Ever since the world went into lockdown, certain digital platforms have been domesticating our itineraries to our living rooms. One of the most prominent apps on the scene is none other than TikTok—feeding us bite-sized cookbooks, celebrity rants, spring cleaning videos, beauty and health trends. To name some, that is. But among these dynamic hashtags and challenges is a genre that has always found an audience on social media. Even if you’re not on the app, you must’ve heard of the viral dances that often grip the platform. Heck, you would’ve even shimmied to one while going about your morning routine today.
From dabbing and flossing to the Dougie, CitiRokk and hitting the Woah, there’s a new dance craze birthed by TikTok users every single week. While some of these moves take days to create, others are drummed up within a matter of minutes. Some might be an energetic rollercoaster of 15 seconds while other videos can last up to 10 minutes.
Although there are certain pointers—for example, most dance moves are front-facing and animated from the waist up to suit the vertical frame of a smartphone—there are several factors that give you the autonomy to create a fresh trend or put a spin-off on an existing one. Nevertheless, the resultant routines are always highly recognisable and somewhat easily reproducible by others.
Now, jumping on the latest TikTok dance can be a fun activity for most users but for some, like Charli D’Amelio, Addison Rae and Michael Le, the ethos has helped them find their footing as influencers in the industry. Not only have TikTok dance routines helped revive old hits like ‘Dreams’ by Fleetwood Mac, but the platform has also launched songs including ‘Lottery (Renegade)’ and ‘Savage’ up official charts. It is for this reason that the app is recognised as a powerful marketing tool—where artists and labels pay famous TikTokers to dance to their music.
As views, likes and followers translate into financial opportunities, however, a few burning questions remain: How are TikTok dances invented? What exactly makes one go viral on the platform? And, if these mysteries can be solved, is there a cheat code of sorts where you can stand out among the endless sea of videos under a hashtag?
In a bid to list the key ingredients for a viral dance routine, SCREENSHOT interviewed Red Bull Dance Your Style participants Darren “Outrage” King and Oscar “Rampage” Lorenzo. From the importance of flexibility and commitment to TikTok being a dance genre in itself, here’s everything the artists had to share from their own experiences.
“I think dance is more universal than it has ever been,” started Outrage. Growing up in Southern California, the artist loved grooving to music videos by James Brown and Ginuwine. From watching them on television to witnessing in-person performances and enjoying the music in itself, dance has always been a part of Outrage’s life for as long as he can remember. “I never knew what I was doing, but I knew it was something I enjoyed from a young age to even now,” he said. Before he was picked as a wildcard to participate in the Red Bull Dance Your Style World Final 2021, the artist had mastered the craft of krump from legends like Miss Prissy. Now he’s teaching the next generation.
“My motto is to always keep going and have fun with anything I’m doing. The moment I lose the fun factor, it almost becomes work,” Outrage continued, adding how he enjoys freestyle battles. “With Red Bull Dance Your Style, I don’t know the song I’m dancing to until the DJ plays it. Not knowing lets me be in the moment, while still having fun figuring out the best way to dance to the crowd.”
While Outrage believes there isn’t one single formula for success, he outlined how TikTok is, at its core, a testament to people enjoying themselves on social media platforms. “I think bringing high energy and maybe even nostalgic vibes to people may be the key,” Outrage explained. “Most dance videos that catch my eye and have me wanting more are [those] with people having great energy on camera, a dope song or remix of a classic, and the smiles they have while doing it. It’s all relative… But those [are] the ones that seem to do the most well.”
So does this ultimately mean that TikTok dances are less about the moves and more about the personality someone brings onto our screen? According to Red Bull Dance Your Style competitor Rampage, who has amassed 12 million followers on the platform, it all boils down to one’s flexibility and commitment.
Dancing ever since he was just 11 years old, Rampage admitted to being inspired by the OGs who introduced him to several styles like breaking, popping, locking and hip-hop. “Many of my friends in Cuba keep me inspired,” he told SCREENSHOT. “They kept me going in the beginning and to this day when I look for inspiration I look back to their videos.” When asked about his A to Z advice to someone looking to create their own choreography on the platform, Rampage highlighted a difference between digital dance floors like TikTok and physical battles like Red Bull Dance Your Style.
“For Red Bull Dance Your Style, you’re competing against many dope dancers and some of the best who have won big competitions around the world,” he shared, adding how one would show more advanced moves to win the competition. “For TikTok, it’s the opposite. Here, you have to sort of dumb it down for people to understand and to go viral. Not everyone’s a professional dancer and those watching it aren’t dancers, they probably don’t know what ‘popping’ is—so you have to do stuff that looks cool and is more appealing for them to watch the whole video, like, share and make it go viral.”
“You need to make everything very simple and easy to digest while still being cool to look at.”
According to Rampage, the real way to steal the show is to create something that is exclusively yours and keep doing it until it blows up. “Every single time something doesn’t work, switch it up, find a new thing and do it over and over again. By doing this it’s how you [get people to] say ‘Oh, that’s his style’ and ‘That’s his move’. The competition on TikTok, especially with dancers, is huge—so you want to make something that makes you you and unique.”
In terms of the music that typically does well on the platform, Rampage routed my attention to the King of Pop. “Michael Jackson always works, everyone knows him and his music is always going to get dancers a lot of views,” he said. At the same time, however, the artist stressed the need to keep up with the latest audios. In April 2022, think of all the catchy remixes of the iconic Will Smith phrase ‘Keep my wife’s name out of your mouth’. “You want to have music that everyone knows,” Rampage added.
But when it comes to the dance moves on TikTok, finger guns, claps, body and hip rolls have become native to the platform. In fact, these moves have become so distinct to TikTok that it has weirdly transformed into a dance genre in itself. Analysing most of these moves, one might be able to trace the pop culture references behind its inspiration—for example, Fortnite emotes like flossing and dabbing which continue to grip the platform. So in this regard, is it possible to predict the kind of moves that can potentially gain traction in the future?
Both Outrage and Rampage disagreed. “I don’t think it’s that easy to predict what’s happening next, it really depends on the creator,” Outage admitted. “I’ve seen people do trends and they don’t really gain views—not because it’s not good, but because people are so creative with it nowadays [that] there’s a whole story behind it now.” The Las Vegas-based krumper then listed things that he feels make up a TikTok sensation, “The view, if it’s outside, [then] the camera quality, if they’re smiling etc. We have seen many videos go viral and then the next moment it’s gone. People are constantly looking for a way to level up, it’s great!”
As for Rampage, hit dance moves on TikTok are an unpredictable phenomenon that happens over time and can’t exactly be controlled by someone. “It’s the ones you never expect, so you’re never going to know what goes viral,” he shared. “In Red Bull Dance Your Style, there’s also this level of not being predictable. You never expect what the song is going to be, or what move someone is going to pull—a lot of dances are unexpected.”
Given this dynamic nature of the platform, however, most TikTok dances have often been criticised for “looking the same.” These claims hinge on the notion that each routine birthed on the gen Z-first platform is a rinse and repeat of the previous ones. “I feel it’s relative. I mean, obviously TikTok is no America’s Got Talent or competing at Red Bull Dance Your Style, but I think it’s great for what it is!”
Outrage explained when asked about his take on the discourse. The artist once again highlighted the overarching purpose of TikTok videos to provide frequent bursts of fun and laughter. “I personally don’t think the dances look the same, but I can also see why someone would believe that as well. I think it’s really about the energy on screen that makes these videos so cool. The dances aren’t as hard but it’s like a Drake song—if it’s done right, it will get you hooked.”
Rampage, on the other hand, believes in TikTok’s recycled dance theory. “I am one of them,” the artist admitted. “Sometimes, I feel I do the same dances over and over. But the thing is, with TikTok, I create things for my fans who really enjoy watching these moves.” Although Rampage agrees with the criticisms, he explained how repeating the same moves helps him grow at the same time. “You have to forget about the haters and those negative comments and focus on your fans. My newer videos with new moves sometimes don’t get as much love as the [ones] that use the same moves that I’ve done in the past. So I agree, on TikTok there are a lot of the same steps, but if you want to grow your account, you have to find what works and keep at it, then shift on to the next move.”
Touching upon the perception that TikTok is less about the actual footwork and more about the vibes users bring with them in videos, Rampage further explained, “It has to do with both. If you don’t have the moves, it doesn’t look good and no one’s going to like it, but at the same time you gotta put some energy into it. There are videos that show no energy and they give nothing. You want to use both to create different trends and switch up your videos.”
A TikTok dance dictionary wouldn’t be complete without addressing the biases on the platform. More importantly, algorithm biases which, in 2019, came to mainstream attention with the revelation that TikTok suppressed videos by creators who it identified as “disabled, fat and queer,” under the guise of protecting those who might be “vulnerable to cyberbullying.”
It should also be noted that TikTok has no built-in feature to credit the original creators of a dance routine. This is particularly concerning given the fact that two of the most popular influencers on the platform are young, white, non-disabled female dancers—while many TikTok dances can actually be traced back to black creators. This appropriation gained public interest after The New York Times published the story of Jalaiah Harmon, the 14-year-old mastermind behind the viral Renegade dance.
Although many users have since attributed the original creators of the dance trend they jump on by tagging their TikTok handles in the caption or comment section and mentioning, duetting or stitching the original video, it’s still considerably harder to trace the OGs behind a routine—leading several marginalised dancers to be sidelined from the trends that they’ve created.
“I think anybody who is creating a ‘trend’ gotta be on it because once you upload it on the internet it’s out there!” Outrage explained, highlighting how the discourse of ‘Who was first?’ and ‘How do they get the credit?’ has been around for years in the entertainment industry. Even though the artist believes everyone deserves credit for their creations, he’s unsure how TikTok itself can tackle the issue. “Someone who just has better resources, does something a little more creative with the trend, or even having a celebrity appear in there can reach more than someone just doing it for fun,” he shared.
Over to Rampage, the artist outlined a fatal flaw in the app’s features. “In my opinion, once it’s already out there, people are going to steal your content because you’ve already uploaded it. Especially with TikTok, they give you the option to download it and you know someone can take the video once you post it,” he explained. But Rampage doesn’t lose his cool when this happens. “Of course, you can be mad when you see someone stealing your video but it’s so easy to download—so you’re going to be mad every time you post a video.”
According to the dancer, TikTok should offer an option to recognise individual creators like they already do for audios. “I would love for everyone to give me credit for a dance, it makes me feel good and shows people the trend that I did,” he continued. But, at the end of the day, Rampage believes appropriation would still be an issue many face on the app—tracing back to the previous rinse-and-repeat criticisms that TikTok dances have garnered over time. “Very few dancers who have their own moves can say ‘Oh, that’s mine’. Everything has already been created and done by the OGs back in the day, even viral things now have already been done,” he said. “You can’t copyright any type of move.”
Although freestyle battles and digital dance floors are backed by two different visions, their mutual grip on unpredictable tunes, from mainstream hits to timeless classics, unite both means—where constant improvisation is key to engagement. “My favourite trend right now is watching people dance to Missy Elliot’s ‘One Minute Man’ remix by Showmusik,” shared Outrage. “I’m not sure if it’s a trend or not but watching folks break down to the beat and getting creative is super sick. I love that song so much, so I enjoy it!”
For Rampage, the artist’s favourite viral move is the moonwalk, which he can be seen adding his own spin-off to on TikTok. “It still works to this day, it’s timeless and it’s never going to get old,” he admitted. “Those trends that revolve around those moves are the ones I like to use the most.” When asked about his favourite dance routine, Rampage settled on the shufflers. “Every Halloween they bring a shuffle dance to the song ‘Spooky Scary Skeletons’ and it’s a really cool dance that I like.”
As Red Bull Dance Your Style returns this Spring for its 2022 season, kicking off on Thursday 7 April from the iconic House of Blues in Boston, the premiere one-on-one street dance competition is set to summon heavy hitters from across hip-hop, house, waacking, turfing, krumping, popping and everything in between. With no panel of judges, no planned choreography and unpredictable music, the battle is all about embracing the moment, wowing the crowd and moving to the beat. Here, the crowd is your judge and they’ll decide who ultimately rules the dance floor—just like TikTok, if you really think about it.