Red and white pulsating lights illuminated Raymond Jones Stadium in Tampa as the song “House of Balloons” filled the air.
It was halftime of Super Bowl LV with the Buccaneers leading 21-6 against the Chiefs when the Weeknd brought more than 200 dancers onto the field. To coincide with his album After Hours, the Weeknd, whose real name is Abel Tesfaye, released a series of music videos in which he is seen partying, abusing drugs and entering into a downward spiral of self-doubt and plastic surgery. During his performance at the 2020 American Music Awards, the artist covered his face in white bandages while singing “Save Your Tears” and “In Your Eyes,” leading many to speculate he actually went under the knife. In an interview with Variety magazine, he says the act represented “the absurd culture of Hollywood celebrity and people manipulating themselves for superficial reasons to please and be validated.”
Dressed in red jackets, black pants and black gloves, also with white bandages over their faces, the dancers first appeared on stage as the Weeknd sang “Can’t Feel My Face” while running through a hallway lit by titles of his songs. With choreography featuring marching and head snaps as they began the field portion of the show, they served as an army of the Weeknd clones as they marched alongside him. Among that army was North Carolina A&T State University senior Bentley Tanner.
As children, Tanner and his friend Kahdre Walker dreamed of becoming drum majors in college. The dream became reality for the young men, with Tanner joining Smooth Ignition— the drum majors of the Blue and Gold Marching Machine, the band at A&T— and Walker joining the Marching Wildcats at Bethune-Cookman University. Walker, a professional dancer with connections to the Super Bowl performance crew, knew that if Tanner could handle the pressure of performing with the award-winning BGMM, then he could handle anything.
Tanner’s oldest friend asked him one question: “Wanna be in the Super Bowl?”
He jumped at both the chance to perform with a Grammy award-winning musician and to perform in his hometown of Tampa. Once the gig was set in stone, Tanner declined to let anyone know about it per the crew’s request. He told close friends he received an “amazing opportunity,” omitting further details.
Tanner considers himself a performer rather than a dancer, but as a drum major, he’s not exempt from dancing as Smooth Ignition is known for their choreography featuring pelvic thrusts, body rolls and moves mimicking step as the band takes the field.
“While I’m not an experienced professional dancer, I am capable of dancing when I want to,” he says.
He notes that while he performs in front of huge crowds all the time, the Super Bowl was still nerve-wracking. He says he fed off the crowd’s energy to get through the performance.
“That was a huge stage I wasn’t expecting to be on,” he says.
Tanner’s favorite part of the halftime show was the march during the intro of the song “House of Balloons,” approximately 10 minutes into the show as it reminded him of the BGMM. Before the bandaged performers appeared, a choir was situated behind the Weeknd in a lit skyline similar to the one seen in the “Blinding Lights” music video. Backstage, Tanner danced along as the choir shoulder leaned to “The Hills.” He enjoyed the freestyle portion at the beginning of “Blinding Lights,” as the dancers got to let loose for a moment with the Weeknd before falling back into choreography. At this point, the stadium literally filled with blinding lights as fireworks erupted. Tanner never got to speak to him one-on-one but is still appreciative of his brush with celebrity.
“He made sure to let the dancers know he appreciated their part in the field show,” he says.
Tanner has been performing music since he was a child, joining his local church at 8 years old and later starting a marching band there. While in his middle school marching band, he knew he wanted to continue to play in college. When applying to universities, unfamiliarity was the least of the eager teen’s concerns.
“For me, I wanted to branch out and take that first step towards my own life and own path,” he says.
The mesmerizing performance of the BGMM and what he describes as the “positive energy” he felt during a campus tour in March 2017 is what made Tanner realize he was meant to be an Aggie. It helps that A&T has been recognized by several publications as the nation’s top producer of Black engineers, as Tanner is an information technology student.
“I couldn’t see myself anywhere else,” he says.
As for the future, Tanner may add dance to his performance résumé, as the performance made him realize he has a natural talent for movement. He’s considering taking classes, but that’s all he’s willing to say for now.
“I just wanna get stuff done,” he says. “Then, I’ll post the receipts.
Check out the full Super Bowl LV Halftime Show on YouTube.