When the audience first meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), she's sauntering on stage in a pair of sky-high stilettos. Her customers are entranced and bills fly in every direction as she spins around the silver pole, flipping her hair and making it all look effortless. Hustlers' pole dance choreographer, Johanna Sapakie, designed each routine and trained each actor so that their moves would contribute to the definition of their characters. When you see how Ramona moves through the club or how Destiny (Constance Wu) first walks up on stage, you catch a glimpse of what makes these women unique.
“All the characters are in really different places in their evolution,” says Sapakie when we speak over the phone ahead of the film's release. “Jennifer's character owns the game, while Constance is supposed to look a little naive, a little unrefined. So the approach [to coaching her] was different, because she needed to be convincing in that role.”
Ramona commands the attention of every room she's in, and when she steps on stage, she is elegant and fierce at the same time. “When [Lopez] was shooting [her entrance] scene, the room was on fire,” says Sapakie. There were 300 extras and multiple cameras, and the crew treated it like a major stunt scene.
Ramona takes Destiny under her wing and guides her in more than just owning the pole. In the movie, based on a New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler, a group of former strippers work out a plan to scam wealthy men, including their former clientele. They meet a mark, drug him, and then suggest — seemingly spontaneously — hitting a strip club. With the men in no condition to object, the women run up huge charges on their credit cards, getting very rich in the process.
Despite the setbacks and stressful situations they encounter in the high-risk operation, the film’s focus remains squarely on the sisterhood between Destiny, Ramona, and the other women at the club. Every element supports that theme, including the dancer. Sapakie was present on set, working with writer and director Lorene Scafaria on angles and coaching the actors on their routines. She choreographed the inimitable Lopez and taught Wu the basics, so that every hair toss and hand flick was motivated first and foremost by character. The scene from the trailer where Ramona is teaching Destiny the pole basics mirrors the way Sapakie taught Lopez when they first started training months before the movie filmed.
Long before Sapakie got the call to work on Hustlers, she was honing her own skills as both a performer and a teacher. She got her start as a professional commercial dancer but found a love of aerial acrobatics and performed with Cirque du Soleil for 10 years. It was during one of these elaborate shows she found pole dancing and fell in love with the beauty of it.
“For me it is an art form,” says Sapakie. “I like to work through emotions and create art. It is not just sport, not just femininity, and not just strength. It combines so many different facets, all in one.”
In Hustlers, she wanted to bring out the essential qualities of every character, which meant intentionally playing up Ramona's confidence and emphasizing Destiny's bewilderment. The goal was to make sure that all of the actors could look at home in a strip club. But despite how easy Lopez makes it look in the film and the behind the scenes video she posted on YouTube, pole dancing is very, very difficult ("even for a world class performer and athlete," says Sapakie). The rehearsals were grueling, and bruises were unavoidable. But this style of dancing is not just an athletic feat; it also requires performance. Each movement has to flow into the next, a sultry walk is key.
The first part of Sapakie's Huslters journey was coaching and training Lopez, starting two months before filming began. The choreographer traveled to the star's homes in Miami, Los Angeles, and New York and installed poles for practicing.
To flip, spin, and invert on a pole requires core and upper body strength, as well as stamina, according to Sapakie. On top of all that, all these gravity defying moves are happening in massive platform heels. “On day one, I had Jennifer put on those seven-inch platform stilettos,” says Sapakie. “There is no point in [dancing] in sneakers. In stilettos you stand differently, you move differently, and it makes you feel powerful.”
Lili Reinhart, who plays recent runaway Annabelle, and Keke Palmer, who plays Mercedes, don't have any big pole dancing moments on screen. However, it was still critical for them to get familiar with the club and the art form. From getting ready in the club's dressing rooms to jumping onstage with the rest of the women for a major surprise cameo moment, they had to look the part. "That was what the approach for each of them,” says Sapakie.
Hustlers is about sisterhood, struggle, and resilience. And both onstage and off, these characters are unapologetically themselves. Through her thoughtful choreography, Sapakie brought personality to each and every move. The dancing celebrates Ramona's fearlessness and the evolution Destiny from starry-eyed newbie to ringleader.
It was especially important to get this element right in the film, because pole dancing was born strip clubs. While it has since evolved into a mainstream art form, a competitive sport, and a fitness hobby, the message remains the same: have fun and celebrate you.
“If you are going to be pole dancing, the essence of it is to own your femininity, own your power,” says Sapakie. “You don’t want to hide yourself; you want to show off who you are.”