On Ballet TikTok, a Place for Young Dancers to Be Real

“How am I supposed to feel confident in myself when these are the ballet body standards?” begins a TikTok video by user @hardcorpsballet. The question stopped this former dancer mid-scroll. An honest conversation about ballet’s cult of thinness? Yes, please.

Then came the slide show: not a parade of waiflike bodies, but instead the well-padded Bear from Boston Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” and the furred and feathered creatures of Frederick Ashton’s “Tales of Beatrix Potter.”

Reader, I giggled.

I had entered ballet TikTok, where a rule-bound art form meets unruly creativity. Casual, confessional and playful, TikTok offers a release for ballet dancers, particularly students, who spend their days chasing impossible perfection. TikTok is a place to laugh about the impossibility, rather than obsess over perfection.

As more and more stuck-at-home dancers join TikTok, it has also become a place to dissect some of the problems and clichés that dog ballet. Users make darkly funny memes about body dysmorphia, eating disorders, abusive teachers, misogyny and homophobia. They are the same issues that dance films and TV shows mine for drama and melodrama. But the wounded whimsy of ballet TikTok reflects what it actually feels like to be a ballet dancer — the frustrations and joys of a demanding, problematic, beautiful art.

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Jennifer McCloskey is the dancer behind @hardcorpsballet.

“A lot of people who don’t do ballet have a very specific view of what it is: Everybody’s very serious, very thin, very talented and probably very rich,” said Jennifer McCloskey, 24, the amateur dancer behind @hardcorpsballet. “But ballet can exist in so many different ways. My approach on TikTok is to be as real about it as possible.”

Though a few professional dancers have built followings on the app, teenage students form the heart of ballet TikTok. A virtual dressing room, it allows them to talk to each other without worrying about who’s watching. While Instagram seem to prefer polish — elevating implausibly pliable dancers with impeccable technique — ballet TikTok feels more democratic, with popularity tied to sensibility, not physicality. “On TikTok, rather than your technique going viral, you could have your ideas about ballet go viral,” the dancer and writer Minnie Lane (@minnielane) said in an interview.

And TikTok culture promotes candor, encouraging young dancers to examine sensitive subjects. “Regular TikTok creators, not just dance creators, talk about their personal struggles, and that makes me feel comfortable doing the same thing about dance,” Yazmine Akamine (@hasssminee), a 19-year-old trainee with Sacramento Ballet, said in an interview.

Pop-culture depictions of the ballet world may paint its artists as humorless (and underfed, and oversexed). But dancers who can see the world around them as clearly as they see their own bodies make excellent comedians. TikTok’s idiosyncratic, detail-oriented humor allows observant ballet students to process their hurts, big and small, through laughter.

“It’s a very Gen-Z way of dealing with issues that are difficult to talk about,” Akamine said. “As you’re laughing, you’re realizing that you’re not the only one struggling, and that the problems you’re dealing with are problems in the whole ballet community, not just your life.”

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Yazmine Akamine (@hasssminee).

The nuance in these posts gives them heft and authority, even when they’re couched as jokes. Lane — who, at 25, has been called the “mom of ballet TikTok” — makes arch videos that harness both her love for and exasperation with ballet. (Her “What Your Favorite Leotard Brand Says About Your Toxic Relationship With Ballet” series has hundreds of thousands of views.)

“Ballet is a beautiful art form, and it’s also a really harmful place, and it’s also a really funny place, and I love that TikTok is able to encapsulate that multiplicity,” she said. “I don’t want people to think that because my videos are funny that they’re not serious. I’m very serious about changing ballet.”

Some ballet TikTokers are embodying, as well as calling for, change. Offline, ballet institutions are just beginning to rethink their insistence on conformity, particularly their adherence to rigid gender norms. On ballet TikTok, creators either disregard those norms or challenge them head-on.

Men and trans women showcase their pointe work and balletic femininity, largely to the applause of commenters. Deion Walker (@deionwalkerr), a 19-year-old studying dance at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Fla., began posting videos of himself performing on pointe a few months after he joined the app last spring. They soon became a popular draw.

“I love that on TikTok anyone can do anything and find support, even if — especially if — they’re breaking constructs that were built in the past,” he said.

Walker, like many on ballet TikTok, also creates educational videos, helping to make ballet training accessible to a wider audience. “I’m very flexible, and I get a lot of young dancers, mostly other people of color, asking me for advice on how to improve their flexibility,” said Walker, who is Black. “I know some of them don’t have the money to take ballet class. I didn’t have the money to pay for classes when I was younger. So I teach them stretching techniques, the types of things I wanted to know back when I was in their position.”

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Deion Walker (@deionwalkerr).

Ballet TikTok has its blind spots. Though the offscreen ballet world has started to confront its ingrained racism, there is relatively little discussion of race in ballet on TikTok. The most popular ballet creators — like the wider app’s most popular creators — are white. “I am a skinny white blonde, and that’s definitely part of the reason I have a platform,” Lane said. Walker has made references to being “shadowbanned,” meaning that the app’s algorithm has deprioritized his videos — a common complaint among Black TikTok creators.

Bullying, especially body-shaming and homophobic harassment, is also common. The Houston Ballet soloist Harper Watters (@theharperwatters), 29, one of the rare professional ballet dancers to break through on TikTok, said he was shocked by the vitriol of some commenters. Most of his hecklers appear unfamiliar with ballet. “It’s easier on TikTok for your viral posts to reach a very broad audience, outside the usual ballet circle,” he said. “So they don’t understand you or what you’re doing, and you get more hate.”

The app’s comment response feature, which allows video replies to individual comments, offers dancers a deliciously direct way to confront trolls. Watters’s witty “clapback” posts have become a signature. (One commenter posted “Homosexuality is a sinnnnnn”; Watters rejoined with a video of himself strutting and pirouetting in red heels, set to Rod Lee’s “Mind Ya Bizness.”)

“TikTok is so carefree, why not have a little fun with it?” Watters said. “Highlighting these comments also exerts a little pressure: Talking to dancers this way is not OK, and perhaps you could be exposed for that kind of behavior, too.”

One of the reasons Watters feels comfortable letting it all hang out on TikTok is because he doesn’t have to worry about his boss scrolling by. “I’d be hard pressed to find an artistic director who really knew what TikTok was,” he said. But that “mom and dad aren’t home” atmosphere might not last.

Professional ballet is starting to make inroads. American Ballet Theater, one of the country’s leading companies, had its dancers take a TikTok course last spring. The company has been posting exploratory videos to @americanballettheatre since August, and is set to become the first major ballet company to officially launch a TikTok account. Where Ballet Theater goes, other troupes are sure to follow, a change that could alter the app’s ballet ecosystem.

Or maybe not. The current inhabitants of ballet TikTok might simply ignore corporate offerings, especially if company accounts end up as technique showcases. “When I’m scrolling through TikTok, I don’t really want to watch Isabella Boylston do six pirouettes,” McCloskey said, referring to a principal dancer at Ballet Theater. “She’s obviously incredibly talented, but it’s kind of boring. It’s not the creative content I go to TikTok for.”

Akamine also noted that some of the young stars of ballet TikTok don’t feel the urge to seek institutional approval. “In this day and age, on this platform, we have just as much power and value as large companies,” she said.

Connor Holloway, 26, the gender-nonconforming corps de ballet member who runs Ballet Theater’s TikTok account, said the company wants to present a version of itself that feels true to ballet TikTok’s culture. Last year, Holloway lobbied successfully for Ballet Theater to remove the gender-restrictive labels from its company classes. Content that challenges the ballet gender binary will “absolutely” be part of Ballet Theater’s TikTok presence, Holloway said, mentioning the possibility of the company’s account facilitating a crowdsourced ballet, with choreography and design contributed by young creators, like “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical.”

“I would never want the A.B.T. TikTok to be the awkward babysitter who walks in on the kids,” Holloway said. “My hope is for these young dancers to be able to look at a legacy brand like A.B.T. and see that we understand that the ballet world is changing, and that there is a space for them in it, just as there’s a space for them on TikTok. We’re really looking to them for inspiration.”

February 5, 2021
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