Why Broadway Dancers Are Taking Over TikTok

January 8, 2024

If you use TikTok, you’ve almost certainly noticed that Broadway dancers are having a big moment on the app. Sharing behind-the-scenes tidbits, demystifying #tourlife, orchestrating backstage hijinks, nerding out over favorite shows: Musical theater performers are creating content that makes full use of their distinctive talents—and earning big followings in the process. And many of these social media stars are ensemble members, swings, and understudies, whose roles are vital to the success of any show, but who don’t typically get much time in the spotlight.

What code have these dancers cracked to achieve viral fame? Is it true that being big on TikTok is the key to getting cast in a sought-after show these days? And are there any downsides to having hundreds of thousands—maybe even millions—of people watch your videos? Five #BroadwayTok stars break it down.

Big Theater Energy

Every dancer has heard some version of the same advice: Perform for the person sitting in the very last row, all the way up in the balcony. Paula Leggett Chase, who goes by @antiqueshowgirl, thinks that charisma and enthusiasm are what’s drawing people to Broadway performers in the very different environment of TikTok. “You see the energy coming out of their pores,” she says. “They’re storytellers, and I think that speaks to people.” JJ Niemann, who with his one million followers is one of #BroadwayTok’s biggest stars, agrees: “We know how to sell it to an audience,” he says.

In 2023, Niemann happened to become a member of the original Broadway cast of Back to the Future alongside another TikTok phenom, Amber Ardolino. Like a lot of other Broadway performers, Niemann and Ardolino share funny glimpses behind the scenes of their show, like backstage shenanigans and jokes about the grueling reality of an eight-show-per-week lifestyle. “I often get comments like, ‘Oh, so being on Broadway is just like grownup theater camp?’ ” says Ardolino. “For me to show people that live theater is chaotic and fun and a mess—I love that people are getting to see that.”

Musical theater performers have also created their own TikTok-specific trends to appeal to a niche but enthusiastic audience of current and aspiring performers. Series like “roles I auditioned for versus roles I got,” or “soprano line versus alto line” have helped make TikTok a theater nerd’s paradise.

And #BroadwayTok performers give their audiences a chance to see parts of the business they don’t typically know as much about. Take Gerianne Pérez, who is currently starring as Catherine of Aragon in the national tour of SIX. She peppers in tour-specific content for her followers, like mini-vlogs about travel days and recaps of the tour’s stops in different cities. Niemann, who is a member of the ensemble in Back to the Future as well as a cover for two lead roles, gives his followers a look at what it’s like to play that kind of pivotal but under-recognized role in a show.

a female sitting in front of a poster for the show SIX
Gerianne Pérez. Courtesy Pérez.

Fun or Career?

So is TikTok a career stepping-stone or just for fun? That depends. Niemann says he and Ardolino sometimes get more attention at the stage door than the show’s leads, and Ardolino notes that TikTok has given her the opportunity to meet other artists she admires and collaborate with them. “But I still have to go in for the same auditions as everyone else,” she says with a laugh. “Broadway is hard enough. If I didn’t love doing this, I wouldn’t add it to my plate.”

a performer wearing a brown coat and black pants kicking their leg above their head
Brian Ust. Photo by Doreen Laskiewicz, Courtesy Laskiewicz.

For veteran dancer Brian Ust, known as @theatredancebrian, TikTok did bring at least one unexpected opportunity to audition for a popular TV series. “TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube have become my stage,” he says. Chase, a Broadway veteran whose credits include A Chorus Line, Bye Bye Birdie, and Tootsie, says that her TikTok presence hasn’t earned her opportunities, but it has made younger performers “more open” to her. At 62, “my age group is a little invisible,” she says. “But now when I walk into something with a young cast, they know me.”

Though Niemann agrees that TikTok hasn’t really changed his stage career, it has become a business for him. And in the feast-or-famine life of a performer, that’s a gift. “TikTok genuinely is just as fruitful for me financially as my acting career and Broadway career,” he says. “And it’s really nice to have another creative outlet and passion.”

Building Community

TikTok does have a dark side: nasty comments, which aren’t unique to TikTok but which Gerianne Pérez, of SIX, says can be “outlandishly mean.” Dancer Brian Ust, for example, experienced a barrage of negative comments after a celebrity reposted one of his videos. “That was one of the worst experiences I have had,” he says.

Pérez likes to remember that trolls are often reacting to theater performers’ quirkiness—which is also what makes them good at what they do. “We have always been a little strange. It’s because we are something special,” she says. And despite Ust’s negative experiences, he still refers to his followers as a “family.” His good experiences on the platform outweigh the bad, he says.

Other #BroadwayTok performers echo that sentiment. Some of performer Paula Leggett Chase’s followers have told her that her videos inspired them to go back to dance class—or to try dancing for the first time. Amber Ardolino, of Back to the Future, adds that she meets people at the stage door who say they came to the show because they learned about it from her TikTok.
“They feel like they know us, like they’re watching a friend onstage,” she says. “It’s such a strong and special connection.”