“But is that interesting?” — How TikTok is Changing America’s Conception of Dance

Print Project Proposal

How do we define dance? How do we categorize good dancing and not-so-good dancing? How do we decide who becomes nationally or internationally recognized for the years of hard work, dedication, and practice that professional dance requires? For a long time, these questions looked towards very specific outlets for their answers. Ballet companies fostered and trained the best ballet dancers in the world; elite dance studios around the country became famous on YouTube for their intricate and meaningful choreography; hip-hop groups like Jabbawockeez and Les Twins made it big on competition TV shows such as So You Think You Can Dance, World of Dance, and America’s Best Dance Crew. But each of these outlets requires immense talent, years of technical training, and, frankly, some serious resources. Is this the future?

In the last three years, there has been a dramatic shift away from traditional modes of dance, beginning with Gen-Z and slowly moving into the millennial generation (whichever one that actually is). The exponential growth of TikTok’s popularity in recent years, helped in large part by the pandemic, has created a space for your average human to gain incredible fame and fortune through…dance? But is it dance in the same way that we have come to think of dance, or is TikTok dancing its own separate realm? This is the research question I am considering for this print project. Are we gatekeeping dance by not considering TikTok dances to be of the same caliber as traditional dance, or are we diminishing the expertise and work that professional dancers have cultivated for years? Maybe both. Is it right that a TikToker can make exorbitant amounts of money for a dance he or she choreographed in ten minutes, while dedicated choreographers who have been working diligently their entire lives might never reach that same level of repute and financial stability? And who gets to make these decisions?

These questions are not easily answered, and they are probably too convoluted and intertwined to deal with all at once. So, my research proposal needs to shrink. In order to begin looking at some of these questions, I propose to narrow my view of the TikTok dance world. I plan to research the most-viewed videos in each of the most popular dance categories: ballet, hip hop, jazz, contemporary, modern, and tap. Within this set of highly-viewed videos, I hope to analyze what type of person is performing the dance—are they a professional dancer, someone who is taking dance classes or studying dance in some form, or a completely untrained dancer? Or maybe somewhere in between all of that. I also hope to analyze the comments on these highly-viewed videos. Who is commenting what, why are they commenting, and do any of the comments reflect upon the origins and creators of these dances?

My hypothesis is that the majority of TikTokers gaining fame and money for these dances are untrained, yet entertaining, who are dancing for the joy of dancing, as well as for the sexual nature of many of these dances. If this is the case, and it will surely be difficult to figure out if it is, then we have to consider how dance will change on the national or international level. Although dance is a broad topic, and it would be best to consider each dance style as its own topic, there are general trends within dance that we can considere as TikTok becomes more and more prevalent in our culture.

Without a doubt, TikTok is making amateur dance much more accessible and very easy to find—people simply need access to a smartphone in order to get acquainted with different styles of dance, and they usually stumble across dance on TikTok without even trying. It was not that long ago when one had to attend a dance performance, plan to watch one on television, or watch an older recording of one if they wanted access to various dance experiences. So, the increased accessibility to dance seems like a positive function of TikTok, but it is the lack of originality, meaning, credit, and history that is turning TikTok into something potentially challenging to the field of dance as a whole. I hope that this research project can begin chipping away at some of these big questions revolving around the TikTok dance world—a world that is becoming more powerful by the day.

One Reply to ““But is that interesting?” — How TikTok is Changing America’s Conception of Dance”

  1. Hi Molly,

    Exploring how TikTok is changing dance in America is a great idea. You do a great job of setting up the stakes and the issues at hand and I think you have a really clear case for why it’s interesting to think about studying dance on TikTok.

    If you ran with this as your course project, I think it would be interesting to consider a bit about the way that dance functions as part of folk culture and thus is always itself in some ways a kind of memory practice. To that end, if you haven’t read it, I would suggest checking out Lynne McNeill’s book “Folklore Rules” https://upcolorado.com/utah-state-university-press/item/2352-folklore-rules which has a bunch of potentially useful parts to it for how to approach studying and analyzing folk practices like dance. She also has some great material in there about looking at things like internet memes as part of folklore practices, so I think there are really good connections there to think about with TikTok dances as memes. Along with that, it would likely also be interesting to consider some of the ways that the videos themselves function as part of documentation of dance. To that end, you could check out the Dance Heritage Coalition’s report “Documenting Dance.” (https://dance-usa.s3.amazonaws.com/page_uploads/DocumentingDance.pdf )

    All of that is to say that there is a lot of interesting vectors to think about with your project if you were to make this your project.

    Best, Trevor

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