It was one of the biggest television events of the year — held the night before the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses — and choreographers Tabitha and Napoleon Dumo were determined not to let the moment go by.
The husband and wife had been working as Jennifer Lopez’s creative directors for her part of the Super Bowl halftime show since late September, and it had all begun with a simple question: “What is it that we’re going to say?” Tabitha said in a phone interview on Monday with BuzzFeed News. “What is that we can do to just leave an impact?”
“This is the biggest stage in the world,” she continued. “I think every little girl looks at the Super Bowl their whole life and dreams of touching that stage and performing, so we wanted it to really count and mean something.”
What viewers saw on Sunday night was a carefully calibrated performance by J.Lo and her team that balanced hit songs with subtle messaging, honoring her Puerto Rican heritage and urging those at home to find their voice.
“A voice as a woman, as a Latino, as a mom,” Tabitha said, “inspiring women of the next generation to get loud.”
An estimated 102 million people tuned into Sunday’s game between the San Francisco 49ers and the victorious Kansas City Chiefs, according to Fox, making it the 10th most-watched Super Bowl in history. The halftime show, which also featured Colombian singer Shakira belting out some of her biggest hits, won mostly positive reviews from fans and critics alike. Vulture declared the pair had “united the masses” through their music, highlighting Shakira’s historic rendition of “Ojos Así” as the first time a Latinx singer had performed in Spanish at the Super Bowl. Variety, in its review, made mention of the recent snub of Lopez’s Hustlers performance by Academy Awards voters: “Jennifer Lopez Doesn’t Need an Oscar,” its headline declared. “She Just Won the Super Bowl.” The New York Times, meanwhile, dubbed the show a “party” full of “sparkle” led by “Latina superwomen.”
“Yet the halftime show was also a no-nonsense affirmation of Latin pride and cultural diversity,” continued the Times review, “in a political climate where immigrants and American Latinos have been widely demonized.”
Many watching at home highlighted a moment near the end of Lopez’s performance where her daughter, Emme Maribel Muñiz, joined her along with other children and began singing “Let’s Get Loud” from inside lighted cages. As Lopez wore a custom Versace feathered coat designed to look like the Puerto Rican flag, her daughter began singing a section of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”
Tabitha told BuzzFeed News the concept began as a discussion between her and Lopez.
“I think it started, from a musical standpoint, having ‘Born in the USA’ in there for a little moment and it just was a natural evolution,” she said. “We had a great partnership with Versace and Rob [Zangardi], her stylist, saying, ‘Let's just do this in a way that everyone feels that American pride.’
“I don’t think we were trying to be heavy-handed with anything. I think we were just celebrating all that is beautiful about this country — Puerto Rico being part of this country.”
“It was more or less about Love,” Napoleon added. “It really comes from a base of love and happiness to be a Latino in America.”
As for the imagery of Latino children in cages, evoking news photographs widely seen as a result of the Trump administration’s immigration measures, both choreographers declined to state any explicit political motives. (Representatives for Lopez did not respond to a request for comment for this story.) However, speaking from their Los Angeles home after an early morning flight back from Miami, they did refer to the props as “cages.”
“I think it’s symbolic to... You can put yourself in your own cage metaphorically as well if you don’t believe that you can be bigger or greater than something and if someone doesn’t allow you to believe that about yourself,” said Tabitha, referencing J.Lo’s 2018 single “Limitless.”
“Someone can put you in cages or you can put yourself in cages,” she added, “so it’s a bigger statement to everyone to see your own potential and not feel limited in this life that we have that’s so special here in this country.”
On Monday night, Lopez explicitly referenced the cages in an Instagram post highlighting the moments before she, her daughter, and her crew hit the stage.
"All I want my girls, the little girls on stage with me and all over the world to know is how to use their voices and be proud of everything they are," she wrote. "Other people can try to build walls, keep us out or put us in cages. We are proud to recognize that all of us together are what makes this beautiful country truly great."
Tabitha, who worked with Lopez on the choreography in Hustlers, also acknowledged the section of Sunday’s performance that featured pole dancing was intended as a tribute to the incredible skills the actor picked up working on the film.
“Jennifer over the [filming] process learned, ‘Wow, this is like a sport. You have to be an athlete and in such great shape to really do what this is,’” she said.
Some conservatives chafed at what they said was inappropriate and sexualized strip club imagery (Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk called it “a horrendous example to the millions of young women across the world”), but both Dumos insisted they were seeking to highlight the athleticism and acrobatic skills involved in such dancing.
“Now, obviously you can see it in one way because of obviously the places you can see this done,” Tabitha said, “but it’s evolved into such an art form.”
“There was no grinding,” she added. “Break the stereotype!”
“It looks nothing like a stripper. It looks more like an acrobat,” Napoleon said, insisting that it showed “the strength of women and women empowerment.”
And while some may have interpreted Lopez’s decision to include the pole dancing section after her Oscars snub as an artistic act of defiance, Tabitha insisted the moment had been in the works for months.
“We wouldn’t change our course because things didn’t work out favorably to her [with the Oscar nominations],” she said. “It was a choice we made and one we’re proud of. … Everybody will see things as they see it through their filter, but our filter was honestly just celebrating an artistic version of what gave her such an amazing opportunity in her film career.”
Asked what message they hoped viewers took away from the performance, the Dumos focused on themes of identity.
“Let’s remember this country was built and founded off of multicultural people,” Tabitha said. “We’re all immigrants coming from somewhere that made this country. We show each other love and respect and we will come out on top. Really that’s the message.”
“For me, it’s even simpler than that and a little less political,” Napoleon said. “It’s that two women can come to a very strong men’s event and get a standing ovation in an audience that’s there to see a football game.
“I witnessed it myself. Every guy stood up and put their hands up like there was a touchdown. It goes to show that entertainment at the Super Bowl can come in many forms.”