A dancer extraordinaire, Aliya Janell has taken the internet by storm with her gutsy choreography in 5-inch heels. Each week, the Los Angeles native posts sensationally viral video clips of her must-attend class titled “Queen N’ Lettos.” Janell represents a new era of dancers whose social media serve as digital portfolios showcasing their craft. With 800K followers on Instagram at press time, the 23-year-old bombshell’s sexy routines have garnered attention from millions of online users including celebrities Nicki Minaj, Tank, and Chris Brown, who recruited her to star in his “Questions” music video after he reposted, on his Instagram account, a snippet of Janell’s explosive choreography curated for Future’s song “Pie” which features Brown.
Janell’s been “booked and busy” all of 2017. She’s taking her dynamic class on the road to New York, Washington, D.C, and other major cities. It doesn’t stop there, Janell is coming to a TV near you. (She couldn’t share details as of yet so stayed tuned.)
Here, she shares her story of becoming the industry’s go-to choreographer.
How long have you been dancing? Did you have any formal training growing up?
I’ve been dancing ever since I can remember. It started when I was in elementary school. My mom was a single mother taking care of me so she couldn’t pick me up on time at the end of the school day. She enrolled me in an after-school program that offered dance classes. I was always the last child to get picked up so I became consumed with the classes. One of the classes was a dance class. I was known as the hip-hop girl at my elementary school in Los Angeles. I discovered Millennium Dance Complex in North Hollywood. I took their kids classes every single weekend and one thing just led to another.
At what point did you realize you wanted to pursue dance professionally?
Surprisingly, it was after I graduated high school in 2012 – when I was like 18 or 19 years old. I actually fell off of the dance industry world because I was so into being the star dancer at my high school. At that time, I hadn’t been to Millennium in a few years. I ended up discovering a heels class. It was kind of like “Hip-Hop N’ Heels” and I never knew that even existed. I started taking that class and I realized what the choreographer was doing and how she was living her life dancing every single day, choreographing, creating and having all these women behind her. She was actually making a living off of this. I wanted to become just like her. I wanted to become the legendary dancer that everyone is like, “Oh my God! That’s her. I can’t believe I’m in a class with her.”
Despite the glamorous exterior of a performing on stage alongside celebrities and wearing to-die-for outfits, being a dancer isn’t the most lucrative career. What other jobs were you working to provide for yourself while pursuing your passion?
I was working in restaurants. I knew that I didn’t want to be in retail folding clothes because I could barely fold my own laundry. [laughs] I’m really good with customers and people in general. I started at Octopus Japanese Restaurant; it’s a really hot restaurant in Burbank. I was a host and cashier. It was a dream come true. I always wanted to be the person at McDonald’s taking people’s orders. [laughs] I realized I wasn’t making as many tips as the servers so I quit that job and started working for California Pizza Kitchen. I was there for about two or three years as a server and that really helped as far as finances like paying for my classes and school on the side as well.
I can’t say that that I miss it though.
Millions of viewers have watched stars like Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, K. Michelle, and so many other stars repost your choreography videos. Does this attention put pressure on you?
It totally does but only for a second. Honestly, when I got reposted by Chris Brown and Jason Derulo the first time it was literally just me being me and not having the pressure of making this bomb a** routine for people to drool over and repost. My form of pressure is my students loving what they’re dancing to and enjoying the combo and less of “Oh! I hope Chris Brown see’s this.” There’s really no pressure anymore as far as Nicki Minaj posting or other celebrities. I’m more concerned with Queens N’ Lettos as a whole. I’m still super grateful for celebrities posting my work.
What are your thoughts about the increasing numbers of dancers on social media?
I am not surprised with it at all. Dance is such a universal language. It can make anybody smile and get their spirits up. There are so many different ways to dance and express your language. I continued to get inspired by other people’s material and content. It gives me some ideas of how I can explore different styles when it comes to Queens N’ Lettos. I am proud of everybody and it’s not a threat to me. I think people sometimes hate on others just because they’re in the same lane doing the same thing. I know that no one can ever be me and I can never be them. Let’s just collab if anything. Collaboration is the most important thing when it comes to the social media world.
Your choreography feels more free-spirited than technical, what keeps you inspired?
Wow. You’re probably the first person to put that into words on how I’m more free-spirited than technical and it’s so true. My choreography is literally me and my assistant who is actually now my best friend. It comes from us free-styling in my apartment gym and just not giving a care in the world. It’s just fun for us. It just the most organic process. I would say Beyoncé is number one when it comes to inspiration with her swag and style. I almost would say Janet too, but Janet [is] more technical. I would say a mix of those two artists for choreography.
Choreographer Laurieann Gibson (MTV’s “Making the Band”) made her staple teaching word “boomkack.” I see a similarity in your teaching styles using sound effects. Why do you find that technique to be most effective?
I loved “Making the Band.” That is so funny … me as a choreographer, I’m bad with using counts. I am also really bad at remembering the lyrics to the songs that we’re using. I learn choreography when I connect to the music based on what sound effect I’m hitting. The best thing that I can do is give them the closest thing to the tempo which is the sound effects. The sound effects are what you will remember because it’s ludicrous to use “zigi-zigi-zee” or “boomkack.” Nobody has ever asked me this so I kind of wonder how that even got started for me. It’s probably my spirit just coming out.
Your Queens N’ Lettos class is empowering and inspirational. What message do you hope to convey?
Of course Queens N’ Lettos is more than us just twerking on the floor and being sexy in our heels. Most importantly, I attract so many non-dancers and women overall. This past weekend, I was in Charlotte, North Carolina and I was literally saying the exact same thing of how I just have this whole army of women who want to be in my presence and be in this experience. I’ve literally had so many people come to me and say that this is their first class ever. They would be so hard on themselves because they want to keep up but it’s more than that. It’s about them putting themselves in the craziest position that they’ve never been in before. Before we start class, we have this thing called “The Win Circle” where we share our wins. There’s room for everybody at the top. Everybody has their own lane. Just because she made it doesn’t mean you won’t. Her path is different and so is her story.
How do you manage your nerves before a live performance?
I try to practice what I preach. When it comes to Queens N’ Lettos, I’m the star. I guess I don’t really get nervous anymore. What’s funny is that I just took someone else’s class. I’ve come to the realization that even though I have my own class and have my own brand there are still other people whom I can learn from. With me stepping in my student’s shoes, I decided to not have the fame for a second and stand in the back of the dance class. She called me out as a solo. Keep in mind I didn’t know this choreography as well as she does. I just went ahead and did it. It’s important to go for it before you start getting into your head whether its perfection or you go down in flames. I tell all of my queens that [discomfort] is growth.”
How do you deal with scrutiny over your look or dance moves? Do you believe being mixed race or a person of color impact that perception?
I know social media is such a big part of my world and there is no real way for me to get away from it. I only see it as a tool an anything less of that I don’t see. There was one time when The Shade Room posted my video and that was the first time so many people ripped me apart. I was just so excited because on Chris Brown’s page and Nicki Minaj’s page you only see positive comments but on The Shade Room, Jesus! You know your popping when you have so many haters. As long as I find happiness in my own self then I’m good.
You seem to have an amazing support system in your personal life. On social media, I’ve seen your mom and your significant other traveling with you.
I sometimes can’t even believe it. As far as my mom and my family go, they’ve always seen something in me that I never did. Now I know why they stuck with me as long as they did and enrolled me in classes. They let me find something that was for me and to find somebody like my man now is so surreal. Sometimes people deal with having a person that’s not in the industry who doesn’t understand what it’s like to be on social media and get this many views or to see you half naked on stage sometimes. I am so lucky to have a man that’s been in this world as an actor who understands everything that I’m going through. He’s is so supportive of this business. To have this career and the love of your life be your best friend as well feels like you have everything in the world.
Looking back at 2017, what makes you most proud?
My first one would obviously be The Soul Train Awards with Tank. That was my first time coming out as a choreographer on television. I don’t know if you know but my Tank routine started off as a class to then getting a million views and having Tank see it. He reached out and I was able to hire my friends. It was crazy. That’s what social media has done for me. My second accomplishment that I’m really proud of this traveling to all these different cities and meeting all of these queens that I never knew I could reach and inspire them the way that I do. I can’t believe that they look up to me. I’m proud of myself for remaining humble and being as powerful as I am. Queens N’ Lettos is going places.