“Whenever I dance, I’m always thinking about attitude,” said Keke Palmer, the newly announced host of the third hour of “Good Morning America” and a star of the movie “Hustlers.” “I’m always thinking about being confident.”
On a foggy morning in late summer, Ms. Palmer, wearing an oversize gray T-shirt and black bike shorts, was warming up at the Broadway Dance Center, a drop-in dance school in Times Square.
“I love this song,” she said, as “Scrubs” by TLC played in the no-frills studio and the students began to grapevine.,
The blond wood floor squeaked under her fresh pair of deconstructed Nike Air Jordan 1s, and the mirrored wall reflected her neck tattoo, “Queen of Kush,” as she spun. She has another tattoo on her torso, which is more or less her motto: “Renaissance Woman.”
The class was basic hip-hop, though the instructor, Ms. Vee, an athletic woman in a T-shirt that read “It’s Not the Move, It’s the Groove,” warned her students that the 45-minute warm-up wasn’t basic at all.
“I want you to struggle,” she said to the two-dozen students, a diverse group of men and women mostly in their 20s. “I want you to fight for it. I want you to be uncomfortable because that’s when we learn the most. Just roll with it.”
Ms. Palmer, 26, rolled. Raised in Harvey, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, she grew up dancing hip-hop, popping and locking with her mother, an actress and former break dancer, learning to twerk in her grandmother’s backyard. The warm-up exercises — the butterflies, thunderclaps and K-Swiss moves — came back to her quickly.
When Ms. Palmer was 9, she booked a role in “Barbershop 2: Back in Business,” playing Queen Latifah’s niece. The next year, her family moved to Southern California to help her career and Ms. Palmer soon starred in the movie “Akeelah and the Bee” (which featured her debut single, “All My Girlz”) and the Nickelodeon comedy “True Jackson, VP.”
Even then, she continued to dance, taking hip-hop classes at the Millennium Dance Complex in Hollywood, as “a way for me to make friends,” she said in her quick, bright, candy-coated voice. “A way to kind of feel normal.”
Normal didn’t come easy. “I think fame is extremely traumatic,” Ms. Palmer said, who, by the time she was 20, had released an R&B album (“So Uncool”) starred on Broadway in “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” and hosted a talk show on BET called “Just Keke.” But dancing helped.
It helped in her latest role too. Ms. Palmer dances during “Hustlers,” though the moves are slinkier than the unisex routines Ms. Vee favors. The film follows a group of strippers who realize that drugging and fleecing their customers pays better than shaking it for tips. Ms. Palmer plays Mercedes, a dancer trying to help her jailed boyfriend.
Unlike her co-star Jennifer Lopez, she didn’t have to do much pole work. Or much lap dancing, like Cardi B or Constance Wu, her other co-stars. But Ms. Palmer shimmies and grinds during one memorable scene when Usher, playing himself, visits the club. “I’m, like, rubbing on Jennifer’s booty,” she said, laughing.
During the warm-up, which kept the students moving through stretches, planks and lunges, Ms. Palmer kept pace, though near the end, during a series of push-ups synced to “I Wish” by Skee-Lo, her breath came harder.
She did the first few push-ups on her toes, then dropped to her knees, recovering during a Mariah Carey singalong. “You’ll always be my baby,” she warbled.
Ms. Vee called a five-minute water break. Ms. Palmer tottered out of the room and plunked down on the floor next to her assistant, who offered her a water bottle. She swigged as she scrolled through her gem-encrusted phone, pulling up a photo, which she showed to her assistant.
“Diced pineapple?” he asked. (“Diced pineapple” is their code for cuties.)
“No diced pineapple,” said Ms. Palmer, who later added that she is not dating anyone.
Her assistant handed her a Juul, and she sneaked off for a mint-flavored vape. “I’m really trying to get off that Juul,” she said. “It’s not good.”
Post-nicotine, Ms. Palmer scurried back into class, where Ms. Vee was preparing to lead the students in a brash, 30-second routine set to “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” by Missy Elliott.
“Pretend you’re wearing a big black garbage bag,” Ms. Vee said. The dance involved a popping sequence known as Fresno and a wiggly move that Ms. Vee called “Chicken Noodle Soup.”
Ms. Vee tried to illustrate one head position, using a line from “Stand Up” by Ludacris. She warned the class that it wasn’t so P.C. “You got a midget hanging on your neck,” Ms. Vee said, not quite accurately. (Ms. Palmer whispered the correct lyric under her breath: “It feels like a midget is hanging from my necklace.”)
Ms. Vee taught each move individually, then put the whole routine together as the students mirrored her. After a few demonstrations, she watched her class. She didn’t seem impressed.
“Did anyone grow up in the culture of hip-hop?” she said. Hip-hop, she added, “came from a place of needing to be tough and needing to defend yourself and having to battle.”
Ms. Palmer nodded in approval. “A move is only a move until you get an attitude,” she said. “‘I’m learning choreography to make it my own, to make those moves sing together.” When she performed the routine again, her eyes were hooded and her moves were more aggressive, more confident.
“It’s not just the dance,” she said afterward. “You want to look cool.”