Career

What It's Really Like When Your Video Goes Viral

PC Mike Topham

Ever dream of having one of your dance videos go viral online? The experience may not be all that you expect. Four dance artists reflect on their sudden fame after their videos became online sensations:


Kirk Henning is a company member at Richmond Ballet. You've seen Henning and his groomsmen dancing for fellow company member Valerie Tellmann-Henning as a surprise at their wedding reception.


"After the wedding, our videographer asked, 'Do you mind if I put this online?' The YouTube video got 7 million hits, and then Jay Towers, a morning radio DJ in Detroit, put it on his Facebook page, where it's been viewed more than 120 million times. Answering phone calls and emails became my full-time job. That was the hardest thing: The demands on my time, which came out of nowhere, from every angle.

I didn't apply for rights to any of the music I used because I didn't expect it to go viral. Sony Music Entertainment had the video taken down for the longest time. This experience has made us look more closely at contracts, for sure. Now I'm more likely to say, 'Can we talk about this clause?'

Valerie and I were both surprised to be getting so much attention, but it was fun to ride it out together. The dance was done as a gift to her, so it was nice to have it last that much longer, and be so much bigger than I thought it would be."


Homer Hans Bryant is founder and artistic director of Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center and a former member of Dance Theatre of Harlem. You've seen Bryant's students practicing "hiplet," his own blend of hip hop and pointework.

"I'd been posting videos for two years, of all of the kinds of classes we offer, when the Facebook page Só Bailarinos posted our hiplet class video. It got 8 million views there. BuzzFeed picked it up and that story received 25 million. We went on 'Good Morning America,' then came back to Chicago and did 'Good Day Chicago' and 'Windy City Live.' We've done the 'Steve Harvey' show and gone to New York for a big Vogue thing with Anna Wintour, we did a video for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, and I gave a TEDx Talk in San Francisco. About 15 production companies have contacted us wanting to do a reality show.

The reactions we get are from one end of the spectrum to the other, from 'You're ruining their feet. This is not what classical ballet is all about!' to 'This is incredible!' and 'I wish I had this when I was studying ballet; I wouldn't have hated it so much.' What I'm managing to do is to keep the kids centered, grounded and focused. The parents can't believe what's going on."


Alexandra Beller is a choreographer and artistic director of Alexandra Beller/Dances. You've seen Beller's son Ivo, at age 14 months, "leading" her company's dancers in rehearsal as part of the process for an ensemble work titled milkdreams.

"The nature of virality is that it escapes you. By the time you realize it's happening, there's not a ton you can do about it. When something goes viral, that is all you are, for millions of people. I don't say, 'Hi! I'm Alexandra Beller, from the viral baby video,' but that's what I 'am.' I spent 22 years in the dance world. I danced for Bill T. Jones, I've had a company for 15 years. But at this point, that one video has gathered more than a billion views. It gets very skewed in terms of representation and, for me, it's led me to become more focused on curation, where I'm being much more thoughtful about what I put out there.'"


Erik Cavanaugh is a former student at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. You've seen Cavanaugh's improvised solos to songs such as "Eye of the Needle," by Sia, and Rachel Platten's "Stand by You."


"The day after my birthday I got a notification that @worldwidedance started following me on Instagram. Maybe 20 minutes later, everything was blowing up. Hundreds and hundreds of likes and new followers. I thought, What just happened?

By that night, my video had already been viewed more than 100,000 times on Worldwidedance's Facebook page. The New York Post ran a video of me the next morning and it broke 1 million views—then 2, then 3… Now it's at, like, 10.8 million views. Forbes magazine messaged me. People magazine and The Huffington Post reached out. I was on the website for the 'Today' show and on mic.com. The Radio City Rockettes named me 'Dancer of the Week.' The New York Post flew me out to New York for a live segment, which was fun. I said 'yes' to all of it.

I'm very happy that this happened. It helped me gain confidence about who I am. I think people are opening their eyes a bit more that dance is not just for a slimmer body type, and I think I'm helping move that conversation to a better place. I didn't always have the courage to keep going through discouragement in my younger days, and I'd love to be able to give that to people."

Megan Fairchild in Jerome Robbins' Dances at a Gathering. PC Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.

Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'

I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.

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Dancers & Companies
Lopez in Circus Polka. PC Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Training
Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.

But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.

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Dance As Activism
Matthew Neenan used images of silencing and control in let mortal tongues awake. Photo by Bill Herbert.

From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.

New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.

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Dancers & Companies
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.

Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

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In The Studio
Abraham.In.Motion performing "Drive." Photo by Ian Douglas.

The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!

We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.

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News
Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


Rant & Rave
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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Dance in Pop Culture
Roberto Bolle and Kenall Jenner on set. Photo via tods.com

I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."

It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.

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