New Zealand based Taktix Films produced Justin Bieber’s music video Sorry, choreographed by Parris Goebel.
Parris Goebel is easily bored. “Don’t take it personally,” says her father, Brett, warning me that the 25-year-old hip-hop dance queen may tire of talking to me. “She has a short attention span.”
Also, she isn’t the diplomatic type. “Probably a little bit too honest for some people’s liking,” is the way Brett puts it. When unimpressed, or overcome by tedium, “she doesn’t hide it well”. Goebel is a dancer of electrifying talent, not just technically skilled but possessed of that mysterious quality that makes some performers irresistibly watchable. She is also one of the world’s most sought-after choreographers, with clients ranging from Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj to Cirque du Soleil.
A video she directed and choreographed for the Canadian pop star Justin Bieber has been viewed more than two billion times on YouTube – the third-highest tally in the website’s history. Featuring Goebel and an all-female hip-hop crew dancing to Bieber’s hit song Sorry, it won video of the year at the American Music Awards last month. Earlier this year, Goebel was named female choreographer of the year at the World of Dance Industry Awards.
The young New Zealander is based in Los Angeles these days, but regularly returns to Auckland, where she has a dance studio called The Palace. Brett, who is his daughter’s manager, is sitting at the reception desk with a phone to his ear when I arrive on a grey Wednesday afternoon. While I wait for Goebel, I read the stuff on the noticeboard (“No Gum in the Studio Please”) and half-listen to Brett’s end of a series of calls, one of them a slightly testy exchange about an interview Goebel recently gave in the US.
“They’re saying she didn’t answer the questions,” he tells me later. “I would put it down to the reporter not having the right skill-set.”
I feel a pang of collegiate sympathy. In dance videos – even the exuberant Sorry clip, in which she has minimal screen time – Goebel is a formidable presence, with an imperious tilt to her head and an eat-’em-alive glint in her eye. The precision and polish of her movements are all the more transfixing because you sense something raw and dangerous just beneath the surface.
A TVNZ documentary about her was called Beast on the Dance Floor. But when she walks through the door, she doesn’t look scary at all. A small, solidly built person, she is wearing a denim cap and large hoop earrings. We discuss the fact that she doesn’t like to sit still for long and I ask her to let me know when she starts to feel restless. “Okay, cool,” she says cheerfully.
It is not as if Goebel lacks the capacity for sustained concentration. She points out that when it comes to her work, her focus is laser-like. It’s just that she doesn’t like to waste mental energy on other things. “I don’t even know the day of the week,” she says. “I don’t watch TV, so I’m never in tune with, like, news and stuff. I’m just, like, on my own planet. I’ve always been like that, since I was young.”
Hip-hop began in the predominantly African-American South Bronx district of New York City in the 1970s. The origin of the term is unknown, though one plausible theory is that it is simply a pairing of hip, meaning fashionable, and hop, referring to a leaping movement. By 1991, when Goebel was born, it had gone global.
The youngest of Brett and LeeAnn Goebel’s four children, Parris says she grew up in a house full of music. “We’re a very fun family,” she assures me. “Yeah, always dancing around the house.” She is close to her older sisters and brother – “We’re all very expressive and creative” – but says she has had a feeling of singularity all her life. “I know I’m completely different from most people. My dad always says the aliens dropped me off at the door.”
From the time she was a toddler, Goebel practised the dance moves she saw on music videos. Home-movie footage shows her strutting her stuff around the lounge room at the age of about three. By eight, she had started lessons in both ballet and tap, though neither of those dance forms particularly appealed to her: they seemed too rigid and constrained. “It wasn’t until I was about 10 that I took my first hip-hop classes,” she says.
She knew straight away that she’d found her calling. “I just loved it. Yeah, to be honest I fell in love.” For a start, she was powerfully drawn to the music, which typically has an insistent beat with an overlay of the rhythmic or rhyming speech known as rapping. Hip-hop dance, in all its uninhibited funkiness, thrilled her. “There was such a freedom to it,” she says. “You could kind of do it however you wanted. Because it’s so street.”
She’s very confident. The stars love her because she’s so honest. She is not overwhelmed by them.
Brett Goebel, father
According to Tony Mitchell, editor of Global Noise: Rap and Hip-Hop Outside the USA, New Zealand has long been a thriving hip-hop centre. “It’s something that has been particularly embraced by both Maori and Pacific Island cultures,” Mitchell says. “There’s a Maori tradition of public speaking which ties in with rapping. And Maori and Polynesian dance, like the Haka for example, is arguably close to hiphop. I think there is a definite connection.”
Goebel is of Samoan descent on her mother’s side. Almost 15 per cent of Auckland’s population identifies as Pacific Islanders – and a further 11 per cent as indigenous Maori – but she tells me she felt isolated in the affluent eastern suburbs where she spent her early years.
“There weren’t Polynesian families in that area,” she says. “I went to a very white, European primary school. I was the only Polynesian girl in my year. I’m fair now, but I was a lot darker when I was younger, so I was bullied for being brown.”
The bullying continued intermittently for most of her time at school. She says her parents moved her from one educational institution to another but she didn’t feel like she fitted into any of them. “I just hated school. I would either not go, or fall asleep in class. So I was failing everything.” By the time she was 15, it seemed clear that she was wasting her time. “So my parents were like, ‘Do you want to drop out?’ And I was, like, so excited.”
Aspects of his daughter’s life in Hollywood bemuse Brett Goebel. The size of her celebrity clients’ entourages, for instance. “Beyond belief, the number of people who trail around them,” he says. “We went with Justin Bieber into the desert and three or fours cars of people came out to support him.”
It is clear to Brett that, for all the fawning that goes on, not all the aides have the stars’ best interests at heart. “What I’ve learnt is that most of the people around them are after something,” he says. “There is very little sincerity. Everyone is trying to climb the ladder.”
Parris, he points out, is a straight-shooter. In her dealings with those who engage her as a choreographer, she doesn’t mince words or pander to egos. “Every other person, pretty much, will be, ‘Yes sir, no sir.’ ” Not Goebel: “She says, ‘Look, this is what we need to do.’ She’s very confident. The stars love her because she’s so honest. She is not overwhelmed by them.”
Goebel choreographed the spectacular routine with which the singer, dancer and actor Jennifer Lopez opened the 2015 American Music Awards. Goebel has worked several times with Lopez since she did the choreography for her 2012 world concert tour, says Brett, and the two have become friends. “She’s stayed at Jennifer’s house. I mean, Jennifer really likes her.”
Brett, who has his own marketing company, takes care of Goebel’s finances, including hammering out her employment contracts. “I’m a shark when it comes to negotiating,” he says. He has to be tough, because “they’ll all try to screw you. They’re like, ‘We’re only going to pay you this.’ I’m like, ‘No, this is the rate.’ They say, ‘Well, there are 20 other choreographers who want to do it.’ I say, ‘Yeah, go and get them. But they’re not as good as her.’ ” He smiles. “What I’ve learnt is, when you actually walk away, they want you even more.”
Goebel has no interest in the business side. “Doesn’t want to know about it,” Brett says. “She doesn’t even know what she gets paid for a job. That’s probably what keeps her grounded. All she needs to know is, ‘Do I have money in my bank account and can I buy what I like?’ Apart from that, we’re investing in property for her.”
Goebel tells me: “As long as I have enough to buy lunch, and a Louis Vuitton bag once a year, then I’m happy.” For her, the real reward is the work itself. “I’m just grateful I’ve got to a place where I can make money to support myself doing what I love to do.”
When Bieber’s manager phoned last year and invited Goebel to make dance videos for each of the 13 tracks on the singer’s new album, Purpose, she unhesitatingly accepted despite the fact she had less than a month in which to complete the job, and no budget to fund it.
The charge for her services is usually $US4000 ($5350) a day, Brett says. In this case, “They paid us nothing. Literally nothing. We just did it because it was a great project.” Goebel is a fast worker. “Most of the time, I have a very strong vision of what I want to put together,” she says. “I’m really good at creating on the spot.” Still, she had to scramble to meet Bieber’s deadline and she is proud of the acclaim the videos have received.
At the same time, she admits to being slightly puzzled by the runaway popularity of the Sorry clip, which she rehearsed and shot in Auckland in a couple of days. “It’s just a white room and we’re dancing,” she says. If it has been watched more than two billion times, it obviously has something going for it. “But I just didn’t think it was that great.”
The way Brett tells it, the decision to allow Goebel to leave school was made during a parent-teacher interview at Auckland Girls’ Grammar. “The teacher was getting into me about her not doing her essays,” he recalls. As he listened to the lecture, he reflected that no amount of essay writing would help his daughter achieve her ambition of becoming a professional dancer. “So I just said, ‘Yeah, that’s it. We’re pulling her out.’ ”
Goebel had already recruited four friends and formed her own dance crew, ReQuest. Brett had taken her to a hip-hop convention in the US and paid for her to have a couple of days’ intensive dance coaching.
Nevertheless, her initial exhilaration about quitting formal education soon gave way to anxiety. “I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she says. Yes, she wanted to be a hip-hop dancer, but “I didn’t know how to get where I wanted to get. I think I was a little bit lost for the first year.”
Brett came to the rescue, providing the backing she needed to open her Auckland studio in 2009. The same year, ReQuest won a junior division of the world hip-hop dance championships in Las Vegas. A year later, Goebel’s crew won the adults’ division.
The Palace is now home to four crews, each a member of Goebel’s “megacrew”, The Royal Family. Brett accompanies teams to the world championships each year. “We’ve won 18 medals in total,” he says. “I don’t know if there’s a country that has won that many medals, let alone one studio.”
To Charlotte Purdy, executive producer of The Palace, a TV documentary series recently screened in NZ, Brett’s unstinting support is one of the remarkable aspects of Goebel’s story. “He’s always taken her dream very seriously. The vision is absolutely shared,” Purdy says. “He fits that stereotype of parent-managers who do whatever it takes to help their child succeed, but it’s not for fame or fortune. If Parris wanted to be a taxi driver, he’d support her the same.”
Each January, hundreds of hip-hop dancers from across New Zealand – and an increasing number from overseas – audition for places in The Palace crews. The very best get the opportunity to compete at world championships, dance with Goebel, possibly even perform with her big-name clients and carve out international dancing careers for themselves.
For others, belonging to the studio is an end in itself. “It’s really cool to have a place that kids can come and find themselves,” says Goebel. “If you have a place where you can express yourself, that’s priceless.”
Most members of her crews are of Polynesian descent, some of them from poor families. Excelling at hip-hop can be great for the morale of disadvantaged kids, says Global Noise editor Tony Mitchell. “It gives them a sense of identity and purpose. Because there is still a huge amount of unemployment among Maori and Pacific Island communities.”
In everything I have read about Goebel, her style of hip-hop is called Polyswagg – an abbreviation of “Polynesian swagger”. According to her Wikipedia entry, it “is based on hearing, breathing and living the music, being passionate while dancing and transmitting feelings”.
When I ask Goebel to explain in more detail, she laughs and says: “Polyswagg isn’t really a thing. When we were on America’s Best Dance Crew, the TV show, we had to explain our style and we just made that up.”
In 2015, Goebel choreographed and appeared in Born to Dance, a movie about Auckland teenagers with dreams of hip-hop stardom. This year, she’s moved into music production, writing and releasing her own hip-hop numbers, each accompanied by a video. “I wanted to see if I could create other art forms,” she says. “I’m obsessed with being creative in all types of ways.”
What I like about Goebel is her chutzpah. A couple of years ago, when a journalist inquired about her plans for the future, she said: “My long-term goal is just to build my own empire, really.” To me, she says: “I don’t want to be famous. You can be famous for being a Kardashian. I want to be a legend. I want to create legacies within my art that will last forever.”
As she reclines on one of the studio couches, a gaping hole in her jeans reveals a large tattoo on her right thigh. “I just got it yesterday,” she says. “Isn’t it cool? It’s a lioness. I wanted something strong to represent me.”
While we’ve been talking, she has yawned once or twice. I ask if she is losing interest in the conversation. “I’m slowly falling asleep,” she says. “But I’m still with you.”