Sakinah, you’re of Cuban and Trinidadian Descent, what a lovely mix. Growing up, how much, if any influence did your culture have on your love for dancing?
Sakinah LeStage: Yes I am mixed with Cubano and Trini. I find that it helps me in choreography because of how I hear the music. Caribbean music always plays on the upbeat rather than the down beat like American music. I can flow between both which I find creates a unique musicality and style to my work. Not to mention that the hip movements of West Indian (Caribbean) movement offers fun variation to what Americans call “twerking” which we know Africans and Caribbean folks have been doing since the beginning of time.
How did you get into artist development and build a name for yourself for record labels to want to look to you for help?
Sakinah LeStage: I started doing artist development with TPAin in 2005. He had released his 1st single “I’m Sprung” I was hired as a dancer and in the rehearsals noticed that I had some knowledge about stage performing that could be helpful. I politely gave up my suggestions and he was receptive. From there I went on to be hired by Nappy Boy to develop all his talent upon signing. That later lead me into opportunities to do movement coaching and more development with new and well known artist such as Musiq Soulchild (DefJam), Austin Mahone (Universal), Wynter Gordon (Universal), Reginea Carter (YMCMB) and several other labels like Motown, J Records, etc. Several people can choreograph but it really is a different thing to understand how to help an artist be an artist and deliver their overall music and style to an audience. I created a curriculum that I follow and it has helped me master the artist development. I of course employ a team when doing so and that really makes all the difference.
Kiki Ely, you received your BS in Chemistry, woah! But Dancing pulled you in, when did you know that you’d continue down the path of choreography?
Kiki Ely: I knew that I would continue down the path of choreography when I was blessed with the opportunity to co-choreograph Drumline Starring Nick Cannon & Zoe Saldana. That was ironically my first job in the entertainment industry that sort of fell in the palms of my hand, but also gave me my foot in the door to move to Los Angeles and get signed to Bloc Talent Agency. I got bit by the bug doing that movie and really became passionate about dancing and pursuing my dreams. That was a very pivotal point in my career and when I realized I could do this for a living. Still One of the best decisions of my life 14 years later.
It seems like you’ve danced everywhere and with everybody, what were your top 3 favorite dancing events?
Kiki Ely: That’s really hard as there are so many to choose from and I’ve been blessed to perform all around the world but My top 3 favorite dancing events I would have to say are:
The Oprah Winfrey Show performing at Radio City Music Hall with Christina Aguilera for a huge Mother’s Day Special. I flew my mom to New York to be a guest and she got to meet Oprah. That was pretty amazing.
Performing in South Africa, Durban, & Mozambique with Ciara in a stadium full of people that were so incredibly grateful to have us there. Being in another country like Africa really made me feel extremely blessed to be doing what I love.
Definitely performing in Abu Dhabi, Dubai with Christina Aguilera. Incredible experience performing in that country. The show was amazing.
You both have many hats, as director, choreographer, and artist developer, tell our readers how the AtLA Takeova Dance Convention was born and why it’s important to you?
Kiki Ely: The AtLA Takeova Dance Convention was born in November 11, 2011. (11.11.11)
It was extremely important to us being able to actually see the vision come to fruition. Seeing so many dancers come from all over the country to share this experience with us as well as these amazing choreographers was incredibly surreal. It definitely lit a fire under us and made me especially realize how significantly important my journey has been to get this point and why I have experienced all that I have. To share what I’ve learned so that others can follow in the same footsteps I have followed of so many amazing dancers, choreographers, & most of all inspirational leaders that have helped me in the pursuit of “Taking Ova” My Dreams.
Sakinah LeStage: It is important to me because I was a convention kid growing up. I told my mom and dad at 13 yrs old that I would be the owner of a dance convention some day. I did all I could in high school and college to make that dream a reality. I interned with LA Dance magic convention, I studied with Emmy Award winner Mia Michaels and was selected for her dance intensive and most of all I learned the business. When Kiki and I teamed up I had a previous dance workshop company by the name of Shoskillz and was happy to hear that our vision and plans were in line with each other. AtLA was born out of passion and hard work of two women with big dreams to share what they learned in the pursuit of them. I can honestly say that AtLA is my dream come true.
You’re doing so much and it’s amazing. I know how passion fuels our fire, but share with us, how do you juggle your life, career, family, the choreography and other hats you wear?
Kiki Ely: This past year has definitely been a huge adjustment in juggling life, career, family, choreography, business ventures and so much more. It makes me go even harder for everything I believe & have faith in. AtLA has allowed me to focus on my goals and vision for the future of my family. With family especially children, there is always a balance that has to be implemented. Because I have the tendency to be very passionate about dance and my career, I always have to make sure my family and daughter are at the top of my priorities. They matter the most & they are the reason I go hard for my dreams. Even when we are all extremely tired at times, the sacrifice to do what we love so that I can spend time with family is all worth it. Thankful for my mom and sister who definitely help me and support me in the pursuit of making my dreams come true!
Sakinah LeStage: Juggling is something I think we both have gotten really good at. LOL! It is hard to maximize the potential in all areas but once you find the formula it gets easier. We often times laugh because we have to schedule friendship time to just talk about life and not work. (Secretly we still end up talking about work. lol) Family has been huge for me to stay focused, my parents support is incredible and I am so thankful for them. Kiki and I are so fortunate to have family that backs us up all the way. It is definitely a blessing and a motivation.
What are you most passionate about and how does it fuel you?
Kiki Ely: I’m most passionate about AtLA & my daughter Kennedy-Dream. AtLA fuels me because it allows others to pursue their dreams. It has created so many doors & windows of opportunity for so many dancers. Even to the extent of a television show which airs Sept. 12th on UPTv featuring 8 of the top elite young dancers in Atlanta as they pursue their dreams through our company ATLA Takeova. There are so many success stories from AtLA and it just continues to fuel Both Sakinah and I with excitement as we watch the dreams of others come to life. My daughter Kennedy-Dream fuels me so much because she places so much purpose in my life. She is such a blessing to our entire family and so incredibly smart. I get excited thinking about how awesome she is and going to be when she gets older. I work hard so that she can do and be anything her heart desires. I will go to the end of the earth to make sure she fulfills everything she ever dreams of. She is my greatest performance yet!
Sakinah LeStage: AtLA is a major passion of ours. Knowing that for most of my life I have wanted to have and offer what was offered to me as a young dancer. Being able to give that to dancers is a passion. Helping them navigate through the intimidating world of dance and entertainment. Being a successful business owner and example in our community is definitely the fuel. Kiki and I are always saying that AtLA is bigger than us. Making sure we are not only professionally equipped but spiritually responsible and ready for God’s ultimate plan keeps me fueled. There are so many things in life that suggest selfishness. AtLA is not one of them so that in itself is a fire that stays lit. It’s always better to do things for others; in turn you will get the things that are for you.
Who and what have been some of your inspirations in dance and in life?
Sakinah LeStage: My inspirations have been Debbie Allen (Director, Choreographer, Actress) and Catherine Brewton (Vice President of BMI Publishing, Billboard Music’s Woman of the Year 2013, my mentor).
Kiki Ely: Some of my inspirations in dance have been the incomparable Debbie Allen; growing up watching her on Fame with her beauty and grace as a dancer, choreographer,& actress. I was hugely inspired by the Fly Girls on In Living Color. Watching them on TV every week performing so many different styles of dance was amazing to me. I would learn all the routines off my VCR and teach all my friends the choreography. Shawnette Heard was a huge inspiration in my dance career. As Janet Jackson’s Choreographer and Creative Director, she brought such magic and visual creativity to everything Janet presented to the world. She’s placed some amazing footsteps in the industry & her work is phenomenal. One of my biggest inspirations as a Choreographer and close friend is Jamaica Craft. She epitomizes the definition of creative genius. I’m thankful for her as an African American woman, Choreographer & Creative Director because she has laid the foundation for so many dancers in the industry, especially from Atlanta. Working with her I learned a lot as a Dancer, Choreographer and Creative Director behind the scenes. I’ve been able to gain so much insight that has helped lay my own path as a Choreographer and Creative Director.
How did you develop your craft over the years?
Sakinah LeStage: I studied several forms of dance as a kid: Ballet, Jazz, Modern, Tap, Lyrical, Musical Theatre, African, etc. I attended a performing arts high school where we studied theatre and videos. I trained physically and mentally while pursuing my career as a dancer. I now read business books on owning a business as well as surround myself with successful entertainment executives in order to keep myself sharp.
Kiki Ely: I started training at the age of 6 at Spelman College Children’s Dance Theatre taking Ballet, Tap, Jazz, Modern, African & Gymnastics. I later began extensive training in Ballet, Pointe & Pas de Deux at Ballethnic Dance Academy under the direction of Waverly Lucas & Nena Gilreath. While in college I danced with the Dancing Dolls at Southern University for 4 years. After graduating from college I decided to continue my dance career full time and moved to Los Angeles where I began heavy training in Hip Hop. I continued perfecting my craft over the next 10 years while living in Los Angeles.
How did dance contribute to your self-esteem?
Sakinah LeStage: I was the only Black girl in the company I was in as a young dancer and I forced myself to be the best and win all the awards and accolades. I also would surround myself with people more successful than myself in order to grow. Those things humbled me, but also gave me the confidence to know when I was winning. I know that nothing was handed to me and whatever I did, I worked hard for. That level of preparation only brings on strong confidence after a while.
Kiki Ely: Dance contributed highly to my self-esteem. As a young child growing up I was very shy. I barely spoke to anyone, but when I danced I would shine like a light! Dance was always my outlet and it gave me so much confidence as a young woman. Aside from dance feeling incredibly amazing it gave a sense of accomplishment knowing I can connect with people and make them feel good just by moving my body and not saying a word. That makes me feel good inside.
How did your big break manifest and how did you take advantage of it?
Sakinah LeStage: I was given an opportunity right out of college to be the head Choreographer for an artist on JIVE records. I had no major dance career credits. However, I was hired to create an entire Japanese tour for an artist on a major label. I quickly learned the ropes, relied heavily on prayer and faith and made it happen. After that, I knew I needed to simultaneously pursue a career in dance as well as a career as a working Choreographer. So I did that. I quickly and strategically worked with several big-name artists in order to grow my resume while also choreographing and creative directing for artists on JIVE and Def Jam.
Kiki Ely: My big break came when I was given the opportunity to not only be in a movie but also co-choreograph it as well. Drumline was my first film and my foot in the door to move to Los Angeles from Atlanta, as well as get signed to Bloc Talent Agency. That was my big break that began the catapult of my career.
What have been some memorable moments dance has contributed to your life?
Sakinah LeStage: Some of the memorable experiences are that I have traveled all over the world to Africa, London, Japan and many other places all for dance. As a Choreographer, I have choreographed a show that was performed for President Obama and the 1st family at the White House.
Kiki Ely: I have had so many memorable moments that dance has contributed to my life. One moment, in particular, is touring with Christina Aguilera on her Back to Basics World Tour. I remember a very special performance with her on the Oprah Winfrey show. We performed at Radio City Music Hall for a Mother’s Day special and I flew my mom to New York to watch the show. She met Oprah and was extremely proud and happy to be there. I was so thankful to really understand how dance has been such a blessing to my life and allowed me to make so many unforgettable dreams come true for not just myself, but my family as well.
How are you giving back to the dance community?
Sakinah LeStage: Through AtLA Takeova, we are giving back to young aspiring talents the tools and insight as well as dance training on how to get in and stay in the industry. I am on board for a charity in NC called Hope for Harvest. We feed the homeless, I teach a free class to a group of dancers called “Inspire the Fire” for less fortunate kids with big hearts and a desire to perform.
Kiki Ely: With AtLA Takeova we continue to give back and provide professional exposure and experience to young up and coming industry dancers pursuing their dance career.I also teach and do workshops and Masterclasses at several different studios all across the country. I recently finished working with the dance department at Bates College where they flew me in as a guest Choreographer as well as having an open forum discussing my background, my journey and the fusion of education and the arts. I am also a part of the Alumni at Ballethnic Dance Company where we have started “Beyond the Barre,” giving a panel discussion with current dancers that are currently following our footsteps and in the same place we were many years ago. Our guidance and insight help young teens and adults continue the journey of being a dancer and making good decisions in life.
What advice do you have for the next generation of dancers?
Sakinah LeStage: I would say be smart about what type of projects you take as well as money and budgeting for when things are not going well. Stay away from putting all of your life on social media and remember you never know where your next big moment is coming from so be nice, pleasant and fun to work with.
Kiki Ely: Continue to train and perfect your craft as a dancer. Never stop learning and be open to getting out of your comfort zone. Do your research and learn about who paved the way for you to be here as a dancer. Learn all you can as a dancer behind the scenes. We cannot dance forever so have other avenues of the business in mind that you are passionate about pursuing. Learn ways to make money while you are sleeping.
What do you have planned for 2020?
Sakinah LeStage & Kiki Ely: AtLA will be going national this year adding cities such as Miami, Houston, Chicago, and LA. We plan to continue to also work as a Choreographer and Creative Director with some amazing artists. We will be involved in a major project that we cannot disclose as of yet, but it will be huge for us as Choreographers and for our company. Stay tuned.
Is there anyone you would like to thank for helping you thus far?
Sakinah LeStage: I would first like to thank my business partner Kiki Ely as well as my manager Jennifer Horton and mentor Catherine Brewton. These strong ladies keep me grounded, focused and ready for all that comes our way.
Kiki Ely: I would like to thank my business partner Sakinah Lestage who is my right hand in everything we do at AtLA. I’m incredibly thankful to have someone that is just as passionate and eager about the success of our company and taking it to levels no one has ever seen in the Dance Industry. I want to thank my family: my mom & my sister who have been my rock and support system always. And my beautiful 19-month-old daughter, Kennedy-Dream, who inspires me to be a better mom and human being every day. I never knew what love was until I had her. And lastly, I want to thank my dad who is in Heaven now shining down on & watching over me through each day of my life. I want to always make him proud so he pushes me to always want to achieve greatness in everything I do.