+ By Emily Karcher + Photos by Emily Karcher
Jamile McGee doesn’t stop moving much. Even sitting by the window of Einstein Bros Bagels on Ritchie Highway this rainy Saturday in January, he is working the crowd. A wool flat cap covers his shaved head, and he is tapping arms, snapping fingers, cracking jokes, and even teasing a group of adjacent women in their sixties.
One bumps into his upper arm, which today is covered by a fitted blue sweater. McGee asks if she was trying to “cop a feel.” The women giggle wildly before one responds, “If you’re charging for that, put us all on the list!”
Baby-faced and gregarious, McGee knows a thing or two about working a crowd. That’s one reason the 30-year-old Maryland native ended up in Hollywood at 19, cast on the first season of the hit FOX television show, So You Think You Can Dance. McGee was a top finalist and was subsequently hired as a backup dancer to Hollywood’s biggest A-listers, dancing on concert tours internationally and in music videos. Young dancers across the region today also flock to the classes he offers at local studios.
But the other reason for his success? McGee McGee can dance.
McGee describes his classic hip-hop dance movements as “popping and locking,” but if you really want to know what it looks like when he dances, imagine someone (proficiently) doing the Robot and then unhinging his torso from his legs. He is 6’1” and entirely muscular, and his dances—whether self-choreographed or learned—are breathless and jolty, but equally fluid. McGee seamlessly strings each step—a combination of moonwalks, modified push-ups, pantomime, and splits—all together into one long, polished motion before reaching his final pose and tipping his fedora.
McGee recalls that, even from a young age, he was “that show-off at school,” always moving, always dancing. His mother enrolled him in ballet and jazz at age four, but McGee despised being the only boy in a traditionally girls’ world (something he says that is different today, with some classes now catering entirely to boys). In high school, classmates would nudge him into impromptu performances at assemblies. But surprisingly, movement didn’t always come easy for McGee.“To make a long story short, I was playing soccer at school one day,” McGee recalls. “I fell and hit my knee. After that, I started getting really sick for some reason. Things just weren’t okay.”
At age nine, McGee was diagnosed with Systemic Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, and during more than a year in the hospital, his prognosis for ever walking again became grim. But out of nowhere, this self-professed “church boy” seemed to experience a miracle to the extent that his body completely recovered. In 2005, he was able to share his experience during the Silver Spring auditions for So You Think You Can Dance, and that, in combination with his phenomenal dancing, drew the producers to his backstory.
What kept him earning applause on the show was his consistent ability to perform nearly any genre of dance—something he learned through formal studies at both Wright State University and Anne Arundel Community College.
“After the show, I was working, working, working, working,” says McGee. “Beyoncé scooped me up. Wayne Brady. I was dancing for Chris Brown, dancing for Rihanna, Mary J. Blige.” For seven years, McGee made the rounds in Hollywood and internationally, sometimes auditioning alongside 500 other dancers in a hotel ballroom, all vying for a chance to dance in the spotlight.“Hollywood is an amazing place for the opportunity,” McGee says. “But if you’re not grounded and ready and driven, it’s really difficult.” Little by little, having to be “camera-ready all the time” started to wear McGee down. “I needed a break,” he admits. “I like Hollywood for the exposure, the opportunity, but I’m not Hollywood. I’m neighborhood. I missed home.”
After riding the celebrity wave amid the constant hustle of Los Angeles, McGee is back east now—for a while, at least. “I’m actually in a good place with it. I’m not fighting myself with it anymore,” he adds.
Today he’s eating bagels late on this Saturday morning with his girlfriend, Brandee Stuart, also an accomplished local hip-hop dancer. The two of them are talking about what it feels like to transition as a full-time dancer towards finding what’s next in an artist’s career.
For McGee, he is turning his efforts not only to more choreography work, but also deejaying and producing electronic music, including house and dubstep. As McGee explains, creating an experience for an audience—either aurally through music or visually through dance—involves remarkable similarities. “As a deejay, you’re a mood-setter,” McGee explains. “I can make you sit down. I can make you get up, depending on what I play. It’s as if I’m choreographing. It’s almost as if I’m going, ‘Five, six, seven, eight,’ but I’m doing it with buttons.”
Experience as a wheelchair-bound nine-year-old still resonates with McGee, who now volunteers as a monthly deejay at The League in Baltimore, a brand-new nightclub experience offered solely for people with disabilities.
As for what’s next for McGee, he stresses a commitment to wanting to use his talents to help others. “I love to inspire,” he says, especially if he can encourage his students to take risks in order to pursue their professional dreams. On the East Coast, McGee says, there is an impressive pool of talented young dancers. “People who want to go out to L.A., want to go to Cali,” McGee says, “I just tell them, ‘Keep training; keep practicing.’”
Looking back at the past decade, and having leapt into the limelight at a relatively young age, McGee chuckles: “I’ve done some work, man. I feel old, but I’m not old. I’m still young. I’ve still got a lot of work to do.”