How Tik Tok is culture-stealing history repeating itself

Since everyone besides essential workers are quarantined seemingly the world over, we’re all doing productive things like at-home workouts, zoom conferencing, and internet quizzes. Here’s one:

What Kind Of Zoom Moron Are You?

a) Not a moron. You, like most of the world, have been able to figure out a decent camera angle, capture a clear picture, and attend/set up meetings. Cha-ching!

b) You aren’t really wearing pants but you’re doing ok

c) You think that your computer is broken because the picture is so fuzzy and grainy until you get a q-tip and clean the lens and voila problem solved.

d) You went viral for turning yourself into a potato and then the camera froze (I love this lady!)

If you answered C, you are both a techypochondriatic (term I just made up for someone who fears that their gadgets are failing) and you are gross person who should clean your laptop more often. Or ever.

You are also me.

I made this discovery while trying to set up a decent screen capture for zoom classes. This is not for the high school where I teach classical and contemporary ballet, or the Pre-school where I teach creative movement, or for any of the dance and neuroscience research with dementia. I am attempting to adapt to modern technology and modern dance trends by teaching, yes, Tik Tok dances.

I was asked to teach The Renegade and I was looking at different examples while wanting to find the original source.

Writer Taylor Lorenz of The New York Times published a very telling origin story of The Renegade and it’s OG creator, a 14 year-old girl from Atlanta named Jalaiah Harmon. Full article here.

Jalaiah Harmon. Photo by Jill Frank for the NYT

Harmon choreographed this dance in her bedroom. Months later it blew up the internet. She got no credit.

Many of the most popular Tik Tok dances- The Renegade, Holy Moly Donut Shop, Mmmxneil- were created by young black ‘dubsmashers’ on smaller apps first, then brought to Instagram to reach wider audiences. If popular there, Tik Tok steals the dances from where it is culturally relevant and brings it to more mainstream audiences.

Does this sound familiar to anyone else?

Jazz dance is a continuum with roots in West African culture. It’s beginning is the cultural, kinetic, and social history of African Americans taken through the Trans Atlatnic Slave Trade, which upon rehoming, developed the branches of vernacular and later, theatrical, jazz.

Photo via swingcats.cats

The earliest forms of vernacular jazz developed with the times on the plantations and,after the Civil War,in the juke joints of the South and honky-tonks and dance halls in the North. Animal dances like Buzzard Lope,Turkey Trot,Scarecrow, and Fishtail, like the Descriptive Itch,Slap the Baby, and Pickin’ Cherries were observed by white people who found the dances with their loose limbs and articulate torso-movements intriguing. Popular instructors like Irene and Vernon Castle ‘cleaned-up’ these dances during the ragtime era, making them less sensual and therefor more acceptable to white culture. Black dancers adopted Eurocentric verticality for their Cakewalk dances, and later the closed ballroom position for the Lindy.*

Either though blending or appropriation, jazz evolved during the first half of the 20th century to include both Africanist and European dance. The influence of black vernacular dance and creativity during this period is clear.

And here we are again.

The internet-dubbed C.E.O. of the Renegade is a white girl named Charli something. When she posted a video of herself doing Harmon’s choreography to her 13 million followers, she didn’t mention Jalaiah at all.

When I teach my dusty zoom class, you can bet I’ll be giving her a well-deserved shout out.

Knowing the history is the best way to rewrite the pattern of how it’s documented, shared, liked, subscribed!

I made this up, I swear! No one did it before me!

*Research for this article comes mainly from ‘Jazz Dance; A History of the Roots and Branches’ , edited by Lindsay Guarino and Wendy Oliver. This is an excellent collection of essays on history and professional perspectives on the boundaries and development of the jazz world. A great read!

  • I bet my Tik Tok dances will make all of my serious Russian ballet teachers so proud. I don’t know how to say Tik Tok in Russian. I only know how to change everyone’s name to Russian. How to Russian-ify Yourself
  • More White-washing of the dance scene plus assless chaps: Studio 54

Trying to look cool doing the Renegade is not my first failed attempt at dances from another culture.

One thought on “How Tik Tok is culture-stealing history repeating itself

  1. Pingback: Video Interview with DTH ballerina: Lindsey Donnell | BODIES NEVER LIE

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s