Charm La’Donna Is Choreographing Her Life—and Conjuring an Empire

September 14, 2022

Dancer. Creative director. Rapper. Songwriter. Choreographer for Kendrick Lamar, Dua Lipa and Selena Gomez. Winner of the 2019 VMA for Best Choreography for Rosalía and J Balvin’s “Con Altura” video. Empire-building businesswoman. Charm La’Donna is all of those things, and she’s defined commercial dance from behind the scenes for years. She’s the biggest name most people don’t know—but now she’s stepping into the spotlight in her own right.

“I never knew where dance would take me, but I knew that dance, and the art of it, was my life,” says La’Donna. That passion kept young La’Donna motivated while growing up in Compton, California, propelling her past a challenging upbringing to become one of today’s most sought-after choreographers, a burgeoning musical artist and a role model for young women. “I never back down, take no for an answer or allow anything to stop me from pursuing my dreams,” she says.

But talent, ambition and drive are rarely enough to achieve La’Donna’s kind of success—her multifaceted career is equally due to her generous spirit and collaborative nature. Although choreography is the most prominent aspect of her career, “I’ve always been a creative director,” says La’Donna. “But there was a point in time when there was no title.”

Charm La'Donna sways off her center in parallel passé, arms extended gently in an opposing diagonal. She wears chunky sneakers, baggy pants and an open vest in a matching champagne gold color, and a pale bikini top. Her dark hair is tucked beneath her collar.
Charm La’Donna. Photo by Lee Cherry.

Even as a young dancer, La’Donna thought in a matrix of ideas, visualizing costumes and production elements during her middle-school dance shows. “I was never just worried about the eight-counts. I was always the person asking ‘What are they wearing?’ ‘How are you shooting that?’ Because I always wanted to get the best out of the bigger vision.”

Indeed, from the moment 3-year-old La’Donna told her mother she wanted to be a dancer, it was go time. Her mom, Debbie, found a local rec center that offered dance activities for children. “You wanna be a dancer?” one of the counselors asked La’Donna. She responded without hesitation: “No, I’m gonna be a dancer!” Another counselor told Debbie, “Your daughter is one out of 100. She needs to go learn the art,” and referred them to Regina’s School of the Arts in Compton. “I took her there, and we never looked back,” Debbie says. From there, she moved to Miss Monica’s Dance School.

Luck plays an element in every artist’s career, and it was by chance that La’Donna’s first audition, at just 10 years old, for a Ma$e music video, was led by Fatima Robinson, the legendary hip-hop choreographer for artists like Aaliyah, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. “Most people don’t know how far back Fatima and I go,” says La’Donna. New to the commercial world and in a room full of sparkles, leotards and tights, the young La’Donna stood out, sweatpants and all, and she was cast out of 300 hopefuls. 

Suddenly she was part of an industry she and her mom knew nothing about. Debbie, who held down a rigorous schedule as a bus driver for the city of Gardena, used vacation hours to take La’Donna to performances and recitals, and volunteered at Miss Monica’s so that she could provide one-on-one support.

Though the La’Donna of today, now in her early 30s, is in command of her artistry and her career, on the set of that first video shoot she was as unsure of herself as any other young dancer. “I was killin’ it at first!” she says. But when Robinson walked in with Ma$e, everything went blank and she forgot the choreography.

Charm La'Donna as a toddler. Her expression is serious as she dances by herself at home.
Baby Charm already knew she was “gonna be a dancer!” Photo courtesy La’Donna.

“Fatima pulled me to the side and said, ‘It’s okay. Go home and practice. I know you got it.’ ” It was clear that the seeds of La’Donna’s drive were already taking root: She practiced so late into the night that Debbie had to remind her to sleep. “She was so into what she wanted to do,” Debbie says. “She was exceptional in school, too. Her mentality was so mature for her age.” The next day on set, her confidence had returned and she realized how much fun the artistic process was.

Even then, Robinson saw La’Donna’s raw talent. “Her choreography skills were always stellar,” Robinson says. “She’s both street and trained, which made her extra-special. Her musicality­ has always been great, and it’s wonderful to watch how she commands the room with calmness and confidence.”

Robinson’s validation has nurtured La’Donna’s creative voice, her ambition and a positive, generous approach that draws other artists to her. “My very first job in L.A. as a dancer was under the choreography direction of Robinson, assisted by Charm La’Donna,” says JaQuel Knight, the movement director for H&M Move and the choreographer behind Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” and “Formation” videos, as well as her iconic 2018 Coachella performance. “For 16 years of my career, I’ve been connected to Charm, and I’m so proud of her, to be able to grow alongside her, and witness all the beautiful and impactful things that she’s doing.”

La’Donna made another big impression, at 13, during her audition for the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. The dancers were tasked with creating their own routines, and La’Donna thought to herself, I’m just gonna do what I feel, and dance my life away. Looking back, she says that LACHSA is where her real training began, where she began to dive deeply into dance and dissect it. “It became not just modern, but Horton. Not just jazz, but Luigi. I started to learn different styles and adapt my body to new things. I fell in love with dance in a different way.”

At LACHSA, she set her sights on a conventional career path. “My teachers and peers definitely thought I’d be going to a school like Fordham or University of the Arts. They thought I was going to be that trained theater performer,” says La’Donna. “And I thought so too! You couldn’t tell me I wasn’t gonna be a principal at Ailey one day.”

Charm La'Donna balances on one leg, the other raised as though prepared to stamp down. One hand is in her pocket, the other flung behind her. She gazes off to one side, the picture of ease.
Charm La’Donna. Photo by Lee Cherry.

Debbie insisted on college, and La’Donna got into UCLA. But fate intervened again, toward the end of her senior year of high school, when she got hired on Madonna’s 2006 Confessions tour—at just 17. Transitioning to homeschooling, she was the tour’s youngest dancer. Madonna took education as seriously as Debbie did, and on top of providing tutors and study time, she encouraged La’Donna to stay focused on college. “I knew if I didn’t get all my schoolwork done, I couldn’t be on tour, and Madonna made sure of that,” La’Donna says. For four years, she attended UCLA while assisting Robinson with music videos and Super Bowl halftime shows, and building her own relationships and reputation. By the time she earned her bachelor’s degree in world arts and cultures, she was ready to dive into the entertainment industry. 

Compton may have been the site of some of La’Donna’s biggest challenges, but as luck would have it, it was also the source of one of her greatest opportunities: Fellow Compton native Kendrick Lamar, the Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize–winning­ rap artist, hired her in 2017 as the choreographer and sole female dancer for his DAMN tour, and she went on to choreograph and dance in his 2018 Grammy performance—both deeply personal experiences. “For us to be from the same place, and for him to give me the opportunity to be creative, is an experience that I can never take for granted,” La’Donna says. “Being onstage with him gave me that feeling again, the same one that I had when I was 10 years old at that audition. I loved it.”

As her collaboration with Lamar continues this year, choreographing for his The Big Steppers world tour, she reflects on that pivotal experience. “It showed me that I could be onstage and offstage. And in the pursuit of my own music, it showed me that I can be a performer and a creative,” she says. It has also opened the door to more opportunities, including choreographing the El Mal Querer tour for Spanish pop star Rosalía in 2019, plus, this year alone, tours for Dua Lipa, Lil Baby and The Weeknd. When it came to making her own music, though, “my own self-doubts allowed me to believe that releasing my music would interfere with what I was doing at the time, or that it would somehow inter­fere with the artists I was working with,” she says. With the encouragement of her older brother, in 2020 she dropped her debut single, “So & So,” and the follow-up, “Westside,” from her self-titled album. (She’s even choreographed and co-directed music videos, with Emil Nava, for her own tunes.)

Charm La'Donna stands at the base of a series of risers, upon which five rows of women in black stand and imitate her pose. Charm stands in parallel, one foot beveled, palms splayed and chin lifted as she pushes her arms straight out from her chest.
Charm La’Donna in rehearsal for Kendrick Lamar’s The Big Steppers tour. Photo by Topher Shrigley, courtesy La’Donna.

“It’s beautiful to see Charm really shine as a choreographer, an emcee and a performer,” says Emmy-nominated fellow­ Los Angeles choreographer Chloé Arnold. “It’s exciting to see a young Black woman creating beautiful works for mega-superstars, creating powerful performances and representing young Black women choreographers.”

And just as she was mentored by her mother, Robinson and Madonna, La’Donna takes other aspiring women under her wing. When teaching, she invites conversations that allow her students to grow beyond the eight-counts. “For me, dance is a discipline, our common language,” she says. “But we don’t just talk about dance. We talk about life.” She hopes to one day develop a program for dancers that focuses on arts, business and making empowered choices.

As La’Donna’s vision for the future continues to expand, she stays grounded by her upbringing—and still embraces the sense of wonder she felt as that determined kid. “When I think back, I had no clue about how vast dance was beyond physical movement,” she says. And she doesn’t get caught up with titles. “I am who I am. I’m a creative director of life! I design my life, so I just walk in that truth.”