At the B&B Dance Center in Van Nuys, Calif., Paula Abdul is at it again. She’s rehearsing yet another dance sequence, this one for the movie Running Man. “Okay,” she says, mopping a bead of perspiration from her pretty forehead, “ba-ba-ba…” All eyes are on Paula as she abruptly stops—then does an incendiary pelvic thrust. “Bam-bam!” The other dancers smile at the torrid riff she’s just invented for their routine. “She has funk and a lot of feeling,” one of them, Charleton Jones, says, wiping the sweat from his own brow. “You can literally seethe music through her dancing.”
That’s why Paula Abdul, a sinuous body linguist of just 23 years, has already become the hottest choreographer on the music video scene. On Feb. 26 she won the American Video Award as Best Choreographer for her work on ZZ Top’s first dance outing, Velcro Fly. She’s choreographed all four of Janet Jackson‘s hyperventilating videos: Nasty, What Have You Done for Me Lately, When I Think of You and Control. The hot and nasty Janet has admiringly described Abdul’s style as “jazz and street—mixed.” Paula calls Jackson’s songs “a dancer’s dream,” adding, “She’s like a sister to me.” But Janet is not the only Jackson in the sea, and Paula has worked with most of the others, beginning with an elaborate number for Michael’s 1984 Victory Tour. “Paula reaches out for new things,” says Jermaine Jackson. “She is in tune with streetwise dancing. I plan to work with her time and time again.”
Jermaine may have to wait in line. Paula, who earns between $4,000 and $6,000 per video, has also worked with the likes of Duran Duran (the Notorious video), Kool & the Gang (for their coming spring tour), the Pointer Sisters (the Goldmine video) and Dolly Parton, whose Christmas TV special she choreographed. “I heard a lot about you,” Dolly said afterward, “and everything was true.” After watching Paula’s hoofing at an NAACP dinner, Debbie Allen said, “I can learn something from you!” In fact Abdul has risen so high so fast that, she giggles, “Everyone wants to know where I came from.”
Where she came from, professionally, was a most unlikely breeding ground: the L.A. Lakers’ cheerleading squad. While a student majoring in sports casting at Cal State Northridge, Paula auditioned for one of the 15 slots on the Lakers Girls. “My first love is dancing, but I’m an avid sports fan,” she explains. “Cheerleading was a way to combine the two.” At the tender age of 18—the other girls averaged 26—she was accepted. Her stuff was so right that within a year she was the group’s choreographer. The sensuous Lakers Girl turns she dreamed up brought her first public acclaim, and her routines still have the angular look characteristic of cheerleading. “My work has an edge,” she says. “What I’m most known for is sharp, isolated dance moves.” Even Bob Fosse, no slouch himself, praises her “sharp, clean precision. Her dancers move and stop and move—it’s wonderful.”
Geographically, Paula came from Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley. She’s the daughter of Lorraine—once the executive assistant to director Billy Wilder—and Henry Abdul, a cattle rancher. “My dad—he’s Syrian and Brazilian—claims I got my rhythm from him,” says Paula, who began dancing classes at 8. It was apparent even then that she had talent. “Someone once told me her feet could think,” her mother says. “She had the ability to see a routine once and get it right away.” By 17, she was trained in ballet, jazz, modern and tap.
And the girl’s got ambition, too. Now living in West Hollywood, she hopes soon to be onstage, not backstage calling the shots. “She can sing. She can dance,” her manager, Barry Josephson, says confidently. “She is going far beyond choreography.”
Given the way she pants after perfection (“She’s a butt-buster,” one Nasty dancer says), Abdul admits that she sometimes whirls herself to a frazzle. “I have my moments,” she says. “Sometimes I look in the mirror and see myself really burned out, dark circles under my eyes. Then I say, ‘Well, God, I really have to get a good night’s sleep.’ ” The weariness doesn’t last long. Abdul is currently hoping to be named choreographer for her first movie musical, Sing, and cutting demo tapes for what could be an even bigger breakthrough, a possible singing album, in a pop rhythm-and-blues style.
Yes, she’s ambitious all right. “I want to be an all-around performer,” Paula says, without embarrassment. “Like Debbie Allen.” Now that’s what the Lakers would call a game plan.