“Feeling good in my skin/ I just keep on dancing,” Harry Styles sings in his latest single, “Treat People With Kindness.” And in the song’s exuberant music video — which has garnered 17 million YouTube views and counting since its debut on New Year’s Day — he does just that: Wearing a sequined jacket and bow tie, he chassés, spins and flutters jazz hands like an MGM musical star (with a little help from his equally debonair partner, Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge).
Styles shot the video in early 2019 after several weeks of training with choreographer Paul Roberts, a collaborator since his One Direction days. “I think somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew this could be something special,” says Roberts, a veteran stage director and choreographer who’s worked on videos and tours for the likes of Sam Smith, Katy Perry, Diana Ross, and the Spice Girls (their Spiceworld stadium tour).
Watching the explosive fan reaction to Styles’s little known dance talents — including from the Spice Girls, who’ve “sent lovely messages” about the video — Roberts says it seems like “Treat People With Kindness” arrived at the precise right moment. “Most people’s comments are, ‘I’ve not felt that happy for three and a half minutes in a long time,’ or ‘I smiled from ear to ear the whole way through.’ It’s a positive light.”
He spoke to Billboard about Styles’ intensive training process — and why he wouldn’t be surprised to see him dancing onstage again.
There’s been one pretty overwhelming reaction to this video: “This is the guy who was in the group that insisted they couldn’t dance?!” Did you expect this kind of reaction to Harry dancing?
I’ve been with Harry for 10 years: I was with the One Direction boys from the beginning the whole way through their career before they took the hiatus, and they always made a very conscious decision that they didn’t want choreography as part of their brand — but they did want a kind of disheveled organization in order to allow the cameras and the lighting to stand a chance in terms of presenting them in the best manner possible.
What was very evident to me was that all five of them, and then it obviously became four, they’ve all got their own magic. The only time I’ve experienced that was when I worked with the Spice Girls. I always knew that they had special skills aside from what they were in One Direction, whether it was movement, songwriting, being able to handle the business side of things. For such young lads they were very astute and very decisive. So, getting together with Harry — he’s a bit of an alchemist, is Harry. Everything he turns his hand to turns to gold.
Where did the initial dance-centric concept come from?
Harry and the directors, Ben and Gabe [Turner], sent me a video link to the Nicholas Brothers scene from Stormy Weather and Harry asked me, “How long do you think it would take to dance like this?” I was like, “OK, are you being serious?” “Yeah, I’m being serious.”
That is probably one of the most standout dance sequences ever captured on film — so I knew we were aiming high. I said, “Why don’t we go into a studio and let’s workshop some choreography, some moves, some short sequences, and see what your ability is, see how we can tailor this to make you look the best you can possibly look.” Obviously it would take some investment in terms of rehearsal and commitment, I told him it would be mentally and physically exhausting, but I thought, “My God yeah, let’s do it; this will be an adventure.”
How long did the whole process take?
We started in mid-January 2019, and we rehearsed and workshopped for about four to five weeks before the shoot, every day. Both Harry and Phoebe had other things going on, so, for instance, Phoebe was working on the new Bond movie in Canada, so I sent my assistant to Canada to work with her. I stayed in the U.K. with Harry, and then we went to L.A. where Harry shot two more videos, for “Watermelon Sugar” and “Falling.”
At the end of the “Watermelon Sugar” shoot, he wrapped, got in his car, came to the dance studio and we rehearsed into the night. Knowing how short a time you sometimes get with artists even for really big performances, I thought the rehearsals would dilute and we’d lose momentum, but both Phoebe and Harry were so committed.
What was the process in the studio like with Harry?
We didn’t even use his [vocal] track to begin with — we used different big band songs, some contemporary alternative music. It was just about finding his [movement] language first and foremost. Then we developed the choreography and sent it to the directors, who gave us feedback. We enhanced the work a bit more, and then once we had some really solid sequences, Ben and Gabe storyboarded the scenes against the timeline of the music.
At this point Harry and Phoebe were still working separately, and then we joined forces in London, where we really started to refine these sequences of choreography we’d developed, trying to find the finesse and the style, almost making sense of the movement for them so they felt they had a dancer’s way of working the movement through the body.
You’ve worked with a wide variety of artists, many of whom aren’t dancers first. How do you find, as you put it, the “language” of movement that makes sense for each of them as individuals?
I think the general answer is really communicating — listening and understanding what the artist’s desire is. And also collaborating, so you don’t get too lost in yourself as a choreographer. What looks good on you might not transcend to the artist, or even necessarily the dancers.
With Harry, what was important within the language of the choreography was that it felt joyful and had personality. Him and Phoebe, with the work she’s done with Fleabag, you associate them and what they do with a sense of style, a real confidence, but at the heart of it it’s entertainment. And with the amount of time and budget we had, which was such a luxury in this day and age, we wanted to do something that pushed both of them out of their comfort zones. We tried to make it as athletic as possible but without compromising them as artists and becoming too comedic. We wanted it to be a bit quaint and cute in places, but we definitely didn’t want it to be thought of as nonsensical or silly.
Harry’s movement in the video is so crisp and precise, even his hands and arm extension look very dancerly. Did that come through a lot of specific work with you?
As a songwriter and artist, for Harry it’s about detail, about pushing yourself to be the best. He’s always got questions: “Why are we doing that? Should we be doing this?” We got to a point during the rehearsal period where I brought in a ballet teacher, really to just get Harry and Phoebe to open themselves up from behind their shoulder blades, have an idea of extension, the lines that extend from your center all the way to the tip of your finger. I’d be saying, “Your arms Harry, your arm line!” Asking him to push his shoulders down, lift his carriage up, extend through his breast. And when he hit those lines, he’d be like, “Oh yeah, that feels different.”
It’s funny: We spent a couple days apart — he had to go off and do a gig somewhere — and I was like, “I hope you’re rehearsing when you’ve got some downtime, dude!” And he sent me a picture in the gym with his arms in the most beautiful balletic arm line! I was like, “Yes, by George, you’ve got it!”
Besides the Nicholas Brothers, did you have any particular dance references in mind for the feel of the choreography?
I just delved into the MGM archives. Obviously [Fred] Astaire and [Gene] Kelly, the two greats — especially with Astaire, we loved how sometimes it seems so effortless yet a bit throwaway, not totally totally perfect always. We enjoyed the moments from him of “I’ll just do a bit of this,” “I’ll just walk off camera left,” the dropping in and out of movement. We loved the duet “Moses Supposes” from Singin’ in the Rain, for Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor — we loved the camaraderie between them, which felt a bit goofball at times, and just that wry smile, the look to the left, knowing your partner is there and has got your back. It feels fizzy, it feels joyful.
And yes, there was a massive core of MGM-ism, but at the same time an absolute huge dollop of Harry-and-Phoebe-ism. It was important to us to feel a bit more contemporary, so again we stay true to Harry and Phoebe as artists.
Has Harry indicated any interest in dancing more going forward?
We had a conversation back at the end of the summer about how much we enjoyed the process, and I know he was doing another project where choreography was involved, so we were just talking about it and how he felt. Coming from where he came from to what he was about to do, he felt he could be pushed even further. I don’t know if he got the bug, or if it’s just the way he is as a person, very inquisitive and wanting to keep elevating himself.
There’s now been some talk on social media that it can’t be long before Harry does Broadway. What do you think?
I mean, I think with Harry Styles, anything is possible, is it not? I mean, I’m sure because he’s tasted the dance, he’ll inject that along the line in his career. It won’t necessarily be out-and-out dancing, but I guess it’s a bit like Bowie used to do, isn’t it? It’s the showmanship and presentation of the performance. Who knows? He’s just so open-minded and open-hearted — and because he’s so open it allows the universe to come back at him and he’s able to do anything he sets his mind to.