Kriyss Grant, the first dancer Michael Jackson
hand-picked to back him up onstage, speaks with Charles Thomson,
exactly a year after Michael sold out 50 concerts at London's
Thomson March 13, 2010, (Sawf News)
- Kriyss Grant, the first dancer Michael Jackson hand-picked
to back him up onstage, speaks with Charles Thomson, exactly
an year after Michael sold out 50 concerts at London's O2 arena.
At 21 years of age, Kriyss Grant has achieved a whole lot. As
a teenager he reached the final sixteen of P Diddy's 'Making
the Band'. At 20 he was hired by Beyonce Knowles to choreograph
her 'I Am...' world tour. Nowadays he's known worldwide as one
of the principle dancers for Michael Jackson's ill-fated This
Is It concerts.
His big break came shortly after leaving 'Making the Band',
when he had a chance encounter with choreographer Frank Gatson.
"I was in New York and I'd recently got kicked off the
show," he recalls. "Frank and I ran into each other
in a store. He was like, 'Aren't you Kriyss from Making the
Band? You have so much talent, I don't know why Diddy kicked
you off' and all this. So we exchanged contacts and he kept
in touch with me.
Working With Beyoncé
"He called me around a year later. Beyoncé was starting
up her tour and he said he couldn't think of a better person
to audition because he wanted something new, something high
energy. So I flew to LA and I danced in front of Beyoncé.
She loved it. She said I had to be on her tour."
The pair bonded immediately due to their shared work ethic,
says Grant. "Beyoncé is a very hard worker and she's
very hard on herself. It's funny because we both think the same
way. We never think what we do is good enough. We always think
we could do better. We say 'OK, it was good enough for that
day' or 'that was the best I could do at that moment' but we
are never really satisfied.
"Beyoncé always enjoys doing what she's doing. I
mean, she doesn't use the bathroom or nothing when it comes
to work. She's just always on it and she never wants to eat,
she doesn't want to do anything - she just wants to work, work,
It was during Grant's time with Beyoncé that Michael
Jackson announced his comeback concerts. When Frank Gatson got
word of the audition, he told Kriyss he had to go. A lifelong
Jackson fan, Grant jumped at the chance. But did he feel apprehensive
about leaving behind such a big opportunity on the off-chance
that he could dance for Jackson?
"No, it was Beyoncé who pushed me," he laughs.
"She told me she was gonna slap me if I didn't go! She
was rooting for me and so was Frank. If I didn't make Michael's
concerts, I would have met up with the others and been one of
the captains on the Beyonce tour."
'This is It' Audition
Seeing the scale of the audition was intimidating, says Grant.
"I was very quiet. I was nervous but I was very focused
on what I had to do. I just wanted to hurry up and get it over
with; just perform and give it my all. But as soon as I auditioned
the first time it felt good and I just wanted to keep doing
Grant sailed through the first audition and was invited to callbacks,
where Jackson watched from the audience and hand-picked his
principle dancers. But Grant says he didn't let Jackson's presence
throw him off.
"I was very psyched about the whole thing - about him being
there - but once the music came on and it was time to dance,
I just let it go. When I perform I throw everything out of the
window so it was kind of like he wasn't there. Then after I
was done I was like 'OK, I hope he noticed and I hope he liked
He did. According to Travis Payne, Grant was the first dancer
Jackson hand-selected, exclaiming, "Look at that joker
go!" After the principle dancers were announced, they got
the opportunity to meet their hero.
First Meeting with Michael
"He shook our hands and everything. He has really big
hands," says Grant, who still speaks about Jackson in the
present tense from time to time, quietly correcting himself
when he notices. "He was just like a statue. His presence
was so amazing and I just couldn't believe it. I wanted to cry
but I couldn't because my body was in shock.
"Michael said, 'You're amazing,' and he gave me a strong
grip handshake that I will never forget. I never thought that
day would come, you know? Being a little kid and hoping and
dreaming of meeting this person and never thinking you're going
to get to. But when I finally did - there was just no other
feeling like it. I can't express how I felt."
Working with Michael
Dance rehearsals began the next week and were 'intense', says
Grant, with only one day off per week. The group rehearsed without
Jackson for several weeks, perfecting routines before they joined
him onstage. "We would use the time to bond with each other,
just building the chemistry between all of us so we could look
good together onstage. Michael would pop in from time to time
to watch us and give us feedback here and there, but he was
very shy in the beginning.
"The first thing we rehearsed with Michael was They Don't
Really Care About Us and a lot of us were messing up because
we couldn't stop looking at him. I was really thrown off but
I was keeping myself together. I had to keep whispering to my
dance partner Dres [Reid], 'Let's just focus, keep it together',
and he was saying, 'I can't - it's Michael!' After that first
time I was OK. I just made sure I stayed focused and stayed
on my game."
Rehearsals with Jackson were sporadic, says Grant, because he
had so much else to do. "He had a lot of other stuff to
do as far as his vocals, getting his voice right and he had
a lot to do with costumes... He couldn't just stay at rehearsal
all the time. He had a lot to do with the tour - putting the
whole thing together."
Having mastered the routines early on, Grant says that the dancers
often performed full run-throughs of the show without Jackson,
with special effects and 'slow numbers for Michael' being inserted
around the dance heavy tracks. When it came to choosing slow
songs, Grant recalls Jackson facing a dilemma over whether to
include Human Nature or Stranger In Moscow as his first ballad.
"I remember watching Michael sing and rehearse Stranger
In Moscow. He was trying to work out which one to do - if he
wanted to do it as a medley, if he wanted to just throw them
both in there or maybe include one as an encore. Michael was
just trying out different songs, seeing what feelings he had
for the songs, which ones were the fan favorites but also which
one fit within the whole set list for the tour. There was a
lot of that."
Jackson was being 'taken advantage of'
Although Jackson was present and involved, Grant raised eyebrows
when he stated in a recent interview that he felt early on that
Jackson was being 'taken advantage of'.
"I just felt like sometimes they questioned Michael about
stuff and I didn't understand that because Michael is the artist,"
he explains. "I felt like anything Michael says about entertainment,
we should all just listen and follow his feelings. If he doesn't
feel right about something or if something's not right, I felt
like it should just go. He should just have that right to do
"For me it was just questionable... I'm trying to find
the right way to say it... If they really were pushing him to
do this or if he knew what was supposed to be done. I just felt
like at the bottom line, as an artist, you should have your
say. If you don't feel right about anything you shouldn't do
it. But I guess people are people, you know, and sometimes you
run into little situations. But at the end it was pretty much
solved. Michael got his way and things were sorted out. I didn't
mean anything else by it."
Final Two Rehearsals
During the final two rehearsals Jackson really kicked into gear,
says Grant. "I guess he really felt it coming together.
We all really felt it coming together in those last two rehearsals.
It was just a different feeling those last two nights. Michael
was very into it, very open-minded about things. He was just
living on the stage. His whole vibe was just different. It was
like he was really connecting with us and the music. It just
felt done. It was like, 'OK, I can sleep tonight'. He gave you
a warm feeling those last two days. We all left with a smile
on our face."
He describes the final rehearsal as fairly unremarkable, just
another day at work. "The last routine that I remember
doing with him was Thriller. He did other things, other songs,
and we ran through the whole show. I had a problem with my mask
that day - my Thriller mask. It was very tight on my face and
it was hard to breathe, but I got through it. It was a very
good rehearsal. Before he left he said he would see us tomorrow
and 'good rehearsal', with a smile on his face, thumbs up."
Michael is No More
The next day, says Grant, seemed like any other until word reached
rehearsals that Jackson had been rushed to hospital.
"We were just rehearsing and waiting for him to come in,"
he says. "Then people started getting phone calls. A lot
of people just cut their phones off because it was getting ridiculous.
My phone never blew up so much in my life. We were all praying
separately and then when we finally all started to get together
to pray together, have our last prayer, they came in and told
us that he was already gone.
"We all just broke down. A lot of us just split up and
went into our own corners and it was like the entire stadium
was crying. It was just the worst. It was one of the worst
days of my life. It was the ending of something that was
going to be so great and so amazing."
Performing at the Memorial
Within days the dancers were back in rehearsals, this time gearing
up for Jackson's memorial, where they performed Will You Be
There with Jennifer Hudson. "It was something beautiful
and we thought it was appropriate for his funeral," says
Grant. "We wanted to do something that came from us."
The song was originally rehearsed for the This Is It concerts,
but its inclusion was never confirmed. "We rehearsed it
but not in the sense that we did it over and over," he
says. "We did it a couple of times and he was just smiling.
He was just getting back onstage so I guess he was reminiscing
about certain times. It was a good feeling. It was like a walk
through with the music playing and stuff. He sang a couple of
lines but the thing with Michael is that he would always tell
us not to do it so full out. Save it for the fans. Save it for
Rehearsing the routine for Jackson's memorial was an emotional
experience, says Grant. "It was when we were rehearsing
with Jennifer Hudson that it really dawned on me - 'OK, this
is... really... he's not here. This is not a dream.' That's
when I really broke down. I just started crying. I couldn't
hold it in. I'm the quiet one in the group - they pick on me
because I'm so quiet - so for me to start crying like that made
it OK for everybody else. Mekia [Cox] started crying, then Dres
started crying and then other people started. I remember Jennifer
was looking at us like, 'Wow'."
It is clear that Grant was deeply affected by Jackson's death.
His voice becomes hushed and somber as he remembers the aftermath.
"To this day, it's hard for me because I have to answer
so many questions when I bump into people. My friends and family
understand so they really don't ask me a lot about it, but it's
hard to talk to fans sometimes. I still haven't got over it.
I still have it, you know. It hasn't been closed. I have dreams
Grant also felt conflicted when the dancers were asked to act
as ushers at Jackson's private funeral. "Me being so young
- I don't deal with death and funerals easily. The whole funeral
was very emotional for me. But at the same time, I had to keep
a smile on my face for the family or keep a smile on my face
for the others or the kids to let them know it's going to be
OK. I was grieving but I felt out of place because I felt it
should be their time with their son. I had a lot of mixed emotions."
The release of This Is It also inspired mixed emotions. At the
time of release he gave an interview saying he would wait for
the DVD. Today he says he still finds it difficult to watch.
He is also bemused by some of the choices that were made regarding
what was and wasn't included. "It's funny because those
bits you see, he's not doing the full out still. There were
times where he was really, really doing it, like full out. There
are a lot of things that weren't shown in This Is It. I really
don't know why that stuff was left out."
Coping With Angry Michael Jackson Fans
One thing Grant and his fellow dancers weren't prepared for
after the release of This Is It: A barrage of hate mail from
fans who blamed them for Jackson's death.
"You have certain fans that make it seem like it's our
fault," he laments. "Like we're just supposed to know
how Michael is, or like we were supposed to stop it. We were
supposed to do this. We were supposed to do that. It's nothing
like that. We have no control over that. We're brand new dancers
walking into this whole thing. We're just as shocked as the
"One time I just broke down because they just don't understand
how it was. Sometimes I even thought about not having a Facebook
and things like that anymore but I can't do that just because
of some fans. It's not all fans, just some fans. They are so
deeply involved that they just blame all of us. But I'm quiet
and I just let them do whatever, because I can't... it's not
worth fighting for. A lot of people have their own opinions
about it and you can't change that. People are going to say
what they want."
Grant says that although the dancers still receive negative
messages, it has become less of a problem in recent months.
Nowadays he primarily gets emails from curious fans, including
a couple of 'crazy questions'. "I guess the craziest question
I had was what type of underwear Michael wore. You know, that's
a crazy question. I don't know that!"
In recent months Grant has been picking up where Jackson
left off, he says, by performing in a number of charity shows.
"I did a couple of things here in West Palm Beach for different
schools, trying to raise money for different causes like children
that have AIDs, abused kids and things like that. Then recently
Frank and I went back to his high school in Milwaukee.
"We're trying to keep the arts living on and let the kids
know that they can do what we're doing if they stay focused,
stay positive and work hard. Nothing is impossible. I started
just like these kids. Right from when I was 14 or 15, I just
kept going. Sometimes I got discouraged but you have to just
"I feel like with kids they just need that person, no matter
who it is. If their mum or dad isn't there for them, they look
up to artists. They look up to anyone who will give them time
and speak with them. They will cherish that. I know we changed
a couple of kids' lives in Milwaukee by encouraging them to
pursue what they want to do."
With an album in the works, an invitation to choreograph Kelly
Rowland's next tour and a couple of record deals on the table,
Grant says he now wants to make it big in the music industry.
"My dream now is to become an entertainer. Just like Michael
was. I just want to entertain, have my own music videos, music.
Not even do it for the money, just do it for myself and for
people who actually appreciate it. That's always been my long-time
dream. My other dream came true, meeting Michael, dancing with
Michael. Now my last, ultimate dream is to become a successful
entertainer and to keep his legacy living on.
"He changed me right from when I was little but now he's
taught me that anything is possible. Whatever you do, just go
for it and always give it 125%. No... 180%! Just live on the
stage. If this is your passion then just have fun onstage. If
you're frustrated then let it all out. Connect with the music.
Connect with the audience. I just learned so much from him on
a professional level, just by watching him, listening to him.
He was an amazing man when it came to that. I just want to take
that on and use him like a father figure."
For more information visit www.kriyssgrant.com
Back to The Dream continues