There is, and seemingly always has been, a dance for every letter of the alphabet. From the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance of the Middle Ages (in which residents of the Staffordshire village run around with reindeer antlers) to the traditional Greek Zonaradiko (whereby dancers hold on to one another’s belts), we have always loved a good routine. Yet while you could peer into an 1870s debutante ball or a 1970s disco and see people following a set of steps, our modern era seems altogether less structured. In the 90s and early 2000s, only the occasional Macarena inspired a school dance hall to move in sync. Then, in 2017, along came TikTok.
In just three years, the video-sharing app, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, has been downloaded over a billion times, making it the seventh most downloaded app of the decade. Immensely popular with Generation Z, TikTok hosts short clips – ranging from three to 60 seconds – in which people lip-sync, perform skits, or take on challenges. Yet it is dancing that TikTok is best known for. Every week, a different dance craze goes viral, prompting living rooms around the globe to shake as viewers join in the fun.
In the six months spanning September 2019 to February 2020, various renditions of the Renegade – a routine set to the hip-hop song “Lottery” by K CAMP – were viewed over 1.6 billion times on the app. The dance was shared by everyone from Stranger Things actress Millie Bobby Brown to former FLOTUS Michelle Obama, and was covered everywhere from the New York Times to The Ellen DeGeneres Show. “I love seeing people come together and have fun,” says the routine’s original choreographer, 14-year-old Jalaiah Harmon.
Moves like dabbing, flossing, and hitting the woah (making a circular movement with the fists before freezing on the beat) have spread far and wide thanks to online video and Fortnite’s “emote” actions. Yet TikTok is different. The app has not given rise just to one-off moves, but has birthed a number of complete and complex routines.
Despite its reputation as an app for bored teens in their bedrooms, many of TikTok’s most popular dances are created by professional choreographers. “Social media and TikTok changed everything in our industry,” says Greg Chapkis, a choreographer who created a dance to Daddy Yankee’s song “Con Calma” that blew up in February 2019. “I was getting tagged in not just hundreds but thousands of videos with my choreography… It’s crazy that so many dancers and people that don’t dance got moved by it.”
Some popular TikTok routines take days to invent, others are created in five minutes; some are designed with internet fame in mind, others take off organically. TikTok virality has wide-reaching ramifications: the app has launched songs such as Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” and Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” to number one spots on the US Billboard charts, and has given a new lease of life to old songs, such as when the 1956 hit “Tonight You Belong To Me”, by sister act Patience and Prudence, became popular in summer 2019. Though musicians don’t directly make money from their songs being used on TikTok, many have recognised it as a powerful marketing tool, and some artists and labels pay famous TikTokers to dance to their music.
Yet despite the power TikTok choreographers have, it isn’t always easy to determine the original creator of a dance. Dance challenges can explode so quickly on the app that it can be difficult to trace their origins, especially as many TikTokers like to put their own spin on routines. In practice, this means that already-famous TikTokers can often steal the limelight from lesser-known dancers. This has been particularly troubling for black creators, like Harmon, who have frequently seen white TikTokers get credit for their routines. Reporting on Harmon’s Renegade in February 2020, New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz argued that mainstream influencers “co-opt” the “cutting-edge dance community online”. Since the beginning of the year, many TikTok stars have begun tagging original creators in their captions.
It’s no wonder choreographers want credit – a successful TikTok account can bring in money from brands who pay influencers to post sponsored content and adverts on their profiles. “My whole life revolves around TikTok,” says 20-year-old influencer Michael Le, who frequently posts three videos a day to the app. Le now earns 80 per cent of his income from TikTok; he has more than 23 million followers, and labels have paid him to promote their music. Earlier this year, Harmon posted her first piece of sponsored content (for Warner Bros’ new Scooby-Doo movie) and also launched her own merchandise range; hoodies sell for $45 (£36) on her official site. Still, other TikTokers struggle to earn money. The app has no in-built revenue-making mechanism like YouTube’s AdSense, and so for many TikTokers tons of views don’t equate to tons of money.
Despite TikTok’s Chinese origins, seven of the top ten most-followed TikTokers in the world are American. This is partly because the Chinese version of the app – Douyin – is run separately due to government restrictions. Though nearly four times as many people had downloaded TikTok in India than in the US (before India banned the app in July), TikTok’s 2019 round-up of its most popular videos demonstrated that Americans dominate the app, possibly because of the popularity of the English language and American music (this could change in the future as the US moves to restrict TikTok). Elsewhere, keen TikTokers often translate hit songs into their own languages in order to add their own spin to dance crazes.Many of the dance routines that take off on TikTok are set to hip-hop songs. Erik Saradpon, a choreographer who has won honours at the World Hip-Hop Championship, puts this down to the genre’s universal appeal. “Hip-hop and pop music are the most mainstream music to young people. It’s the same reason why you see so much hip-hop in commercials,” he says. Saradpon says that TikTok has now influenced particular movements and phrasing in hip-hop choreography, and says the app is “definitely sparking creativity in people of all ages.”
How does this creativity strike? Here, TikTok creators explain how they came up with their dances – and demonstrate how you can give them a go.
The Renegade by Jalaiah Harmon, 14
Song: “Lottery (Renegade)” by K CAMP
The Renegade has 21 steps and should take between 15 and 20 seconds to perform. The dance is made up of moves involving the arm and upper body, making it easier than routines with tricky footwork. Start with a woah, followed by extending your arms into a downwards clap, then swing and wave your arms before snapping your fingers. Harmon explains the dance is a medley of already popular moves – learn those and you’ll find it easier to master the routine.
Harmon takes hip-hop, ballet and jazz classes, and invented the dance after school in her Atlanta bedroom in September 2019. “I’m really proud to be a dancer right now because it’s a cool talent,” she says. The Renegade’s huge success had multiple ramifications, from K CAMP retitling his song to include the name of the dance to the teen’s appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. “I think it’s really cool when I see celebrities doing my dance,” says Harmon, who now has over 2.3 million followers on TikTok and her own agent. “For people my age, when you’re a good dancer, you’re popular, and a lot of people respect and admire you.”
The Git Up by Ajani Huff, 19, and Davonte House, 21
Song: “The Git Up” by Blanco Brown
Ajani Huff and Davonte House
Half-brothers Ajani Huff and Davonte House popularised The Git Up on TikTok off the back of country rapper Blanco Brown’s song of the same name. Brown uploaded an Instagram video of himself line dancing to the song in April 2019; Huff and House filmed their spin on the routine in a gazebo by a New York lake in May. Another teen TikToker, UK-based Harvey Bass, helped their routine go viral in June, and the brothers later collaborated with him, filming other dances together for the app.
To join in, start with your arms hanging out by your sides, bent at the elbows, before performing the footwork of the “cowboy boogie” – crossing and uncrossing one leg behind the other. Grab the bottom of your shirt while thrusting, spin around, swing your knees in and out, and you’ve git it down.“We wanted it to blow up but we didn’t expect it,” says House, who explains he and his brother take between “literally a minute” and hours to choreograph dances for the app. The pair say the secret to TikTok success is “something that’s easy but hard” at the same time. “Like, you’re capable of doing it, but it looks hard to others,” House explains.
Con Calma by Greg Chapkis, 40
Song: “Con Calma” by Daddy Yankee feat. Snow
Greg Chapkis, choreographer on Daddy Yankee’s 2019 music video for “Con Calma”, didn’t create the dance with social media in mind. Nonetheless, his routine took over the internet – the music video has 1.8 billion YouTube views and the #ConCalma hashtag has 455 million views on TikTok.
To join in, lean backwards and tuck one leg behind the other while bringing your hands up. Turn around on the tips of your toes and slide your knee out to the side. “People were asking me non-stop for a tutorial,” says Chapkis, explaining that his social media profiles “exploded” after the dance was released. The choreographer has been teaching for 24 years – his mother owns a studio in Ukraine, where he grew up before moving to San Francisco.
“I feel dancers were always in the background to the artist, and now dancers are creating their own lane,” he says. On YouTube, a behind-the-scenes video of one of Chapkis’ rehearsals for Con Calma has been viewed over 77 million times. He says virality has allowed him to teach sold-out classes across the globe, meaning it has also increased his opportunities to travel. “I feel really happy and proud,” he says.
Savage by Keara Wilson, 19
Song: “Savage” by Megan Thee Stallion
“I was scrolling through TikTok and I noticed people were basically doing the same dances over and over again, so I decided to switch it up a bit,” says 19-year-old Keara Wilson, a military student from Ohio. Wilson spent an hour coming up with her routine to Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” in the hopes of going viral – she created three or four different endings but decided on the least challenging option to help viewers.
For the main part of the dance, thrust your elbow to the side and then bring your arm over your head, shake your shoulders and bum before forming a cross with your arms, and stick out your tongue and waggle your fingers by your head in time with the “acting stupid” lyric.
Wilson, who hopes to make a career out of TikTok, was overwhelmed when the routine blew up in March 2020. She has been dancing for ten years and was also a cheerleader in high school. Since her routine went viral, Wilson has got an agent and launched her own merchandise – though her career is just starting. In April, when Beyoncé released a remix of “Savage”, Wilson dropped another routine which quickly accumulated just under 200,000 likes.
“It made me speechless, very speechless, I was in disbelief,” Wilson says of going viral the first time. “I actually cried tears of joy because this is something I’ve always wanted to do.”
7 Rings by Devin Santiago, 26
Song: “7 Rings” by Ariana Grande
It was Christmas Day and Devin Santiago’s best friend was feeding her newborn baby when he first came up with a routine to Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings”. Santiago, who is 26 and from New Jersey, took between 15 and 20 minutes to choreograph the dance while the baby ate; afterwards, he and his friend filmed the dance in his older sister’s bedroom. “I was so excited, it’s such a good feeling when you make up something and you feel so confident that it’s good,” he says.
Santiago has been dancing for 18 years and is also in film school – he says the outfits, backdrop, and theme to a TikTok video are almost as important at the dance itself.
To join in with the thousands of others who’ve danced his dance, swing each elbow to the side in turn before putting your hands up, palms outwards. Bring your hands down and your knees up while snapping your fingers, and then cross your arms and jump, splaying your legs, before doing your best spin.
Hey Julie by Michael Le, 20
Song: “Hey Julie!” by KYLE feat. Lil Yachty
TikTok dances constantly evolve: while one person may create two or three steps to a song, someone else might add two or three more that push it to go viral. Multiple people can be credited with the moves in the viral TikTok routine to KYLE’s “Hey Julie!”, but 20-year-old Michael Le from Florida was the first to popularise a full routine on the app (and has the coveted “Original” tag for uploading the song). It is likely the special effects he used in the background of the video helped capture attention – his video is animated with light blurs and lyrics that pop up on screen.
In this case, the lyrics prove highly instructional. Wave your hands at “Hey Julie”, and pull at your shirt four times when you hear “drip, drip, drip, drip”. Throw your arms to one side and move them in sync to the lyric “wrists, wrists, wrists, wrists” – then you’ve got the gist, gist, gist, gist.
“Honestly, I made that dance up in ten minutes and we recorded it immediately after,” says Le, who earns all of his income posting content on TikTok and Instagram. Le is paid by both record labels and brands to promote music and products – he most frequently works with an energy drinks company and a clothing brand. In May 2020, he began to rent a luxurious house (complete with indoor and outdoor pools) with his influencer earnings.
In total, Le has nine years of dance training. “The dancing on TikTok obviously isn’t super-duper intricate or expert, but because I have training, I’m able to execute movements in a way that’s different from someone who doesn’t have that experience, it looks a lot more natural,” he says.
Out West Challenge by Nicole Bloomgarden, 19
Song: “Out West” by Jackboys & Travis Scott feat. Young Thug
When famous TikTokers performed 19-year-old PR student Nicole Bloomgarden’s routine at an NBA game in February 2020, she decided it was time she got credit for her dance. Bloomgarden developed the #OutWestChallenge in December 2019, a day after the song was released, making it “easy to replicate” in the hopes of going viral.
Bloomgarden got her wish: famous TikTokers like Charli D’Amelio began doing her dance in the following months and the challenge soon spread, but Bloomgarden got no credit (like Harmon, she didn’t have the “Original” tag on TikTok because she didn’t upload the track and her video together). When celebrities including Usher began doing the dance, she spoke out on Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube, finally earning recognition for the routine.
To do the dance: hit the whoa, clap your extended hands, shimmy your shoulders forwards, cross your arms, point your elbows to the side, and extend your arms to the ceiling.
“All I want to do is entertain,” says Bloomgarden, who went to dance classes when she was a child but is mostly self-taught. “I want to be able to put people in a better mood.”
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