Eleanor had gotten used to the dread that came with each notification on her phone –– keeping up with the news had drained her, but out of a maligned sense of civic responsibility, she continued to do so. Of course, every now and then, the clouds parted and gave her respite to discuss something more enjoyable.
“Ten years since what?” Gwen asked.
“This music video is ten years old now!”
Eleanor held her phone out, and, even before the image could fade in, the electronic dance beat clued Gwen in to what video was being discussed.
“Oh, wow,” Gwen muttered, as the lights finally faded in on the Queen and her attendants.
“Doesn’t it feel like yesterday?” Eleanor asked. “I remember that SNL parody like it was yesterday.”
“Maybe,” Gwen said, as the video continued to play. “I’d argue that it feels like it’s been longer. The video’s ingrained itself into the public consciousness so resolutely I can’t recollect a time before it was out.”
“Well, it also came out when we were young and impressionable,” Eleanor said.
Eleanor continued to watch the music video. It had been a few years since she actually sat down to view it – the grainy quality of the official YouTube upload marked the video as predating the curated uploads of Vevo and Spotify, with HD footage and viral rollouts. Despite the distance, Eleanor felt the muscle memory of the dance moves within her own body – her wrist giving the subtlest twist as Beyoncé and her dancers did the same.
“It’s a truly iconic music video,” Gwen said. “I can’t recollect another recent video with the same kind of social impact. Maybe Gangnam Style, but even then, it’s a different kind of impact.”
The two fell silent, as the video played out. Just before the song ended, a hand appeared from Dania’s doorway – fingers together, pointing upwards, twisting back and forth at the wrist.
“Whoa-oh-oh, oh-oh-oh-oh-oh,” the voice intoned. The fingers waved, danced around.
“Still no ring, after ten years, Dania?” Eleanor asked.
“Whatever, the first five years don’t count,” Dania said, entering the living space. “Why are we watching Beyoncé?”
Before Eleanor could repeat the anniversary, Dania sat and continued. “I mean, why are we ever not watching Beyoncé, honestly, but why this right now?”
“Today’s the tenth anniversary of the music video,” Eleanor said. “Can you believe it?”
Dania considered this, then nodded approvingly. “Yep, that feels about right. Beyoncé has been queen for ten years, that’s accurate.”
“Was this the song that made her a queen?” Gwen asked. “I recall her already being a successful musician at this point.”
“Well, yes,” Eleanor said. “Sasha Fierce was her third album, so she was already successful. But this was the beginning of her as Beyoncé, the most powerful person in pop music. Like, this was right in the middle of the YouTube boom, so when the video went viral, it was actually a big deal. It was viral for, like, a month, not a week.”
“And everyone knows this video,” Dania added. “Like, that dance move––”
Dania stood up, and walked forward in rhythm, punching downwards. She flipped her hair up over her head –– though it didn’t quite trace the same arcing sweep that Beyoncé’s flowing mane always managed.
“That one,” she concluded.
“Although Beyoncé didn’t invent that move, right?” Gwen said. “It’s from the Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse song. The name escapes me.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s another video,” Gwen said, pulling up YouTube to search. “I don’t believe it’s from Sweet Charity, but it’s similar. Gwen Verdon and two backup dancers on some morning show –– here’s the clip.”
Eleanor and Dania crowded around as a thickly blurred video played on Gwen’s phone. Sure enough, as Verdon and two backup dancers moved languidly to the song “Mexican Breakfast,” a few of the moves from Beyoncé’s video began to pop out. A strutting walk around the entire space –– the shaking of a single hip with the arms raised above the head –– sure enough, the downward punches.
“Oh, Beyoncé, you thief,” Dania remarked.
“She didn’t choreograph it,” Gwen said. “I don’t believe she did.”
“She didn’t. It’s actually a male choreographer,” Eleanor pointed out. “But Beyoncé knew the Fosse routine. Although, this is so much faster and wilder than Fosse.”
“There’s a focus to the dance that’s distinctly Fosse, though,” Gwen said. “The thing about Fosse is that –– well, look at the Verdon video. It’s slow, it’s precise. Every movement is an isolation. You watch the “Single Ladies” video, and it’s the same stuff. Isolations, precision in how every body part moves, the mirroring with the backup dancers that gets broken at impactful moments.”
“It’s just way, way faster,” Dania said.
“They’re not…perfect mirrors, though,” Eleanor said. She played the video again: in the first few seconds, slight differences in the elevation and movement of the trio’s hands marked the dancers as distinct from one another before their faces were even illuminated.
“I mean, it’s pretty close,” Dania said. “I don’t think we could do that.”
“Sure, but it’s not Chorus Line,” Eleanor pointed out. “As much as the thigh-cut leotards would have you believe that. There’s a focus on individuality, even as the dance is in a group.”
Dania considered this. “Sure,” she agreed. “Also. It’s Beyoncé.”
“Also true,” Eleanor conceded.
“Every single element is so carefully curated, though,” Gwen added. “When you consider where Beyoncé is now –– renting out the entire Louvre for a video, or the enormity of Beychella –– the specificity of “Single Ladies” feels like a starting point. A test for how many elements in the video can be controlled.”
“A Beyoncé beta, if you will,” Eleanor said. “A…Beta-yoncé.”
Dania and Gwen just stared.
“Don’t judge me.”
“I understand your meaning, that the music video is to Beychella what a student film is to a blockbuster –– namely, a starting point,” Gwen said. “But careful of your terrible puns.”
Dania, on her phone, watched the music video again. “It’s weird that everything is so identical all the way though, but then there are parts where they just forget that it’s supposed to mirror.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, this part.” Dania played a clip from a minute into the video, when Beyoncé’s backup dancers stood on opposing sides of the Queen, as she knelt below them, framing her face. “Totally not symmetrical,” Dania pointed out. “There’s a few moments like that.”
“Well, that’s sort of the impressive thing about the video and contrast,” Eleanor said. “Because everything is so together, you actually notice the times when things are irregular like that.”
“They repeat a motif a few times where Beyoncé will do a move,” Gwen said, “and then the backup dancers will repeat it with her. It’s a clever trick.”
“It’s J-Setting,” Eleanor clarified. “It’s a hallmark of HBCUs. It was in Drumline, did you forget that?”
“I’ve forgotten a lot about Drumline,” Gwen said.
“It’s another precursor to other Beyoncé performances,” Eleanor said. “When Beyoncé performed this at the MTV Awards, she kept expanding it until it was, like, a hundred women all repeating the moves with her. Extreme J-Setting.”
“Even things like the smile –– did you notice the smile?” Dania asked, winding back the video. “There’s exactly two parts of this video where Beyoncé smiles. Everything else is that vaguely confronted stare, but she smiles twice.”
“Once is at the very end, right?” Gwen recalled. “You’re counting that?”
“Yep, that’s the second one, obviously.” Dania found the section, immediately after the famous zoom shot of her twisting hand. As the camera pulled back to a wide shot, Beyoncé could be seen grinning as she shook her way into the bridge at the song’s center. “There’s the first.”
“Ugh, the energy here, I swear,” Eleanor groaned. “You just don’t see videos with this much energy pulsing out of it anymore. Like, watch those moves –– so sharp, so quick. The skip step they do before running up that invisible wall…”
“Okay, that’s absolutely from Sweet Charity,” Gwen said. “From ‘Something Better Than This.’ I didn’t recognize it in 2008, but now it’s obvious, with all the other Fosse quotation that happens.”
“Watch the feet here,” Eleanor said. “This was always my favorite part.”
The trio watched as the camera panned 540 degrees around the dancers, who shuffled their feet imperceptibly to remain facing the camera the entire time.
“I don’t know how many takes this took, but it’s crazy good,” Dania said.
“I’m pretty sure it was one take,” Eleanor said. “Isn’t that the lore?”
“The idea was to do it in one take,” Gwen answered. “Or, to make it look like that. In reality it took an entire day of filming different sections. They wore through many pairs of heels.”
“Yike.” Dania rubbed her heel, instinctively. “I could barely do the dance once in flats.”
“It’s another way that Beyoncé proved she was the queen,” Eleanor said, “years before she no longer had to keep proving it.”
“Yeah, there’s no question anymore,” Dania said.
The video continued to play out. The final shot: a close-up on Beyoncé, panting quietly –– a show of humanity, of being out of breath, after an effortless show of grace. Then, twirling her armored hand into a fist, and laughing off the power, she began to duck her head down as the lights on the soundstage finally faded to full black.
Image Credit: Beyoncé / Columbia Records