Travis Payne Lives to Dance: Choreographer with Michael Jackson 16 years, Now on CBS show with Paula Abdul

For 16 years, Travis Payne worked with Michael Jackson on numerous projects. In fact, he was working with Jackson and Kenny Ortega on the This Is It Tour, till the tragic day Jackson was rushed to the hospital and subsequently passed away. As a choreographer, producer and director, Payne has worked with everyone from Madonna to Lady Gaga to Beyonce.

Payne got his big break as a dancer for Janet Jackon’s Rhythm Nation Tour. His career took off from there. He tells CYInterview he had always set out to do something of significance. His focus and drive are the reasons he has a track record of working with numerous marquee names.

“My mother will tell you if you ever meet her, this is one of her stories, but I would always say that I’m gonna work with Michael Jackson and Prince and Janet Jackson and Debbie Allen and Paula Abdul and I got to do that. It was really sort of just trusting in my instincts and being at the right place at the right time and being prepared for the opportunities when they came along, but having a focus. As I got older, I really came to understand more what that meant.

Payne’s currently starring, alongside Paula Abdul, on the CBS show Live to Dance. He says that he and Paula go back a long way and this is a project they were both ready to take on.

“Paula and I have known each other for many years. My very first audition in L.A. was for a Paula Abdul project in that I got to choreograph a few of her videos with her throughout the years. So I was very happy that this was gonna be like a full circle for us in our relationship in that we had both grown so much since first meeting and that it was really going to be the fruits of all of our hard work over the years independently that would make us a strong unit.”

Travis worked with Madonna on the Power of Goodbye video. The song was featured on the Material Girl’s Ray of Light Album. The game of chess is featured in the video. Payne says Madonna didn’t know how to play the game. The dancer first met Madonna in Mexico when her tour and Michael Jackson’s tour were taking place at the same time.

“She was very about the business, very to the point and very cordial in that working environment… She didn’t know how to play chess. It was a chess game in the video that we were creating and she didn’t know how to play chess or at least she said she didn’t and she wanted me to show her how to play chess. So I was showing her what I knew and it was pretty cool. We pulled it off. I had met her before in Mexico, but we never worked together. She was doing The Girlie Show and I was on tour with Michael for the Dangerous Tour. So all of the dancers would go back and forth to each other’s shows while we were there together that week and I met her first there at one of her concerts.”

Owing to Michael Jackson’s tragic passing, fans would never get to see his This Is It show. Payne tells us there were going to be many amazing surprises. Everyone from Diana Ross to Mariah Carey was going to sing and perform with Michael during the show’s run at the O2 Arena in London.

Travis confided to me after the interview that it was going to be the greatest show ever and there are many surprises that were planned that people still don’t know about.

Though still early in her career, Jackson had let Travis know that he wanted to even invite Lady Gaga to perform with him. Who knows what the performance would’ve been like, but it would have aligned, in some way, the King of Pop and the Poker Face singer.

“I was working on This Is It with Michael Jackson and we were creating a shortlist of artists we were gonna invite to appear with Michael on the show at several events and different occasions. After we had gotten to the end of the list, we had of course Janet and Diana Ross and Justin Timberlake and Usher and Missy Elliot and Teddy Riley, Celine Dion and Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and a lot of people that he loved, artists. We got to the end of the list and I said, is there anybody else you add and he said, yeah. I said, who? Lady Gaga. I go really? He said, yeah, she’s cool and I said, ok.

At that time, I wasn’t familiar. I think Gaga had put out Poker Face. It was still early on at her success. And I said really? He said, yeah, she’s cool. You gotta get into her. And I said, ok. So that was really my sort of introduction to her. As you know, we wouldn’t get to do This Is It, but shortly after we completed all of the memorial services for Michael, I got a call from Lady Gaga. We had a discussion about her show and it just blew me away. I told her the story about how Michael had said that he wanted to invite her to sing with him in his show and of course she was so moved and humbled and then that’s how I met her. She just sort of called out of the blue. So I’d like to think Michael had everything to do with that.”

During his 16 year run working with Jackson, Travis felt spoiled because he says there was never anything creatively that couldn’t be tried. There were never any budget issues. Only a lack of time or something not yet having been created would prevent them from doing something they wanted to do.

“I had the wonderful pleasure of working with Michael for 16 years. First, as a dancer and ultimately as his associate director and producer as well as choreography partner for This Is It and everything that the project turned out to be and I’m forever grateful to him for all the opportunities throughout the years…Being able to create with Michael on such a high level where you don’t run into the normal issues with budgets or excess or not being able to realize a vision. The only thing that was the deterrent was time.”

I asked Travis when the last time he saw Michael Jackson was. “Was it shortly before the Gloved One’s passing?” Mr. Payne recalls the entire event like it was yesterday. He tells us they parted saying, “I love you” to each other.

“The last time I saw Michael was June 24th. The evening, we had finished rehearsal and we had completed the show, all the beats were there and we were waiting on a few sort of components that would be used for the set and things like that and we were just about to leave the following week for London for a series of rehearsals there before opening. The evening before his passing, I saw him and we had a rehearsal and he was leaving. Just in true Michael Jackson fashion, as he’s leaving, we pass each other and always it was just a regular occurrence. You pass him in the hall or you pass him walking and you say, ‘I love you.’

Most times he’ll say I love you first. That was the exchange, always. So we did that. I said, ok, see you tomorrow. He said, ok, see you at two o’clock and that was our time. We always met for This Is It and often times for other things. There was something about that time that was good and that was really it. Last thing he said to me was I love you. So I’m grateful for that and that was the last thing I said to him. So I’ll remember that forever as one of my sort of favorite moments that was the last thing we said to each other and we meant it.”

As someone who worked closely with Michael in the last months of his life, on rehearsals for the This Is It tour, Payne states there was nothing out of the ordinary about Michael’s health and that Jackson was busier than ever working with everybody to perfect the show. Many people wonder how the King of Pop was doing in those last months of his life. Travis says he’s still shocked that Michael passed away.

“Michael was certainly building himself back to what he would say was getting ready for his fight. He’d liken himself to a boxer. So we were training. He was working closely with his vocal coach, he was working closely with Kenny [Ortega] and I and the production team, realizing this, and the dancers, and his trainer, his nutritionist and he was doing all those things that he usually did. Nothing looked out of the ordinary to me. It was a different experience because he was a father, so his time was used differently this time, but there was a structure and that he had put in place for himself.

He created his own schedule and we facilitated and worked with him on every single minute that he was available and he was sort of just so happy about all of it. He was happiest when he was creating. So it was so surprising to me that there was anything a matter with his health. He had passed every physical. He was working. He was showing up. He was doing his thing…It was an on going sort of a task to put this show together and he was at the helm of it all. So I just when so shocked like the rest of the world when he died. I still am in shock.”

Travis Payne told me he has not been called on to be a witness, testify or provide information for Dr. Conrad Murray’s trial. As for his future, Travis is hoping for it to be creative, productive and fulfilling. He is definitely a dream achiever.

Listen to the entire Travis Payne CYInterview:

Inserting Audio Using embed Element

(Backup Player: Including IE)

You can find more out about Live to Dance clicking here

Travis Payne’s official website is at