There is an undeniable magnetism about TikTok videos. It is quite easy to fall down a rabbit-hole and spend far more time than initially planned, scrolling through endless dance challenges and sixty-second comedy sketches. It became an outlet for creativity and a source of entertainment for millions over the past year. Many professional dancers, barred from the stage, joined scores of TikTok dancers, creating lively and engaging social media content with their dance training. It has shaped our current culture, particularly in the younger generations.
Yet, wherever there is a large audience, businesses realize there is a profit to be made. TikTok, much like other social media networks before it, has given rise to a new generation of influencers who have amassed colossal followings through their performance of short viral dance moves. Indeed, TikTok has billed itself as a place for dance to proliferate, and the dances created on the platform are finding their way into today’s dance vocabulary, but are the most popular (and profitable) TikTok dancers truly dancers? The personalities on the app with the largest followings are not highly trained dance artists, but rather media-savvy teenagers making north of a million dollars through sponsorship deals; parlaying their social media clout into other avenues like music careers and makeup lines. To be sure some of them, like Addison Rae Easterling and Charli D’Amelio, have a modicum of dance training, but what kind of artistic value is their TikTok content adding to society?
These aforementioned two teens earned five million and four million dollars, respectively, in the last year through TikTok. Though the average salary of a professional dancer varies—it can fall anywhere between $22,000 and $180,000—it pales in comparison to the massive income these TikTok dancers are raking in. What accounts for the vast difference between these earnings? TikTok dancers do not have more training; in many cases, it is easily arguable that they have less training than professional dancers. They are not creating new, thought-provoking art, in fact, many of them are not the original creators of the dances they rose to fame performing. They can be entertaining, certainly, but the bulk of their cash does not stem from their artistry, but rather from their ability to sell products through sponsored content to their enormous fan base. They are, essentially, human billboards and walking infomercials. I am not implying that they do not work hard, I am certain that they do, but I am not convinced that dance is what they work hard on.
Creating a well-liked TikTok dance can have a large potential impact on your financial future, and open up a world of possibilities, but you have to get the credit for it first, and that has been notoriously difficult to do on the app.
There is also a good bit of luck and privilege wrapped up in these TikTok dancers’ success. Of the seven top earners on TikTok, the majority of them are white, all of them are young, and all of them are conventionally attractive. The app has come under heavy fire for problematic and racist algorithms that flag body shapes that fall outside of the norm (too big or too small), people with missing teeth, visible wrinkles, or facial scars, and surroundings that seem less desirable (cramped, dirty, or poorly lit). Furthermore, content creators of color have a harder time getting views and as a result, sponsorships and money, because the algorithm continually selects white creators for the majority white TikTok audience to view. There have also been accusations that Black creators’ videos get removed at a higher rate than white creators. There is a nefarious reason that the most successful TikTok dancers tend to look alike, and their popularity and financial success are not simply merit-based.
Additionally, TikTok has had issues with theft of intellectual and creative property. There is the well-known case of Charli D’Amelio receiving credit for creating the ubiquitous “Renegade” dance when the true creator was a young Black teenager, Jalaiah Harmon. While Harmon is now widely recognized as the true creator of “Renegade,” it does not make up for all the attention, likes, views, appearances, opportunities, and dollars that D’Amelio garnered from her popularization of the dance. More recently, Addison Rae Easterling received backlash for her appearance on Jimmy Fallon where she performed eight popular dances that were again mostly choreographed by Black creators who went uncredited. Easterling’s performance was noticeably lackluster when compared to the originators, especially when looking at a side by side video of “Up” creators Mya Johnson and Chris Cotter next to Easterling. Yet once again, since Easterling already has such a huge following and is launching a music career as a result of her social media fame, she was featured instead. Fallon has since had the creators of the dances on his show, but there is little doubt this recent turn of events was in response to the online fallout following Easterling’s appearance. Creating a well-liked TikTok dance can have a large potential impact on your financial future, and open up a world of possibilities, but you have to get the credit for it first, and that has been notoriously difficult to do on the app.
With all this in mind, it is hard to see the rising popularity of these particular TikTok dancers as unproblematic. They do not seem to add cultural value or contribute to the betterment of society. Art, dance in particular, always has the power to bring people together, and viral TikTok dances have done just that, providing moments of levity in a heavy time. Unfortunately, though, the originators of these dances do not have much crossover with TikTok’s highest earners, who seem to only profit off of others’ creativity. Their notoriety has caught the attention of many corporations that do not care about artistry or creativity when there is money to be made. While some companies have employed professional dancers who have a positive societal impact—like Under Armor’s partnership with Misty Copeland—it is more common to see a TikTok influencer like Loren Gray partnering with giant brands like Revlon, Hyundai, and Sketchers before even well-known dance artists like Dominic (D-Trix) Sandoval or Houston Ballet soloist Harper Watters. Though it should be noted that, thankfully, professional dancers are increasingly tapped for corporate deals.
Despite these drawbacks, TikTok holds intriguing potential for the future of the dance community. With more and more professional dancers flocking to the social network, it is raising public awareness about the art form, and when live performances are possible again, their online fan base might just follow them into real life. The app offers interactive engagement that encourages users to move and learn something new or challenging rather than just blindly scroll. The dances created on the app offer an opportunity for people to connect and share in a collective cultural moment at a time when the normal collective cultural experiences like concerts are not as accessible. Anything that raises the national awareness of and interest in dance, like So You Think You Can Dance in the early 2000s, has the possibility to bring more fans, support, and money to an art form that could always use more of all three. Finally, TikTok, for all its flaws, has the potential to be a very inclusive space. There are low barriers to entry (anyone can sign up for an account) and there does not seem to be a gender based stigma that we see in some forms of dance, particularly Ballet.
So, while TikTok has its definite downsides, its existence has also brought people together during a dark time for the world, making them laugh and keeping them moving. As much as it has provided a space for racism, theft, and inequality, it has also provided a platform for people to share their creativity beyond their community. There are well-paid, young influencers that many call “dancers” who are no more than glorified salespeople, profiting off of smaller creators, but there are also incredibly talented individuals who the world might never have seen without TikTok. It is, like many things on our planet, both simultaneously bad and good.