TikTok Is Dead (Maybe). Long Live TikTok Dance. (2023)

TikTok Is Dead (Maybe). Long Live TikTok Dance. (1)

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Dance on the app has become more niche and more professionalized, but in the larger world TikTok-style dance has gained a toehold.

Jose Ramos, called Hollywood (in orange shirt and camouflage hat), and his crew do one of their “organized chaos” routines in Los Angeles.Credit...Videos by Michael Tyrone Delaney

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(Video) [Latest]TikTok Is Dead (Maybe). Long Live TikTok Dance.

By Margaret Fuhrer

When TikTok flew a group of its stars to Washington last month, it seemed inevitable that they would end up dancing. How else to protest a potential ban on what’s been nicknamed “the dance app”? While TikTok’s chief executive prepared to testify before Congress, the influencers posted dance videos filmed in the halls of the Capitol building and on a Constitution Avenue rooftop, hashtagging them #SaveTikTok.

Their choreographed dissent had a sardonic bite: TikTok’s opponents often use its dance-centric reputation as ammunition. We wouldn’t lose much, the argument goes, by getting rid of a platform on which teens perform frivolous dance challenges. Even some of the TikTok creators in Washington distanced themselves from the app’s dance culture, emphasizing instead its usefulness as a tool for education and political engagement.

“TikTok is not a children’s dancing app,” the activist and content creator Aidan Kohn-Murphy told The Wall Street Journal during the trip.

That’s accurate but also incomplete. TikTok dance has undergone a significant evolution over the last few years, at once a contraction and an expansion. Dance no longer dominates the average TikTok user’s “For You” page, and the choreography now circulating on the app is more varied and sophisticated. But TikTok-style dance has proved influential well beyond the confines of the platform — a culture marker rather than a passing trend.

Popular at first among the young and extremely online, the TikTok dance challenge became a mainstream phenomenon during pandemic shutdowns, which choked off many other outlets for performance and social connection. Now the “dance challenge for everyone” is on the wane.

A diverse group of dance artists — fewer bored teens (though they’re still around), more talented experts — have found new ways to be creative with the app’s short-video format. Dance today on TikTok is “a little more rare, and also a little more special,” said Analisse Rodriguez, a professional dancer and early TikTok adopter who now has 11 million followers.

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TikTok Is Dead (Maybe). Long Live TikTok Dance. (2)

The threat of a TikTok ban looms large for dance creators in the United States, especially those who have built their careers around the app. But a ban probably wouldn’t snuff out TikTok dance: Its signature qualities have already seeped into popular culture. The form’s distinctive movement vocabulary, relaxed presentation, and positioning of viral choreography as something not to be just watched but also tried have reshaped other social platforms, the professional dance world and even bigger-picture ideas about the role of dance.

“These aesthetics that developed directly on TikTok, they are becoming vernacular dances,” said Pamela Krayenbuhl, an assistant professor of film and media studies at the University of Washington Tacoma. “And they will have staying power beyond the life and death of the app itself.”

Dance has defined TikTok since it arrived on the international scene in 2017. The platform’s forced vertical orientation and one-minute time limit helped give rise to a building-block collection of basic, tight, upright steps that the average person could learn and replicate.

Many professional dancers were initially reluctant to join the amateurs. “Those early challenges were really inclusive because they were simple, which was great,” said the artistic director and choreographer Jose Ramos, known as Hollywood. “But they didn’t challenge my creativity.”

Analisse Rodriguez and her siblings, the professional dancers Rafi Rodriguez and Kat Rodriguez, found a large following doing mainstream dance challenges, though with greater polish than the average TikToker. Over time, they began seeking out more intricate choreography.

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“We wanted to take a step back and think about whether the content we were making was authentic to us,” Analisse said. “Is it showing these skills we’ve worked all our lives for?”

As TikTok ballooned to more than 150 million users in the United States, its dance-centric monoculture gave way to many niche subcultures, of which DanceTok is just one. The easing of pandemic restrictions also winnowed the field of eager TikTok dancers. Those shifts lent momentum to the kind of “hard mode” dance challenge preferred by the Rodriguezes. Though the detailed routines don’t usually involve the now-familiar TikTok steps, they’re still in the casual, semi-improvisational spirit of the app.

“Even when you have a professional dancer doing high-level choreography, they’re doing it in their bedroom, maybe in their pajamas,” Krayenbuhl said. “It’s this special kind of access, and it feels particularly intimate when you know that 20 minutes from now they could be onstage doing very similar stuff.”

Other creators have gone beyond the challenge format, inventing novel ways to choreograph for the app’s parameters and quirks. Hollywood’s TikTok following exploded after he hit on a formula he calls “organized chaos,” which takes advantage of the narrow vertical TikTok frame by having a large group of dancers move rapidly on and offscreen. An account run by the choreographers Marideth and Austin Telenko, @cost_n_mayor, has gained nearly six million followers thanks to the couple’s uncanny ability to create dances for unlikely sounds, from iPhone text tones to the noises dryers make at the end of their cycles.

Like so many of the videos that go viral on TikTok, this kind of content scratches a particular brain itch: It creates visual memes that mirror, and are sometimes scored by, the audio memes that dominate the app. Skilled dancers are particularly adept at identifying and hitting the most addictive choreographic notes.

“We’re doing the randomest stuff,” Marideth said, “but we’re approaching it like professional choreographers — what is the rhythmic quality of this text tone? — which makes it better, and funnier.”

Dance from the outside world has also made its way onto TikTok, with creators mounting impressive recreations of choreography from arena concerts and music videos. Two months after the Super Bowl, Parris Goebel’s sophisticated dances for Rihanna’s halftime performance continue to circulate on the app. The most frequently performed excerpt, a snippet from “Rude Boy,” feels in many ways extremely un-TikTok: It requires a large group of dancers, much rehearsing and some very involved camerawork. Yet it’s been attempted by everyone from Thai high schoolers to the cast of “Riverdance.”

Even more conventional-seeming TikTok dance challenges now sometimes draw from live performances. Last fall, the professional dance artist Ysabelle Capitulé was surprised to find that choreography she had created for the singer Victoria Monét’s music festival sets had become the viral “Some Cut” challenge. “I would’ve made the dance a little easier if I knew that’s what it was going to be,” Capitulé told Complex.

As a wider range of influences begins to shape TikTok dance, tracing their origins becomes both more difficult and more important, further complicating the crediting issues that have long plagued the app. Including a “DC” (dance credit) tag on choreographed videos has become a community-enforced norm. TikTok’s built-in crediting feature, introduced last spring, has further codified the practice.


TikTok Is Dead (Maybe). Long Live TikTok Dance. (3)

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Yet even when viral dances are properly credited, their choreographers, who are frequently artists of color, are rarely the ones reaping the largest reputational or financial benefits. Those spoils still typically go to the most popular creators performing the dance, who tend to be white. Two years after the #BlackTikTokStrike, Black creators in particular remain underrecognized on the app. “The structures remain the same, even if credit is being given,” Krayenbuhl said.

Should a TikTok ban occur, dance creators with smaller followings — those most likely to see their choreography co-opted — might be the most severely affected. Big names stand to lose meaningful income from TikTok’s engagement-based Creator Fund, but they often have streams of revenue outside the app, and will be better able to pull their fans along to “whatever the next TikTok is,” as Hollywood said.

“The next TikTok” might be Instagram or YouTube, where portrait-oriented scrolling video is becoming increasingly influential. As these and other social platforms have assimilated TikTok’s previously idiosyncratic features, the app is no longer the kingmaker it once was. After the professional dancers Kaitlyn Hardy and Maycee Steele created the megaviral “Cuff It” challenge last summer, they envisaged their lives changing substantially. That didn’t happen.

“TikTok was a rising platform,” Hardy said, “but now it’s just another platform, like Facebook is another platform. There’s no more, like, you make a TikTok and then you get a house.”

But TikTok dance culture is now sometimes crucial to a larger-scale commercial project’s success. The movement language that arose from the app’s constraints has begun showing up in ads and music videos — especially those involving artists, like Megan Thee Stallion and Lizzo, whose careers have been bolstered by TikTok.

The choreographer Fatima Robinson recently tapped Hollywood to reimagine his “organized chaos” format for a Black Eyed Peas music video, which now has 49 million YouTube views. Krayenbuhl notes that the app has even had an effect on cinematography, with the simple back-and-forth camera movements popular on TikTok becoming trendy in other forms of onscreen dance.

The dance challenge, a concept that predates TikTok but has become synonymous with the app, has had perhaps the most consequential real-world impact. In March, five young Iranian women posted a video of themselves dancing TikTok’s “Calm Down” challenge — defying Iran’s draconian modesty laws, which prohibit women from dancing or appearing without head scarves in public. After the clip went viral, the teens were reportedly arrested and forced to apologize. Their video, however, continues to circulate. And their protest carried greater weight because they were doing choreography that had been performed thousands of times by thousands of other women, as documented on TikTok. It was a danced argument with the implicit backing of a global community.

That ability to foster community among dancers and dance fans might be the hardest thing to reproduce, should TikTok be banned in the United States. Even as dance has declined in prominence on the app, the platform has continued to offer dancers unusual visibility and reach — forms of power that they are so often denied elsewhere.

“I used to say, ‘Oh, even though we make dances on TikTok, don’t get it twisted: We’re professionals, we work in the industry,” Marideth Telenko said. “But that was backward. On TikTok, we’re able to interact with all these incredible people. We’re dancing for the world on there.”


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