How ‘Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies’ Choreographer Jamal Sims Taught Today’s Dancers a ‘1950s Vocabulary’

TheWrap magazine: “What we really had to do is strip everybody of everything they knew,” choreographer Jamal Sims says

"Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies"
A scene from "Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies" (Credit: Paramount+)

A version of this story about the choreography of “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies” first appeared in the Comedy Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

As the old song goes, “Grease” is the time, the place and the motion — and the latter is provided for the Paramount+ prequel series “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies” by none other than Jamal Sims, the show’s choreographer and one of its director. The first hurdle was how to weave a new dance language with that of a film that pretty much everyone knows.

“It was really one of the films that made me want to be a dancer,” Sims, who as a choreographer has worked on everything from the Oscars to “RuPaul’s Drag Race” to “Encanto” to the “Step Up” franchise, said. “You know, we didn’t have a lot of musicals when it came out. And then to see John Travolta on the screen killing it really inspired me to want to dance. I learned every step from the VHS tape of ‘Grease’ backwards and forward. And so when this project came along, I realized that I had Patricia Birch’s movement in my bones already.”

Birch was famously the choreographer of the 1978 original film, and then in an extremely rare occurrence at the time, the director of 1982’s “Grease 2,” which she also choreographed. (The sequel is now considered a cult classic in many circles.) But Sims’ challenge on “Pink Ladies” was how to reengineer the dancing to shape the series’ one-foot-in-the-past, one-foot-in-the-present milieu.

“The way we dance today is often choreographed to the lyric, right?” Sims said. “It wasn’t always like that back in the earlier days. They would really listen to the music and let the dance and the movement form the story.”

The series fittingly introduces its fusion of choreographic styles with a newer, pop-infused version of the Barry Gibb-penned song “Grease” — an elaborate number set in, where else, a drive-in!

Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies
“Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies” (Paramount+)

“The hardest part about this is everyone was so glued to the original, we love it so much. And [executive music producer] Justin Tranter did come up with a couple of different versions, to not be stuck on the disco version, like myself. I kept saying, ‘I need to hear it through the guitar, boy!’”

And thus launched the impressive, panoramic opening number, giving way to wall-to-wall musical numbers throughout boasting doo-wop, girl-pop and everything else that don’t stop, all filtered through a feminist lens where the Pink Ladies give as good as they get. (Think: Amy Winehouse or Taylor Swift v. “Beauty School Dropout.”) The youthful, diverse, mostly unknown new cast helped set the tone for Sims and his collaborators.

“They all came in with different skill levels. Some of them have been doing this all their lives, some just started dancing right before they got the job,” Sims said. He partially credits TikTok and social media for the fervent, reignited passion for dance. “What we really had to do is strip everybody of everything they knew and really start teaching the 1950s vocabulary.”

Considering how much the younger generation revels in TikTok challenges and flash mobs, Sims still hopes there is a chance for deep reengagement in the form, much like when he was growing up watching the likes of Michael Jackson — a hero of his who he worked with in the “Remember the Time” music video with Eddie Murphy and Iman.

“I think what film and television is doing right now is being able to show dance from head to toe, in a way that we’re not able to experience it for, you know, 15 seconds,” Sims said. “There’s really nothing you feel like when you’re immersed in that world. When you’re looking at a little phone, I don’t know that you get the same experience.”

Read more from the Comedy Series issue here.

Comedy Series Cover, Selena Gomez
Photographed by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap