Janet Jackson taught me feminism. Not personally! But she and many other women in R&B and hip-hop were so important to me growing up (and still are), because they demonstrated how to be powerful women through their music—and especially their dancing. One of my most formative memories, from when I was around eight, was coming home from my hip-hop dance class and turning on the TV to see Janet Jackson’s video for “The Pleasure Principle,” in which she dances alone in a darkened warehouse. Her moves are strong, athletic, tough, and defiant. I’d never seen anyone dance that way, with no apparent desire to charm or seduce, but rather to confront and to defy. I was glued to the screen, trying to memorize her every move, believing that if I could master her awesome choreography, I might grow up to be just like Janet: a strong, self-assured, self-reliant woman. “I’m not here not here to feed your insecurities,” she sang. “I’ve got so many things I wanna do before I’m through.” She was wearing a killer outfit, too: tight black jeans, a black T-shirt knotted above her belly button, black Adidas Sambas, and black kneepads so she could do floor moves. That video was proof that you could be a girl who loved to dance and be more badass than any guy. So, yeah: she taught me feminism, through dancing.
Here are some more of my favorite videos, in chronological order, by women whose powerful moves have inspired and emboldened me through the years.
Janet Jackson, “Control” (1986)
Opening lyrics: “When I was 17, I did what people told me! Did what my father said, and let my mother mold me! But that was long ago—I’m in control!” It’s a song about a girl getting older, expressing her independence for the first time, and breaking away from her parents—as you can tell by watching this amazing video, which is akin to a movie. (They played this on MTV, too!) The way Janet hits every pose, with a snap of the head and a complete ease with her physical strength, exhibits the undistilled confidence of a woman who just came into her own and feels indestructible for it. “I’m on my own. I call my own shots. Thank you!” You are so welcome, Janet!
Rosie Perez in Do the Right Thing (1989)
Do the Right Thing is Spike Lee’s best movie and one of the most important commentaries on race relations in late 20th century pop culture. Every scene is iconic, but for me, the one that really sums up the whole movie’s frenetic energy and raw power is the one that runs under the opening credits, where Rosie Perez dances to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”
The fiery red lighting in this scene alludes to the extreme heat (both literal and figurative) that pervades the film, but it’s Rosie’s funky dance moves that embody its rage. The part where she’s punching the air in a boxing outfit is super crucial, but my favorite part is when she’s simply snarling at the camera and letting her right shoulder pop out a little bit. She looks like she’s thinking, Try me. That kind of raw physicality—plus, just straight-up dancing on a Brooklyn street in a leotard and tights, which is awesome—made me wanna jump up and down with happiness. It also said to me that the most crucial fighting of the power could—no, would—be done by a diminuitive Puerto Rican woman, and by extension all Latinas, and by extension all women, period. That was a really important message for a little Latina girl to hear! And it turned out to be true: Perez has spent her life doing AIDS activism and fighting for the rights of fellow Puerto Ricans and of disadvantaged kids in New York City.
Aaliyah, “If Your Girl Only Knew” (1996)
Baby girl was one of the best dancers of her era, and she had every chance to show it off through extensive choreography and backup dancers in most of her iconic videos. That’s what makes this one so powerful: here Aaliyah is in repose, sitting back on a recliner, her legs wide apart, looking utterly unflappable—a power position if I’ve ever seen one. She’s singing to a philandering boy, and her languid hand gestures question, accuse, and dismiss him all at once—she has this dude pegged. If she cared about him maybe she’d be trying to impress him with her dance moves, but it’s obvious that while he expected her to accept his advances, she’s siding with his unsuspecting girlfriend. It’s like she’s saying, I will not burn one calorie moving my body for you. “She’s crazy to put up with you,” she sings. “Oh boy, I won’t be no fool. Let you like what you see. It ain’t easy to get with me.” As if to prove it, the times she’s actually dancing, she’s by herself in a club, casually pushing aggressive boys away with a hand. Aaliyah was the queen of subtlety, and she’s at her most physically self-assured here. Let us never sit in a chair all “ladylike” again.
Ciara, “Like a Boy” (2007)
This song is an angry objection to the double standards in heteronormative relationships—the ones that make some boys think it’s OK to lie and cheat and treat girls like garbage, while they expect their girlfriends to remain faithful and sweet. No thank you, says Ciara, and the choreography for this video is bananas! It helps that she is the best dancer in pop/R&B, period, but she did a great job channeling her frustration into some intense moves—even Parent Trapping her way through the first verse and chorus in a duet between herself in a fancy minidress and also herself as a butch dude in a suit. But the best moment is at 2:47, when she’s slowly leaning back on her feet, her body pulsing to the heartbeat in the song. Then, as if by magic, she sweeps herself back upright, her hands lifting all the dancers that lie about her, assembling a gang of dancing tough girls to back her up. It’s so symbolic it gives me chills. Let’s posse up!
Beyoncé, “Diva” (2008)
Basically, all Beyoncé has to do to make us understand that the rest of us are just living in her world is walk from point A to point B. Her runway strut is unreal, as all of America witnessed at the beginning of her Super Bowl performance, when she stomped out with all the attitude and badass grace of a leggy Godzilla. The prototype for that power walk is right here in the “Diva” video, which could essentially be a full six minutes of her walking back and forth across a room and still be effective on a higher level of boss. OK, I’m gonna voice a controversial opinion here: Beyoncé is not, like, the greatest dancer in pop music. I mean, she’s great, but she’s no Ciara. THAT SAID: Beyoncé’s shoulder pop is incomparable, and, as in all her videos, she does it here about 100 times and it’s mesmerizing at every moment. I love the way she really takes up space when she dances, stretching way out in every direction, and makes all her movements big—all things that girls are taught not to do, lest we seem “unfeminine.” So with Beyoncé as America’s bosslady (did you see the Super Bowl?!) and us as her willing disciples, maybe we can come together and flip those rules on their head. Move like you wanna do, mama! ♦