cody Huston, just to name a very few–all extremely colorful, hard-wording, authentic, and loving people who deserve a fierce pat on the back for escaping the bullshit we went through, and coming out strong, dope-ass people on the other side.
Do you have any particular favorite choreographer that inspired you? And, are there any “schools” or genres of dance that you enjoy the most?
I grew up obsessing over Britney Spears, *NSYNC, and Janet Jackson, so their styles are very much a part of me. But I have a degree in modern dance, so I love to dance and see dance that infuses softness and fluidity with boots and cats and “wham bam thank you ma’am’s.”
As a New Yorker, you’ve been part of the musical Bring It On’s Broadway and touring editions. You’ve performed with the Rockettes at Radio City as well. As far as big company productions go, what’s been your favorite experience?
My absolutely favorite job was working at Radio City in the show The New York Spectacular featuring the Rockettes. Mia Michaels choreographed it, and I danced with fifteen of the most ferocious men I’ve ever seen. It was so challenging and so fun. The show was only open for a couple months in the summer of 2016, but it was iconic.
I was actually a circus performer in The Greatest Showman and not a dancer–and it was the most difficult job I’ve ever had. It was so freaking demanding. We were on set at 4:30am every day during the frigid month of February. We tumbled on these very thin mats on top on concrete, then covered in dirt to hide them. My body endured whole lot of stress for that film. So yes, “This Is Me” has a special place in my heart–not only because it’s a great, inspiring song, but it reminds me of the hard work I put into that job in order to showcase my talents and skills the best I could. And I’m very proud of that!
Speaking of The Greatest Showman, the tickets for Hugh Jackman’s The Music Man on Broadway are… pricey! Would you see that show if you could?
I’m not super interested in musical theater right now, lol! I kind of have to roll my eyes at it all. There haven’t been many shows that have really excited or inspired me in the last few years–not since Hamilton, honestly. So I don’t have any real desire to see it. I’m very excited to see Company XIV, though! I can’t wait to hear Brandon Looney belt his face off.
You recently choreographed a number of RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Star Alaska’s videos and live shows. How did that collab come to be?
Nick Laughlin is Alaska’s right hand man; he produces and directs and really runs the ship of the Divatronic shows. Nick and I met at Showchoir Camps of America when we were 15 years old… no joke! We were in rival show choirs (his was better). He was actually my first romantic gay kiss. We’ve been friends ever since and when he started producing these shows he asked me to be a part of it. And like, duh. Of course I’m going to work with my oldest friend and the legendary Alaska 5000!
You and Nick work really well together!
We do! We are both very opinionated and passionate Virgos–so the first couple of shows we did, we ran into our challenges. But the more we do together, the better we get at communicating and leaning into each other’s strengths. We are able to share similar visions, and we have so much fun. Out of all the things I’ve done here in NYC, these Divatronic shows have been by far my favorite thing. I love my queer community more than anything. Creating queer art with queer people for queer people is what I was born to do.
3 Dollar Bill is my home, and Boy Radio is my boo… so I can’t wait to twirl on 420! It’s gonna be wacky like tobacky, baby. You’re gonna have to come get weird with us to find out.
And on April 30th, Alaska’s “Divatronic” team is back at 3DB for a tribute to Britney’s seminal album Circus, which will of course feature your choreo along with live music.
Ah, I can’t wait! I’m pushing myself as a choreographer and gonna bring some new, more technical styles to the stage. Only the absolute best for Britney.
What else is going on for you?
I do have a ton going on! I’ll be returning to The Metropolitan Opera at the beginning of May for another season of Turandot, in which I do featured acrobatics. I’m preparing for my summer of cheer choreo, which takes me away from the city for all of July and August. I continue to choreograph for queens like Jan, Jackie Cox, Madame Vivien V, Lagoona Bloo, Luxx Noir London and more. And Andrew Barret Cox and I have been working on a little somethin’ somethin’ that I can’t share anything about just yet.
Exciting! Finally: who’s the best dancer in pop music!?
Janet Jackson. Period.