What Makes a TikTok Dance Go Viral?

December 27, 2020

Kara Leigh Cannella, a senior dance major at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, was scrolling through TikTok one day this fall, when she came across a sound that caught her attention. It was a 15-second clip called “HOOPLA,” by the user known as @kyleyoumadethat, and it instantly made her want to dance.

She started out by improvising, as she often does when choreographing for TikTok. Between popular moves like the Woah and the Wave, she mimed releasing a basketball into the air and dribbling it between her legs, picking up on themes in the sound (which samples the 2002 Lil Bow Wow song “Basketball”). “Then I cleaned up the moves,” she says, “because I was like, ‘I don’t want to make this too hard.’ ”

Though she didn’t know it yet, Cannella, 22, had struck a perfect balance for TikTok dance virality: something eye-catching and rhythmically satisfying but still accessible, not outside the reach of amateur dancers. She filmed the dance in her bathroom and posted it with a call to “try it and tag me.” By the next morning, to her surprise, the video had already received 10,000 likes, and soon the dance was all over TikTok. Among those who tried it was the 16-year-old dancer Charli D’Amelio, the app’s most-followed user, who posted it for her then-95 million followers.

Cannella’s dance is just one example of what has, in the past couple of years, emerged as a new genre of digital performance: the TikTok dance challenge. Dance has always found an audience on social media, but TikTok, more so than other platforms, has given rise to its own highly recognizable, easily reproducible style. Drawing from a lexicon of hip-hop–inspired moves—like the Dougie, the Dice Roll and Throw It Back, to name just a few—the micro-dances of TikTok are typically front-facing and most animated from the hips up, tailored to the vertical frame of a smartphone screen. Governed by time limits of 15 or 60 seconds, they also tend to stay in one place; you can do them pretty much anywhere.

While these TikTok dances might seem purely fun and frivolous, there’s an art to creating and performing them in such a way that gets attention, in the form of views, likes, follows, shares, downloads and comments. And that attention can translate into financial opportunities for dancers, especially precious at a time when so much in-person performance remains on hold.

So what’s behind the broad appeal of TikTok dances? And what determines whether a dance gets seen, or lost in an endless sea of other videos?

“Everyone Can Do It”

While plenty of professional dancers show­case their hard-earned skills on TikTok, the app, which was released globally in 2018, has become known as a space where dance is for everyone.

“It’s not about having the perfect body for dance; it doesn’t matter if you’re a pro,” says Alessandro Bogliari, CEO of the Influencer Marketing Factory, a company that specializes in social media marketing campaigns. “It’s about having fun and re-creating certain moves.”

When Cannella choreographs a TikTok dance, she keeps that in mind. “I try to make something creative and different,” she says, “and also simple and easy, so that everyone can do it.”

For new TikTok users, a simple, catchy dance challenge can offer a way into the app. Maya Man, 24, an artist and computer programmer who trains in commercial dance styles, notes that TikTok dances provide structure in a digital space full of creative options.

“Constraints are the key to participation,” says Man. “It’s pretty intimidating, getting on a short-form video platform—the fact that you can make anything. It’s so open-world that you almost don’t know where to start. But the dances act kind of as trend templates for you to know what to do. You have a sound to use, and you can take this short-form choreography, and remix it, and make something yourself.”

Standing Out

What does it take to get noticed as a dancer on TikTok? Ultimately, dancers are at the whim of the app’s complex, cryptic algorithm, which feeds content to each user’s “For You Page,” an infinite, individually customized stream of new videos.

Jennifer Mika Nelson, 25, achieved sudden TikTok fame last spring, while quarantining with her parents in Virginia, when she began doing dance challenges with her mom. While Nelson is a professional dancer with a background in classical ballet, Graham, modern and jazz, her mom, she says, had “never danced in her life.” Her videos of them dancing together—Nelson’s exuberance offsetting her mom’s earnest focus—drew millions of views. “People love parents trying things,” Nelson says.

Nelson mostly learns existing TikTok dances, rather than making her own. At first, she recalls, “I was really awkward. It was honestly like learning a new style.” One hallmark of that style, she discovered, is exaggerated facial expressions. “That, in and of itself, is a crucial step in the dancing,” she observes. “I get more likes and engagement if I smile more.” Cannella, too, has found that a high-energy approach gets more attention. “I have to be 10 times more enthusiastic with my TikTok dancing,” she says.

Jarred Manista, 19, a member of the (on-hiatus) cast of West Side Story on Broadway, who has about 350,000 TikTok followers, notes that lighting and scenery are also crucial. “If I film a video in front of a white wall, versus outside in front of a blue sky, maybe a lake, the prettier background will tend to do better,” he says.

A Biased Algorithm?

The TikTok algorithm also operates in more nefarious ways. Sydney Skybetter, director of undergraduate studies in Theatre Arts & Performance Studies at Brown University, says that TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, is unique among video-sharing apps because of how it prioritizes artificial intelligence—technologies like pose estimation and facial recognition, which are thought to drive the algorithm.

“I think that TikTok, and specifically the artificial intelligence that powers TikTok, is the most sophisticated dance curator on the planet,” says Skybetter, who researches intersections of dance and technology. “It is a computational and curatorial marvel, and it should be viewed with awe and terror accordingly.”

With respect to terror, Skybetter points to the revelation, in 2019, that TikTok had suppressed videos by creators who it identified as disabled, fat and queer, under the guise of protecting those who might be “vulnerable” to cyberbullying. Discoveries like this, he says, suggest “that not only is TikTok trying to suppress certain kinds of bodily appearances, but it’s actively trying to serve up other kinds of bodily appearances.”

It’s notable that while many TikTok dances are rooted in Black social dances, and often originated by Black creators, the app’s top two most-followed accounts belong to young, white, female dancers, who are also slender and nondisabled. (For further reading on algorithmic bias, Skybetter recommends Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism.)

TikTok also has no built-in mechanism for crediting dance creators. The issue of unattributed dances came into the public spotlight early in 2020, when The New York Times published a story on the then–14-year-old creator of the viral “Renegade” dance, Jalaiah Harmon.

“It wasn’t just Jalaiah,” says Trevor Boffone, author of the forthcoming book Renegades: Digital Dance Cultures from Dubsmash to TikTok. “There were other instances where you had these Black teens who were not getting credit for their dance, and you had white teens profiting off of the same dance, which replicated hundreds of years of imbalances in the U.S., and especially in the dance world.” Cannella says that ever since the “Renegade” story, dance credits—abbreviated “dc” in captions—have become more common, but not as widespread as they should be.

Even with these darker implications, dance on TikTok has developed into an irrepressible online phenomenon. Skybetter posits that for those who still see dance as tied to the setting of a theater, the app may have lessons to teach. At a time when live performance remains largely on hold, he says, “we ignore platforms like TikTok to our own risk and detriment.”