For a generation of dancers, Jamal Sims is one of a handful of choreographers who’ve pushed the boundaries of dance in film, TV and onstage. With a career that’s included stints working alongside Madonna and Miley Cyrus, he brings his edgy pop style to the dance numbers in “Descendants 3,” which premiered Aug. 2 and wraps up Disney Channel’s hit musical trilogy.
“I was interested because [director] Kenny Ortega asked me, and I went to meet with him,” says Sims. “He started telling me what these movies mean to him and how they’ve inspired kids with their message, which is a message of inclusion. Whether you’re black or white or wherever you’re from, it doesn’t matter. We should all come together and inspire and include. I wanted to be part of that.”
Sims soon found himself working with dancers dressed as knights, wearing costumes that were just as heavy as that sounds.
“[The dancers] were actually sword fighting,” says Sims. “So a lot of dancers who had never worked with swords before had to learn how to use them in combat correctly, because we don’t want to just throw anything out there. We wanted to dance with that translated to the story as well.”
Sims believes in bringing character and story into his choreography, and that focus has earned him raves from colleagues. Helmer Guy Ritchie loved Sims’ work on Disney’s “Aladdin” and gave him a cameo in the movie. And Ortega cast Sims as Dr. Facilier, the father of one of the villains in “Descendants 3.”
The choreographer, who counts Bob Fosse, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Michael Jackson as influences, won the grand jury prize at the 2018 Outfest Los Angeles Film Festival for directing the Logo documentary “When the Beat Drops.” Sims’ work also can be seen in all the films of the “Step Up” franchise, the Microsoft “Surface/Surface Pro” tablet commercial, “Footloose,” “Hairspray,” Cirque du Soleil’s “Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour,” “Dancing With the Stars,” “So You Think You Can Dance,” and the Emmy-nominated 82nd Annual Academy Awards, among many other productions.
All of this is a long way from his beginnings in Rancho Cucamonga, a city less than 40 miles from L.A. but, with its location in the Inland Empire, one that might as well be a world apart. Sims knew when he was about 12 that he wanted to dance, and went with a cousin to check out some classes. When told he’d have to wear tights to take ballet, he decided to find his own path into the discipline by choreographing routines and competing in talent shows. He later moved to Los Angeles and landed a part in Michael Jackson’s video for “Remember the Time,” and found himself dancing with one of his idols.
“I came to L.A. many, many moons ago,” says Sims, 48. “It almost felt like coming to another country. And when I got here, I knew it was going to be something else. Being able to dance here has been a dream.”