Though Shellee Samuels ’14 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 ’20: To start off, what made you choose LMU?
Shellee Samuels: I was born and raised in Inglewood and I always knew I wanted to stay close to home. I loved the campus and wanted to study dance, so I checked out their department. It was great. 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.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. It was so impactful, it totally helped with my transition into college from high school. 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 in the Office of Admissions and the Ethnic and Intercultural Services office. I [became] 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 at LMU. In my last year, I was president alongside my roommate and best friend Tyler Scott. We started LMU’s Best Dance Crew. At the time, 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 really successful and I’m just glad to know that it is still happening and that the campus is supporting the event.
How did your experience with dance on-campus help you get to where you are now?
The training at LMU helped me just own 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.
“I came to the audition, danced my heart out, and gave it all I had.”
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 traveling back and forth as a kid and learning the culture, I naturally just learned dancehall and its one of my favorites.
How did you get involved in Beychella?
One of [Beyoncé’s] choreographers, Jaquel Knight, was someone I’ve worked with a while back. He held auditions for her Coachella performance and invited me to audition. I did, and after lots of waiting, I received an email that I was selected to be a part of the show. It wasn’t like luck or anything. I came 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?
Mind you, I have a 9-5 outside of dance teaching preschool. I’d just finished a long day at work. 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. 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.
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. 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 is incredible in itself because that feeling alone I didn’t feel that with any of the other dances. It’s a sense of pride starting the show with her.
I also got to be a part of “Deja Vu,” which was so incredible, too, because 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 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. I had the biggest smile on my face. Like, oh my God, this is really happening? It is really happening!
Okay, so “Run the World” is 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, she walks from the top of the stairs down to the front of the stage and literally walks right past me. That moment alone gives you the juice you need to kill it. It was all girls and the choreo was so bomb. You could see all the girls in the audience chanting, “Who runs the world? Girls!” I was watching Beyoncé and the audience, 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 with her beautiful, powerful voice. The song is 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. It’s like, this is for all the naysayers. I made it. I’m here.
“I don’t even know what else to say besides that it was living in a dream.”
Wow, I really have chills from hearing that. That is so beautiful. So what was it like working with Beyoncé? The world needs to know!
It was a dream! It was honestly a dream come true. She is such a hard worker and she brings out the best in you. You want to be your best. Everyone in the cast makes you feel like you are your best, like you’re killing it. I would love to do it over and over and over again. I’m so sad that Beychella is over. 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. Every department in that show is extremely talented — from the wardrobe to the hair to the band to the choreography. We’re good at what we do, but it’s not easy.
And for people who have never heard of the acronym “HBCU,” this performance is going to show the world 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 strolling. I thought it was so special for Beyoncé to share that with the world. It’s amazing for people to see all the talent that black people possess.
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?
I would say that came from my mom. She always tells me, no matter what, to just trust God and trust the process. In this industry there are a lot of “no’s” before “yes’s.” Understanding that everything is part of the journey and knowing 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. Understand your talent and believe in your talent. You walk into auditions and you literally get told, “thank you for coming, but no.” 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 one day you’re going to walk into an audition and be exactly what they’re looking for. But if you stop, you won’t ever get there. 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.