Though Shellee Samuels enjoys a day job of educating preschool students, her impressive dance career recently culminated in a dream come true on stage with Beyoncé at Coachella.
After a day at work, Samuels answers the phone, “Hello?” Her voice spills through phone and her infectious enthusiasm floats through the air.
Samuels says she remembers what it was like to be on the bluff, where Loyola Marymount University students push through their last few days of finals. At LMU, she completed four years’ worth of undergraduate studies in only three years, majoring in dance with a minor in theatre arts. She relates to current Lions, saying she’s no stranger to the stress that surrounds them at the end of the year.
She says her experience at LMU was shaped by her participation in The Learning Community (TLC), First to Go, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and hip-hop dance crew Kuumba Beatz. The former co-president of Kuumba Beatz and co-creator of LMU’s Best Dance Crew says she credits the university’s Dance major program as being a valuable component in launching her professional success.
That success includes dancing on stage with Beyoncé in what has become known simply as Beychella. From her home in Los Angeles, Samuels talks about her LMU experience, valuable life lessons, and what it was like to dance for Coachella’s first black female headliner.
Manna Zelealem: To start off, why LMU? What made you choose this school?
Shellee Samuels: I was born and raised in Inglewood, California and I always knew I wanted to stay close to home. I loved the campus and I knew I wanted to study dance, so I checked out their dance department – it was great. Mr. Mason came to my high school a bunch of times and after meeting him, I knew LMU was a community I wanted to be a part of. Being a Jesuit university was something I thought was cool, because they had Christian Life Community (CLC), which I was a part of while I was there.
What else were you involved in on campus?
I was in TLC, which was another big reason why I wanted to be at LMU. It was so impactful, it totally helped with my transition into college from high school. After being accepted into TLC, I felt that I made the right choice because at the time, a lot of my friends didn’t have anything like that to transition into college. They kind of just moved in and were thrown to the wolves. I was also a part of First to Go, which provided me with resources and guidance while at school. I had two work study jobs working in the Office of Admissions and Ethnic and Intercultural Services. I am a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. That was so significant in my experience at LMU; it was definitely one of the highlights.
I was a part of Kuumba Beatz dance team all three years while at LMU. My last year, I was president alongside my roommate and best friend Tyler Scott. We started LMU’s Best Dance Crew. At the time when we did it, we partnered with an outside organization called Project Pit founded by my close friend Carlton Roberts. Project Pit is a company designed to bridge the gap between the entertainment industry, emerging talent, and the community while cultivating a lifestyle of culture, which encourages individuals to recognize their limitless capacity and reach their highest potential. The event brought out over 200 people. It turned out to be a really successful event and I’m just glad to know that it is still happening and that the campus is now supporting the event.
How did your experience with dance on-campus help you get to where you are now?
The training at LMU assisted in helping me get to where I am now as far as just owning what kind of dancer I want to be and even still discovering what that is. The LMU Dance department, no matter what, encouraged students to get in the studio outside of classes and just create work. LMU brought out of me the desire to create and develop even further what style I really love or might possess but don’t know yet, or what I need to build on.
So, then, what would you say is your particular style of dance?
I wouldn’t say I have one style, because I’ve trained in all styles. Growing up, I trained in ballet, tap, hip-hop, African, modern, jazz, the list goes on and on. I feel like my favorite styles would be tap, hip-hop, and dancehall, which I didn’t technically train in. My family is from Jamaica so between travelling back and forth as a kid and learning the culture, I naturally just learned dancehall and its one of my favorites.
“I came to the audition, danced my heart out, and gave it all I had.”
Okay, so now I have to ask! How did you get involved in Beychella?
One of her choreographers, Jaquel Knight, was someone I’ve worked with in the past a while back. He held auditions for her Coachella performance and invited me to come out and audition. I did, and after lots of waiting I received an email that I was selected to be a part of the show. That’s kind of how that happened – it wasn’t like luck or anything. I came out to the audition, danced my heart out and gave it all I had.
What was your initial reaction to being invited to be a part of the Beychella cast?
I was in the car and I’d just pulled into my driveway. For some reason, I just checked my email before going in the house. Mind you, I was coming from work. I do have a 9-5 outside of dance – I teach preschool. I’d just finished a long day at work and checked my email. I read it, dropped my phone, and screamed. It was so funny because I was just screaming, “Thank you, Jesus!” over and over. After I stopped screaming, I called my mom. She was like, “I’m home, I see you in the driveway!”
What was your favorite number during the performance?
I’m still trying to figure out if I have a favorite — and here’s why I say that. I was fortunate enough to be in a lot of different numbers during the show. During the intro, where Beyoncé is revealed, no one knows what’s about to happen. We walked out with her, in black, and over 100,000 people are just screaming. We’re out in the audience on the runway, and the adrenaline is kicking and pumping and you just feel the energy from the crowd because you’re literally out there with them. The responsibility of starting the show is incredible in itself because it’s like… that feeling alone, I didn’t feel that with any of the other dances. They all had a different feeling. That’s why I love the intro, because it’s like a sense of pride that you’re starting the show with her. You’re starting out in the crowd, feeling their energy, and it just amps you up to start the show off with 110%.
I also got to be a part of Déjà Vu, which – oh my God – was so incredible too because freaking Jay Z comes out and is performing with us! That right there is just historic! That one felt amazing because we were dancing in the bleachers and it reminded me of my high school days, dancing in the bleachers at the football games with my drill team. In the middle of the routine, we see Jay Z come out and the audience doesn’t even know that he’s coming out yet. They go crazy, in an uproar. The energy from that, knowing the surprise is going to happen, and their reaction… I can’t even explain it. It was so incredible. I had the biggest smile on my face! Like, oh my God, this is really happening. Is this really happening? It is really happening!
Okay, so Run the World. It’s one of my favorite songs; it’s so empowering and such a girl anthem. This number is where we pretty much dance the entire song with Beyoncé. Where I was in the formation — I happened to be on the very front bleacher in the middle next to the stairs. She walks from the top of the stairs down to the front of the stage. She literally walks right past me to get down to her formation. That moment alone was incredible and gives you the juice you need to kill it. It was all girls and we were killing it and the choreo was so bomb. You could see all the girls in the audience chanting, “Who runs the world? Girls!” was watching Beyoncé, watching the audience, and just feeling so empowered and so grateful to be where I am.
The last one I want to mention is I Care, a moment where Beyoncé doesn’t dance and is just singing her heart out. There were maybe about 12 of us dancing while she just sings this song with her beautiful, powerful voice. The song is so incredible and it’s so heartfelt. It just brings out so many emotions. I would say this is probably the most emotional number in the show for me. While I was dancing, I was thinking about every “no” that I’ve heard on my journey, every door that I didn’t get through. Every person who told me that maybe I wasn’t good enough, or I won’t be here. You know, just any negatives that I’ve ever experienced on my journey to get where I was. It’s like, this is for all the naysayers. I made it. I’m here. The first time we did that number in rehearsal with her, I teared up while dancing. I literally cried. It was so beautiful. Her voice and the power, you had no choice but to feel it.
Wow, I really have chills from hearing that. That is so beautiful.
It was a dream. It was honestly a dream come true.
So what was it like working with Beyoncé? The world needs to know!
It was a dream! Absolutely pleasant in every way. She is such a hard worker and she brings out the best in you, you know? You have to be your best. You want to be your best. Everyone in the cast makes you feel like you are your best, like you’re killing it. It was such a great experience; it really felt like a big family. I would love to do it over and over and over again. I’m so sad that Beychella is over, but it really felt like a family – like a huge TLC family. I don’t even know what else to say besides that it was living in a dream.
Is there anything you’d like to say to those who watched your performance?
Understand that what we did up there was magical. Artists work very hard and it’s not as easy as it looks. Every department in that show is extremely talented. From the wardrobe to the hair to the band to the choreography, every part of it was talent. It’s hard work; it’s not easy. We’re good at what we do but it’s not easy.
The show gave people around the world an insight of what it’s like to be a part of a historically black college or university. It definitely highlighted fraternities and sororities; there was stepping and there was strolling. That wasn’t something that was just choreographed or thought up. That’s actually history and it’s real. The music, the band – that is real. I thought it was so special for Beyoncé to share that with the world because a lot of people don’t see that. For people who have never even heard of the acronym “HBCU” or have no idea what it is, I feel like this performance is going to open the minds of so many people. I feel like people are doing research now and are curious about what an HBCU is. And now, people might be interested in attending HBCUs or participating in Divine Nine Greek Organizations. It’s amazing for people to see all the talent that black people possess – like when we are going to class and you see Greek orgs outside strolling and stepping. I definitely think her HBCU theme was legendary.
What is the biggest piece of advice that has propelled you to where you are now? And what advice do you have to give to other dancers?
The biggest piece of advice I’ve received… I guess I would say that came from my mom. She always tells me, no matter what, to just trust God and trust the process. I say it’s the biggest piece of advice because in this industry there are a lot of “no’s” before “yesses.” If you can’t trust the process and if you question the process every step of the way, you probably will end up giving up and being over it. Having that mindset of understanding that everything is a part of the journey, the process, and knowing who’s in charge — God’s in charge and He’s in control — keeps you going until you get to that big moment, like performing with Beyoncé.
If I could say anything to someone pursuing dance, I would say don’t stop. Don’t give up. No matter what, just keep pushing. That’s the biggest thing in this industry. Understand your talent, believe in your talent, and don’t stop. I feel like that’s the biggest advice I can give. You’re going to feel not good enough, a lot. You will walk into auditions and you literally get told, “no,” or “thank you for coming, but no.” Or you weren’t tall enough, you don’t blend in with the group, they wish you had darker hair… Just ridiculous things you cannot change about yourself. But don’t stop, because one day you’re going to walk into an audition and be perfect and be exactly what they’re looking for. But if you stop, you won’t ever get there. Don’t stop no matter what, because you never know when your moment is coming. It could be right around the corner and you won’t make it because you stopped going.
Written for LMU EXP, Loyola Marymount University’s student experience blog