Choreographer Jamal Sims Helps the Pink Ladies Rule the School on ‘Rise of the Pink Ladies’

Choreographer Jamal Sims ("Girls Trip") told IndieWire about paying homage to "Grease" while creating something modern and exhilarating on the Paramount+ prequel series.
Ari Notartomaso as Cynthia Zdunowski, Alexis Sides as Potato, Maximo Salas as Shy Guy, Cheyenne Wells as Olivia Valdovinos, Johnathan Nieves as Richie Valdovinos and Marisa Davila as Jane Facciano in Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies: "If  You Can't Be an Athlete, Be an Athletic Supporter" EP#104 streaming on Paramount +, 2022. Photo Credit: Eduardo Araquel/Paramount+
"Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies"

Director-choreographer Jamal Sims and “Grease” go together like “rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong.” Now, he’s channeled his lifelong love of the film as choreographer of the Paramount+ musical series “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies.” A prequel to the movie, the series shares the origin story of Rydell High’s infamous Pink Ladies, who initiate a wave of change that ripples through the high school in 1954. But Sims was initially hesitant to join the project. 

“‘Grease’ means so much to so many people,” Sims told IndieWire. “It was when I read the script by our lovely, brilliant showrunner, Annabel Oakes, I thought, ‘This is not what people are going to expect.’”

The script included brand-new characters (though keep an eye out for younger versions of two future Pink Ladies) challenging societal norms of the 1950s, as well as new songs written by Justin Tranter, who has worked with Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, and Ariana Grande. Instead of staying musically in the 1950s, Tranter’s original material includes more modern musical trends as well. Sims matched the music’s 2023 sensibility while paying tribute to the 1978 film’s choreographer, Patricia Birch.

“[Birch] gave ‘Grease’ a dance language of its own,” Sims said. “From ‘Born to Hand Jive’ to ‘Summer Nights’ or ‘We Go Together’ — it’s iconic. I wanted to make sure that our version felt like it was in the same family. I added my flavor and swag to her musicality and it felt right.”

Fans of Sims’ previous work, which includes “Girls Trip,” “Hairspray,” and “Step Up,” will be able to spot his signature combination of athleticism and high-octane energy, here blended with era-specific dance trends like The Pony to provide a fresh interpretation.

“Sometimes one movement or one instrument can help develop the number,” said Sims. “I always start with the story first, though. That’s the most important thing. Where does the character emotionally start the number and where do they end?”

Sims’ plot-driven process means each number’s choreography has a strong awareness of its environment. In the premiere episode’s “Good Girl Act,” Olivia Valdovinos (Cheyenne Isabel Wells) attempts to clear up rumors about new student Jane Facciano (Marisa Davila) after a snide comment in their home ec class. Sims’ choreography not only captures the dissolve of tension into a carefree frivolity, he masterfully incorporates the scenic design. From dancing “The Swim” atop ironing boards to playfully incorporating rolling pins, Sims utilizes props to add a deeper level of immersion.

Episode 4’s “Pointing Fingers,” meanwhile, is a triumphant number in which the Pink Ladies lead a rebellious rescue of their jackets from the school administration. Sims’ choreography is at first linear and angular as the high schoolers dance on the bleachers before building into an explosive finale with the students dancing with power and defiance towards their school’s administration.

“When you’re dealing with characters, they walk differently, they speak differently, they have different story arcs, so they should dance differently, too,” said Sims. “The Soc’s dancing had to be a little more stiff so they couldn’t be really swiveling in the hips. The T-Birds have a cool, laidback vibe, so I thought about how my dad and mom danced back in the day.”

Sims stepped into the director’s shoes for Episode 6, “Sloppy Seconds Ain’t My Style.” The episode follows two big events at Rydell High: The announcement of the nail-biting student president election results and the drama department’s premiere of “Romeo and Juliet.” Sims treats the camera like a dancer, whether with an aerial shot of basketballs bouncing in the gym or when circling Hazel (Shanel Bailey) performing “Finding My Light” during an unexpected appearance in the school play.

“As a director, I know how to show the movement with the camera since I choreographed it, which is a skill set I now treasure,” Sims said. “I can move the cameras where I need them to be at specific points of the number. Nothing feels better than being able to see somebody’s feet during a dance scene.”

While preparing for his episode, he leaned on his show biz mentors Anne Fletcher, Kenny Ortega, and Adam Shankman, who have their own experience transitioning from choreographer to director. As he adds more director credits to his résumé, the shift feels natural to Sims, who has decades of experience choreographing for the screen. Combining the two skill sets is something he already did instinctively.

“As a choreographer, I feel like I’ve always told stories through my dances,” said Sims. “TV and film have always felt like home. Where the words stopped on the page, I continued the story with movement.”

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