tikTok is made for dancing. The most popular TikToker – Charli D’Amelio, 17, with 9.9 billion likes – is a dancer, or once started out as one. And it is the platform that has launched or spread a thousand dance trends, from the #toosieslide to the #TheGitUpChallenge, through the Floss, the Dougie and the Milly Rock.
Unlike the slick pros of Instagram or the archive performances on YouTube, TikTok is just about the sheer joy of dancing, whoever you are. Size, shape, experience and natural grace don’t matter. It’s essentially the schoolyard, written really big, the crazy routines and memes that used to be passed around, with everyone mimicking the lyrics of what was on Top of the Pops last night.
Viral dances have exploded, not least during the lockdown, when teenagers dragged their entire families into recreating routines: Tilly Ramsay and her father Gordon were one. It’s often impossible to know where dancing began – D’Amelio got herself into trouble for not crediting choreographers. Such (important) things are lost because TikTok is driven by the need to share, rather than own.
To go viral, a routine has to be simple enough for anyone to get a sting: a few atomized hand gestures, standing in the spot — it forces creativity because of its limitations. The dominant styles are hip-hop and street dance, commercial pop video moves and steps from African and Caribbean social dance. It harks back to the 50’s and 60’s when everyone knew how to make the mashed potatoes or the twist. People don’t seem to pretend the whole world is watching. That scrappy have-a-go quality gives it its exuberance.
But there are also big names. Like New York City Ballet director (and social media queen) Tiler Peck, who does Broadway routines and backstage larks. Or super tight dance group the Rockettes who do All That Jazz as part of the #fosschallenge. Leonora Voigtlander (leonora221) of the Royal New Zealand Ballet films herself backstage in a “guess the ballet” challenge. Broadway tap dancer Cory Lingner uses TikTok’s split-screen facility to do a duet with Gene Kelly and Shirley Temple.
Isabella Boylston of the American Ballet Theater took on the #esmeralda challenge and danced a diabolical solo from ballet La Esmeralda, using a frozen pizza where you would normally have a tambourine. Miko_Fogarty later tried it in the science lab, wearing full PPE. TikTok is the place where ballet dancers drop the facade, show their red-raw toes and their inner voices. Katelyn_Power has a funny account where she tells ridiculous ballet plots and posts videos with titles like, “Reasons why ballet will be the end of me.”
There are so many different types of dance: lots of cheerleaders dancing to hot hip-hop lyrics; two construction workers dance to Oasis and Elton John at a construction site (@ctdiaries); tightly choreographed tutting from the Italian @urbantheory_ or feel-good hip-hop and afro dance from the Ghanaian/German choreographer Isaac Kyere, even TikTok-style flamenco, in short shorts and side-by-side duets from @myriamlucia.flamencas. Gender norms are challenged (see Harper Watters of Houston Ballet, @theharperwatters) and body positivity is celebrated – in one clip, a girl drops her firm belly fat and joyfully swings it in time to the music.
The most interesting thing is that dance also permeates things that do not belong to dance. The UN started a dance competition to campaign for rural youth investment. And #QuestionsIGetAsked has its own dance, where TikTokers wave their hands as they correct people’s assumptions about them, whether they’re an emo fan (Matt Cutshall), a GB sprinter (Laviai Nielsen) or an Auschwitz survivor (Lily Ebert). It sounds so randomly written, but as with any cultural code, once you start looking at a few, it starts to make sense. And you get sucked into it.