After a Brain Tumor, Doctors Told Him He'd Never Dance Again. Now He Works With J. Lo, Cardi B and Lizzo

December 22, 2019

Before he even knew what a choreographer really was, Keenan Cooks was certain that’s what he would do. Growing up in Boston, he looked up to his mom, who was a dancer. But he didn’t have a game plan for his career until he took part in Rhapsody James’ Motivating Excellence program.

“That set this fire in me,” he says. “It helped me get signed with an agency, and it allowed me to start teaching, which helped me find my style as a choreographer.” Now, Cooks has danced with and choreographed for music industry titans like Jennifer Lopez, Cardi B and Lizzo. And he’s not done yet.

A defining moment:
“When I was 8, I had a brain tumor and the doctor told me I would never be able to dance again. The reason I do so much is because I always go back to that moment where this wasn’t supposed to be my reality. If there’s something you want, fight for it.”

A major start:
“I booked a one-off performance with Prince Royce, a huge Latin artist. At the time, I had no idea and just thought, Cool, I booked a job and my agent’s not going to drop me! But when we got to Puerto Rico for the show, it was this arena with 20,000 people.”

Playing favorites:
“When I’m feeling like a dancer and I really want to perform, I love the jobs that are live, like performing on an award show. But when I’m in my choreographer bag and I’m feeling creative, it’s so fulfilling to watch your work.”

Tailoring his moves:
“I’ve learned choreography is really about finding movements that make each artist look amazing regardless of their level of training. I love working with different levels now and finding those moments that will be memorable.”

Preshow ritual:
“This is weird, but right before I go onstage, I forget all the choreography. It’s not on purpose, but I completely forget. Then, when I get onstage, it just happens.”

Fashion obsession:
“I get a little obsessive with one thing in terms of fashion. It used to be track jackets, and I went through a cardigan phase, but now it’s beanies. I have a whole collection of colors, and I wear them all the time—unless I’m on the job.”

Embracing what’s you:
“I’m always telling my students to be true to themselves, because this industry will try to change you. But if you’re undeniable in what you do, it doesn’t matter what you look like, or how tall you are, or the color of your skin—people will want you for you.”

What’s on his playlist:
“Ari Lennox has an album called Shea Butter Baby. It gets me in a good, calm mood, which is the opposite of the music I dance to.”

Future ambitions:
“I don’t think I’ll ever be done dancing, but when I get older, I want to go to culinary school.

His advice:
“I was always told that I would never be able to choreograph, teach and dance. But why do we limit ourselves? It can happen if you work for it.”