Charm La’Donna will gently correct you if you call her a dancer. She’s an artist.

The Compton-bred black girl is the sole female performer on Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. tour, a 36-show trek that includes Travis Scott. D.R.A.M. and YG. So why did the “danceHER”—the name she’s affectionately called by Lamar’s band—decide to hit the road with the greatest rapper alive? “This was something that I just couldn’t pass up,” she tells ESSENCE. “The culture, this album, I just loved it. And him being from Compton. I’m from Compton, why wouldn’t I want to dance?”

One thing’s for sure: Charm’s professional glo-up ain’t your average.

At age 17, her unofficial gap year consisted of touring with Madonna before heading to UCLA. Once back, as the protégé of legendary choreographer Fatima Robinson, she found herself juggling a hectic course load and choreography gigs. Though most burgeoning creatives concede to a 9-to-5 or retail job to make ends meet, the then 29-year-old refused to become a Starbucks barista to survive. “Fatima kept me working,” she says. “I used my tour money and the money I was making with Fatima to pay for UCLA at the time. So yeah, I was broke but I grew up poor. It wasn’t new.”

Now as bonafide choreographer with acts like Pharrell Williams and Selena Gomez on her résumé, this good girl is ready to take on the mad city of acting. ESSENCE caught up with Charm in Los Angeles to talk her favorite set with Kung Fu Kenny, the lessons she’s learned under Robinson’s tutelage and how the struggle to maintain a healthy lifestyle on the road is real AF.

ESSENCE: How was the show?

Charm La’Donna: For me, the L.A. shows are some of the best shows because I was in front of friends and family and I’m from here. The energy was crazier than I expected. My mom came and she hasn’t seen me dance in a long time.

ESSENCE: How did you get this gig?

Charm La’Donna: Well, first let me say that I’m Fatima Robinson’s protégé, so I worked with her to co-choreograph Kendrick’s show for the 2015 BET Awards. If he ever had performances with dancers, we did [it]. We did the Grammy choreo. Any time he has a bunch of dancers, I try to sprinkle myself in there because I just love his music.

ESSENCE: Plus, Kendrick’s on a wave right now.

Charm La’Donna: Right. And who has only one dancer on a tour. Who does that?! Kendrick Lamar does that.

ESSENCE: It’s such a statement that you’re the only woman, Black woman, on this tour. How does this moment feel for you?

Charm La’Donna: All the hard work, all the hours, all the non-sleep and the pressures of the industry, everything I did has paid off in this particular situation because I’ve earned it. This has been in the making of years and years of hard work as a dancer, as a choreographer, as an assistant, as a Black woman.

I just taught a master class at a dance studio, and I was telling them how it was hard for me. I went to UCLA full time. I was doing that and trying to be a choreographer under Fatima, who is an amazing woman, but it’s hard to be in both worlds. It’s hard when you don’t have a job that’s a consistent 9-to-5. I didn’t work at Starbucks to pay my way through school. I was a choreographer on the schedule of artists and moving around and trying to figure it out. By the grace of God, I got through it. I think it says a lot about who he [Lamar] is for even having a solo dancing black woman in his show.

ESSENCE: Going back a bit, when did you decide to take on dancing full-time?

Charm La’Donna: I was 17. I left my performing arts high school my senior year to go on tour with Madonna. This was 2006.

ESSENCE: Oh, I know your mom was shook.

Charm La’Donna: Yeah, I got into UCLA before I left and my mom like, “You’re going as soon as you get off the road.” So I took my ass to UCLA [laughs]. But I always knew I wanted to be in the arts. I wanted to choreograph, I wanted to perform, I wanted to be in front of the camera as much as possible. Choreography and dance is the door that opened it all up for me.

ESSENCE: Yeah, most folks would’ve taken a corporate job or a little side gig to get by.

Charm La’Donna: No, no, no. I’m a hustler. And Fatima was so gracious. She understood the pressures of doing 27 units at UCLA. That’s not easy; an average student does 12. I was tryna get outta there.

ESSENCE: And you knew how to make it work. What were some of the best things you learned under Fatima?

Charm La’Donna: She always taught me to trust my gut. That’s so important to trust your first instinct; to trust your art and your craft. Be honest. We’re in an industry where fake and phony kinda make it. And outside of that, she taught me the business of entertainment. How to create revenue, continue to grow and stay consistent in an industry that constantly changes, ‘cause you can get stuck, you can get lost.

ESSENCE: When did she let you spread your own wings? You know, everyone has that “student becomes the teacher” moment.

Charm La’Donna: Probably about when I was 25, 26. She’s always let me blossom and do my thing. She was always busy opening doors for black women like me. And I know I’m one in a million. For sure.

ESSENCE: Seriously, the spaces that you’ve occupied, like this tour, are a testament to how authentic your journey is and how real you are. Now, tell me what’s your fav song to perform.

Charm La’Donna: So I perform three songs. I do “XXX.,” and that’s where we just go for it… we just move, you know what I’m saying? And that’s the best part of being creative. It’s so dope. Then we do “PRIDE.” where everyone’s trying to figure out how we’re floating in the air. And yes, we are floating because we’re magical babies from Compton [Laughs].

ESSENCE: What’s your lifestyle like on the road? What are you eating?

Charm La’Donna: It’s super fast-paced. I don’t even remember the cities we have to go to [Laughs]. I try my hardest to eat the best I can, but when you travel things change. But I can’t even lie. Some days it’s pizza and hot wings, and that’s just what it is. Other days it’s salads and water. I’m really working on that water thing.

ESSENCE: So what’s next?

Charm La’Donna: I want to act. I acted when I was younger and did musicals when I was younger, so I know that’s where I want to go. When I get off tour, I have studio sessions and acting classes ready. My creative mind is now growing again and I’m so inspired.

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