Keenan Cooks is the king of manifestation. Whether he’s teaching at BDC, choreographing for huge names like Cardi B, David Guetta, or Lizzo, or dancing at the Grammy’s, perhaps what makes Cooks so successful is that he never loses sight of his past OR his future.
There’s a fine line to walk between confidence and ego, humility and shame, and like all of his movements, he executes this nuanced dance flawlessly. In this month’s Amplify Black Artists feature, Cooks speaks about colorism in the dance industry, as well as how his experiences as a Black man have contributed to his unmatched drive & determination.
Words you often use to identify yourself:
Black, Man, Gay, Leo, Crazy (lol)
Biological Racial Identity:
What you’re listening to:
Ari Lennox “Shea Butter Baby”
What are you most proud of in your life?
I am most proud of the obstacles I’ve overcome to make my dreams come true. From battling a tumor at the age of 8, to fighting colorism in my industry as an adult, I’ve overcome so much to make the dream of being a professional dancer, choreographer, and instructor come true.
What scares you?
What cultures were most present in your home growing up? In what ways were they practiced/demonstrated?
Black culture was the most present in my home growing up. I wasn’t exposed to other cultures until high school. Black culture was demonstrated and practiced in my home through food, music, discipline, fashion, and church.
Describe the first time you felt different or out of place or less than because of your race.
The first time I felt less than because of my race was in 2007. It was my first trip out of the country, to Africa – a place where I never thought I would experience racism, and I did. I was at the Apartheid Musuem and a group of white teens were laughing at the photos of the black people being whipped and hung.
“They proceeded to turn to my group of friends and recite the lyrics to “Can’t Touch This” By MC Hammer, while dancing and calling us Niggers. This was the first and LAST time I ever allowed myself to feel less than as a Black man. “
In what ways do you feel that your race has affected your career?
I feel like my race has affected my career in a positive way. I’ve achieved so many of my goals, despite what the world has said and done to black people. As a black man, I stand proud of who I am. I have a black hair style and black features that I have never changed. So when other black aspiring dancers/choreographers see me working with the likes of Dua Lipa, Jennifer Lopez, Kelly Rowland, etc., I know they feel that they can do it too. So even if there have been “negative affects” because of my race, they are still a win to me.
In what way(s) have you have experienced racism in the dance industry, specifically?
“Colorism is huge unspoken issue in the dance industry. The light-skinned, ‘more exotic’ dancers often get the opportunities over darker-skinned dancers.”
I remember dancing with an artist whose camp is known for only booking lighter-skinned dancers, but her choreographer booked me. Walking into the room and throughout the whole experience, I was the only (obviously) black dancer. Some of the dancers were not as talented as other black dancers I know, but they have “the look”.
How have you navigated your own cultural identity during a time when discussions about race have been top of mind?
I’ve decided to be more vocal during this time. In the past, I would not talk about race, culture identity, etc. I come across so many people in my field that I never wanted to offend anyone. But now I’m loud and proud of who I am, where I come from, and what people who look like me go through. And if that offends you, then you have some issues you have to sort out with yourself.
What responsibility do you think those in your industry have in working toward racial equality?
I think the people in power in the dance industry have to stop type casting. We live in a time now where anyone can be anything. And racial equality starts when we are all seen as what? EQUAL.
“As an industry, we have to stop telling people that they are good for ‘this part’, and ‘this part’ only. Once we see people of color in different roles, I feel like the perception that people have of people of color could also change.”
What does justice and/or freedom look like to you?
Justice, for me, is when we don’t have to ask the world for it. Justice and freedom will come when we are all seen as equal, and all treated equally. It’s when I won’t have to tell someone my Black life matters because they will already know. Freedom and justice feel like they’re far away, but we all have to continue to use our voices to demand it.
One piece of advice for young Black artists in your industry:
One piece of advice I have for young black artists in the dance industry is to BE UNDENIABLE. Be so good that they can’t say no. That they create a role for you. Be so good that they can’t make any excuses. Train to be the best in the room.