Down the TikTok Rabbit Hole

TikTok offers people a way to move while isolated during COVID-19, but the popular app also comes with concerns By Emily Latimer
  • Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Let’s be clear: I am not a dancer. At the age of four, I went to a total of two dance classes. Both times, my mom says I left in tears because it was “too loud.” Since then, my relationship with dance has had peaks and valleys, usually spiking with the introduction of new technology. Throughout elementary school, I was obsessed with Dance Dance Revolution Extreme 2, which I played on PlayStation 2. Later, I grooved to Just Dance on Nintendo Wii. When I’m in my hometown in Nova Scotia for the holidays, I still power up the old PS2 and take my DDR mats out from under the couch. Lately though, a new dance phenomenon has caught my eye. The newest tech to make me dance in my living room is TikTok, a short-form video-sharing app. The platform is home to dozens of viral dance videos, which have spilled out from the app and into mainstream pop culture.

As the spread of the novel coronavirus forces people indoors, some have turned to recreating viral dance challenges on TikTok. Celebrities like Justin and Hailey Bieber, Courteney Cox and LeBron James have participated and posted them online for millions to see. The TikTok website says their mission is “to inspire creativity and bring joy.”

Swiping through the feed, users will likely come across videos that feature background music, visuals altered by filters or shots superimposed with text bubbles and emojis. TikTokers with massive followings are usually good looking, funny, talented or all of the above. They’re also typically teenagers, a demographic that is prominently represented on the app. According to a 2019 report from market research company GlobalWebIndex, forty-one per cent of TikTok users are between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four. It’s likely that number has increased since the survey was conducted in 2018, and since teens have been staying home during the current pandemic.

In fact, there seems to be a correlation between lockdown orders in cities all around the world and app download numbers. At the end of April, analytics platform Sensor Tower reported that the global app and its Chinese version (Douyin) has been downloaded more than two billion times on Google Play and Apple’s App Store – a number that stood at 1.5 billion in November 2019. According to the report, “TikTok’s latest surge comes amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen consumers drawn to their mobile devices more than ever as they look for new ways to shop, work, and connect with others.”

TikTok allows dancers from all over the world to showcase their abilities. Charli D’Amelio is the most-followed account on the app. The sixteen-year-old social media personality and dancer from Connecticut has more than fifty-eight million followers and 4.1 billion likes on the app. She has been dubbed the “reigning queen of TikTok” by The New York Times; her bio on the app reads, “Don’t worry, I don’t get the hype either.” Donté Colley, a twenty-three-year-old dancer from Scarborough, was recently featured in GQ and FLARE for his videos. He even danced on Good Morning America. He’s become known for his choreographed dances stylized with positive affirmations and emojis. In one video posted on TikTok that has more than 6.2 million views, Colley dances as text reading “Get your shine on today” pops up onscreen. One commenter writes, “These are so inspiring and I love it.”

As a platform, TikTok is home to viral dances that are available to all users. The accessibility and sense of accomplishment from mastering the moves have people flocking to the app. But while there’s joy to be found, especially during COVID-19, there are also problems lurking beneath the surface.

I think the people who end up creating the dances are these teens who just want to have fun, whether or not they are competitive dancers -Harjosubroto


Sitting at her dining room table, Raizel Harjosubroto often falls down what she calls “the TikTok rabbit hole.” And she’s not alone. According to Business of Apps, a company that provides analyses and data for the app industry, the average user spends an estimated forty-five minutes on TikTok per day. Harjosubroto scrolls through the app while eating breakfast, sometimes coming across a dance that piques her interest. She takes her dirty dishes into the kitchen, puts them away and sets up her phone in front of her microwave or toaster. Then, she dances. “I try to do the dance over and over again. I’ll start with the first two or three moves, then once I get that, I’m like ok, let’s do the next move. And then a half an hour later, I’ll have learned a ten-second dance,” she says. Since she downloaded the app in September, she’s learned approximately eight TikTok dances – and that makes her proud.

“When I successfully learned the Renegade dance, I felt very, I don’t know, I felt accomplished,” Harjosubroto says. “And they’re just fun to do because there’s no pressure to be perfect.” The Renegade dance features the song Lottery by K CAMP. In February, Rebecca Jennings, a Vox reporter, called it “the biggest dance in the world right now.” The original dance was created in September 2019 by Jalaiah Harmon, a fourteen-year-old dancer based in Atlanta, Georgia. Since she posted her video to Instagram, the song has been used in more than thirty-three million TikTok videos. The dance features moves well-known to Internet dancers including the woah, the dab and the wave.

Harjosubroto has never taken a dance class and has no formal dance training, but she still likes to learn viral dances. “I try to do it when no one else is around the kitchen. I do kind of, not necessarily get embarrassed, but I just get shy. I get nervous,” she says. With less than 100 followers on TikTok, she learns the dances for fun and posts the videos if she thinks she’s performed well.

She figures the app is popular with teenagers because they look cool doing cool dances to cool songs. “I think the people who end up creating the dances are these teens who just want to have fun, whether or not they are competitive dancers,” she says. She also mentions that TikTok can offer a safe space for people who are not professional dancers, and that some people are just downloading the app because they have nothing else better to do during the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s not just individuals who are falling down the TikTok rabbit hole.

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, TikTok had gotten so popular that it started infiltrating dance studios. Sara Steele, owner of Onset Dance in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, remembers a time in the middle of teaching a dance class when she sent her students for a water break. After several minutes, she walked into the waiting area of the studio and found her students with their phones set up, recording and posting viral dance challenges. “I had to go out and be like, ‘Guys, come back into the studio.’ Like, they kind of got carried away with it. So, we started adding TikTok into our dance curriculum,” says Steele. They struck a deal: if students were focused for the week’s classes, every Thursday they would do a group TikTok. “It was almost kind of like a bribe to get them back on track,” she says.

Onset Dance created their own TikTok account in October 2019, largely out of necessity. “It became hard for us to do anything without addressing TikTok because it was taking over all of our lives. The kids were obsessed with it,” she says. The dance studio is aimed at dancers aged nineteen and under – the average student is fourteen – and focuses solely on hip hop. Now that dancers are stuck at home due to COVID-19, the platform helps Steele stay connected to her students.

“We use that, especially during the pandemic, to interact with the students and to show them that we’re still cool,” she says. She recreates viral dance trends, but she also choreographs dances for her students, hoping the videos will keep them moving while they’re stuck at home. Students then send their videos, which keeps them engaged with the studio and their peers. “Which is pretty important, especially during all of this,” says Steele. 

Steele likes the platform because it’s entertaining, dance-focused and typically hip hop heavy. She also believes that TikTok has done a good job of humbling some people who think dancing is easy. “You can’t just watch something twice, pick up your phone and then be phenomenal at it. It takes work. It takes a lot of time, sweat,” she says.

Steele says another positive impact is that TikTok makes dance more accessible. It takes a lot of time and commitment to take a dance class every week; it’s also expensive. “But with TikTok, I can set up my phone and I can take all afternoon to learn it if I want to. I can take a whole week. And then I can film it as many times as I want. And when I’m happy with it, I can put it online and kind of get some gratification from people, you know, get a nice little thumbs-up from some people and get TikTok famous, if you’re lucky,” she says. Some parents are also seeing the confidence boosting aspect of the app.

Shauna Pomerantz watched as her eleven-year-old daughter, Miriam, mastered the complicated Renegade dance challenge over two weeks. She realized her daughter had gleaned an enormous sense of pride and confidence from the experience, all while having a lot of fun. Pomerantz is an associate professor of child and youth studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. With the help of her daughter and co-researcher, she is researching TikTok as a form of creativity, interconnectedness and fun.

Alongside Miriam, Pomerantz learns recent viral dances including Like That by Doja Cat and Still The One by One Direction. “She trained me up pretty well,” Pomerantz says. “It was so fun to be taught by her that I would have done it all day just to stay in the room and dance with my daughter.” But the dance challenges go beyond surface level. Pomerantz says they’re about friendly competition, mastering challenging dance moves and learning the hottest popular music. “I think dance has been cracked wide open by TikTok. It’s made dance accessible. It’s made it fun,” she says.

On TikTok, people copy the same viral dance moves. But each person does it differently, with varying background locations and style. “So, you can feel like you’re part of something and you’re connecting to something but also like you’re unique and creative at the same time,” Pomerantz says. “You’re dancing with no one watching. But when you post it online, you’re dancing as if everyone were watching,” she says. “So, in a way, I think it’s the best of all worlds: you get an audience, and you get privacy at the same time.” But with all the fun comes certain concerns.

Are anxiety and depression actually creeping into your life in a way that’s happening for lots of young people who are spending too much time online? -Tilleczek


TikTok is not a perfect app. There have been concerns about data privacy, online predators and bullying. After conducting a five-year study with young people in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom, Dr. Kate Tilleczek found that there was a deep love-hate paradox of digital media consumption. She has studied the lives of youth and children for nearly three decades. Now the Canada Research Chair in Young Lives, Education and Global Good and the director of Young Lives Research Laboratory, Tilleczek researches challenges and opportunities for social development in youth.

“What I’m concerned about is having people, particularly young people, start to think meaningfully about not just the number of hours they’re spending online but the quality of that time,” she says. Now more than ever, Tilleczek says people should consider whether or not technology is serving us. “When we start to get anxious or depressed, or we know we’re on there too long and weird stuff is happening, we need to be aware and to really manage, navigate and negotiate what’s going on,” she says. 

She points to domains of wellbeing including education, work, social life, family life, physical health and the environment. “You have to keep asking yourself, is it serving you to make you feel well?” she says. “Are anxiety and depression actually creeping into your life in a way that’s happening for lots of young people who are spending too much time online?”

Tilleczek says it’s also important to be aware of the dark, shady underside of the Internet: disinformation, sexual exploitation and low-level entertainment. She also raises the question of intellectual property, especially when it comes to choreography. “It’s really cool to be dancing, coming up with new dances and choreography and putting them up on TikTok. It’s really fun,” she says. “But on the other hand, we have questions that we probably should be asking of the tool and of the digital space,” she says.

Despite the challenges, Tilleczek says dance on TikTok is a neat creative space. “It’s one of those great examples where this is a really joyful outlet and allows people who are dancing to keep doing some of these kinds of actions and activities throughout a lockdown,” she says. 

Although I participate in the TikTok trend, a serious dancer I am not. I’m prone to stage fright. The idea of dancing in front of others fills me with dread. I admire trained dancers who perform onstage with confidence and bravado, but it’s just not in my DNA. That’s why copying dance moves I see on TikTok at home works for me. I am fascinated by the speed, precision and coordination required to pull them off. TikTok dancers have their own style, and it’s interesting to see how each TikToker brings a unique flair to the choreographed moves.

Dancing to Captain Hook by Megan Thee Stallion in the privacy of my bedroom, I am free to stumble, curse myself and make laughable faces as I hit the woah, miss a beat and, ultimately, learn. Though the global pandemic has forced me indoors, TikTok has offered a new way to move and dance. On my daily walk, I find myself in Toronto laneways subtly practising the moves with my hands. The lyrics are burned into my brain, whether I like it or not: “Ay, I go shopping, mmh, want it, then I cop it, ay, yeah.” As I enter my tenth week of lockdown, I find joy dancing around my small apartment and listening to popular TikTok songs on repeat. In these uncertain times, I’m just happy for the distraction.

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