Amanda LaCount got the type of Instagram message most dancers could only dream of: an invitation to audition for a secret project with Parris Goebel, a choreographer for Justin Bieber, Jennifer Lopez and Nicki Minaj. Although the 18-year-old LaCount didn’t know many details, she knew it had to be big.
Only after auditioning in L.A. and booking the job did she learn that she would be performing for pop goddess and fashion mogul Rihanna.
LaCount had already danced on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show, performed with singer Meghan Trainor and was featured on the cover of Dance Spirit magazine.
They were all gigs she got through building her social media presence, which began with fewer than 500 followers when LaCount first moved to L.A. Now, about five years later, she has more than 240,000 followers.
LaCount never saw her body type represented onstage and on TV growing up. Her Instagram — filled with dance class videos and selfies from performances, marked with her hashtag #breakingthestereotype — is a platform where she can show off her talent and work to expand her industry’s narrow standards of beauty.
At the Rihanna gig, which turned out to be a September runway show mixing fashion, music and dance for the star’s lingerie line Savage X Fenty, LaCount performed alongside dancers with varying body types. In one number, she did hard-hitting choreography and her signature lightning-quick ponytail thrash in the window of a 4-story-tall structure, to the Brazilian funk-inspired song “Malokera.”
LaCount isn’t alone. On Ariana Grande’s recent tour, male performers included Darrion Gallegos, who danced both the stereotypical masculine and feminine roles. When Grande sang “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” Gallegos strutted across the stage with women in red stilettos, performing a seductive chair dance.
The curvy dancers in Lizzo’s music videos and live performances are an extension of the singer-rapper’s self-love and body-positivity movement. Seeing Lizzo’s cast is “incredible,” said Tricia Miranda, a veteran commercial dancer and choreographer in L.A. “That was unheard of when I first moved out here. And if a dancer was hired that was bigger than average, they were almost used as a specialty.”
Commercial dancers — the performers who animate music videos, films and TV shows — have long needed the right look, the right connections, expertise in the most popular styles and an agency to access coveted jobs. Now, however, video and social media have democratized who can succeed in the industry.
From performers like LaCount to Chelsie Hill, who uses a wheelchair, to Yanis Marshall, who does jazz-funk dance in high heels, to Donté Colley, who mixes dance with lo-fi graphics and emojis to share inspirational messages — dancers who were once deemed too fringe — are breaking into the mainstream.
Video-centric platforms including YouTube, Instagram and the burgeoning TikTok are enabling dancers and choreographers to break out of the shadows and be more than nameless bodies backing pop stars. These dancefluencers have become celebrities in their own right.
Dance has been popular on YouTube since the platform launched in 2005. The earliest trends revolved around untrained dancers showing off moves in their neighborhoods, said YouTube’s trends insight lead and dance expert, Earnest Pettie. He cited the Chicken Noodle Soup, a Harlem dance that inspired the song of the same name, as one of the first dances to go viral in 2006.
YouTube “was able to change these regional dancers from across the country and around the world and break them out of their geographic confines,” Pettie said. Over time, dance on the platform also evolved from a “swell of activity around a single dance and more about people following dancers and choreographers.”
One of YouTube’s most popular choreographers is Matt Steffanina, a 30-year-old with more than 11 million subscribers and 3.7 million followers on Instagram. His sleek, professionally filmed videos at L.A. studio classes regularly rack up millions of views. The format of the videos — multiple rounds of talented dancers performing the same minute of choreography as the class cheers them on — has become prevalent across social media.
Growing up in a small town in Virginia, Steffanina didn’t have access to dance classes and learned breaking and hip-hop by studying music videos. He was an earlier YouTube poster of tutorials and videos of his crews, but it wasn’t until about six years ago that a string of videos went viral and his subscribers went from 200,000 to almost a million, Steffanina said.
The viral videos weren’t just bragging rights. They turned into real opportunities as pop and R&B stars including Chris Brown and Jason Derulo reposted the choreographer’s work.
For Steffanina and others, popularity on social media allows artists to bypass the long-standing structure of the industry.
Typically, dancers hoping for a commercial career move to L.A. Most need representation from an agency, which helps dancers and choreographers navigate the business side of the industry and generally takes a 10% cut when they book jobs. But even with an agent, dancers still need to audition or compete for a job, which can involve hundreds of people vying for one or two spots.
The business can seem like it’s reserved for those deemed most marketable to mainstream audiences.
Friends Shivani Bhagwan and Chaya Kumar created BFunk — a class fusing Indian styles Bollywood and Bhangra with jazz funk and hip-hop — about three years ago in North Hollywood after noticing a lack of South Asian commercial dance in L.A. The two have applied multiple times for agency representation but said they didn’t feel understood.
“We would always get to that meeting or always get to that second round, but we would never get signed,” Bhagwan said. “That response we were hearing was, ‘Maybe our roster is full,’ or ‘We actually already have one Bollywood dancer.’”
- Members: Shivani Bhagwan, 27, and Chaya Kumar, 28.
- Origin: The two met in 2016 and hosted their first class that August.
- Style: A combination of Bhangra and Bollywood dance with jazz funk and hip-hop
- Viral moment: A class video was reposted by Diljit Dosanjh, an Indian singer, actor and media personality.
- Big break: Choreographing and performing at the International Indian Film Academy Awards in 2017.
Even without representation, the duo has been able to create its own opportunities, turning BFunk into a brand with more 1 million YouTube subscribers, a featured spot in a Toyota commercial inspired by one of BFunk’s class battle videos and a performance at the International Indian Film Academy Awards.
With the ease and accessibility of social media, today’s dancers don’t need permission from traditional gatekeepers to pursue their art and build a following.
The opportunities for commercial tap dance in L.A. were bleak when sisters Chloe and Maud Arnold arrived in L.A. But the duo quickly got to work building their own community, creating their all-female group Syncopated Ladies out of a jam session in Debbie Allen Dance Academy in 2003.
Inspired by Beyoncé’s music videos, the group began creating highly stylized tap videos for YouTube. Two of their Beyoncé-themed videos were reposted on the singer’s social media accounts in 2013 and 2016, propelling the Arnolds into the stratosphere.
They credit Beyoncé for the fact that they have worked nonstop for the last three years. Chloe’s choreography for “The Late Late Show With James Corden” received an Emmy nomination in 2018. The Syncopated Ladies also signed a deal with Columbia Artists to tour their evening-length tap show. “Our mission is to shift the industry to just have trust in the power of tap dance as a means to impact people, to tell a story,” Chloe Arnold said.
- Founders: Sisters Chloe and Maud Arnold grew up in Washington, D.C.
- Origin: 2003 in L.A.’s Debbie Allen Dance Academy
- Style: Tap dance
- Viral moment: Two of their Beyoncé tribute videos were reposted by the pop star
- Future plans: Touring their evening-length show in fall 2020, “Syncopated Ladies: Live”
One reason for dance’s growing popularity online: It “requires no understanding of language other than the language of dance,” Pettie said.
On Instagram, where it’s easy to get lost in a wormhole of constant scrolling, “dance is among the most popular art forms, especially among younger audiences,” said Kim Garcia, program lead of Instagram Community Lab, via email. It’s not just the well-known styles including hip-hop, ballet and jazz with massive audiences. Other genres of dance — K-pop, afro fusion, bone breaking, litefeet — have also become popular on the platform.
The dance influencer age is new, said Tim O’Brien, founder of the agency Clear Talent Group.
A commercial dancer in the 1970s and 1980s, O’Brien performed with the Osmonds and in films including the 1980 musical comedy “Xanadu.” Back then, “the general public did not know or seemingly care that I was dancing in … a movie,” he said. “Unless you were Mikhail Baryshnikov, you were not a celebrity.”
By building a large following, dancers and choreographers can supplement their income with sponsorship deals.
Dancers Alliance, a group that negotiates equitable rates and working conditions for nonunion workers, sets a minimum rate of $250 for four to eight hours of rehearsal and $500 for dancing in a live show or non-union music video.
Instagram micro-influencers — those with 5,000 to 100,000 followers — can make a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for promoting a company or product through a sponsored post. Dancers with 500,000 followers or more can make $10,000 to $50,000 or more per post , said Mae Karwowski, founder of influencer marketing agency Obviously.
Making money from
There are more than 500,000 influencers on Instagram, according to a study last year by InfluencerDB. Here are three ways to get paid:
Brands pay influencers to feature products like makeup and gadgets. A survey shows roughly what advertisers pay.
|Source: Klear survey of more than 2,500 influencers|
Influencers can earn a small cut when a follower purchases a promoted product.
Rather than partnering with brands, influencers can instead sell their own products, like clothing.
The agency works with companies including Google and Lyft, pairing them with dancers like Houston Ballet soloist Harper Watters. He posts his endorsements alongside rehearsal videos and more lighthearted clips of him dancing in bright, chunky heels to his more than 200,000 Instagram followers.
Which raises the question: Is the chase for likes, views and followers polluting the art form?
“A lot of people get caught up in it,” Steffanina said. But “it’s a lot of work to build a brand, to build a following. It takes sometimes hundreds or thousands of videos to really establish yourself to the point where you’re making a lot of money.”
Miranda initially resisted the pull of social media, saying she loved the “grind and hustle and paying my dues.” But after a string of class videos beginning with choreography to Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” went viral in 2014, she found a passion for building an audience online.
“With social media, it’s so easy just to become famous,” she said. “I was kind of old school with that mentality at first, but I think it’s incredible that dancers are now being recognized … They’re not looked at as props and background. People actually know these dancers by name.”
To even begin monetizing content through ads on YouTube, a channel must have 1,000 subscriptions and 4,000 hours of watch time in the past year. A YouTube spokeswoman said creators receive the majority of revenue from ads. Exact rates that creators receive are unclear and can range from 35 cents per 1,000 views to $5 per 1,000, according to Harry Hugo of the Goat Agency, an influencer marketing firm in London.
Dancers featured in the viral videos with tens of millions of views aren’t paid by the platforms.
Making money from
Users with 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of watch time are eligible for the following benefits:
A cut of ad money
Rates vary but popular YouTubers can earn anywhere between 35 cents to $5 per 1,000 views.
Viewers who pay a monthly fee access unique badges, emojis, members-only posts. Creators get 70% of the revenue.
Connect with the audience
Fans can pay to make their live chat messages more prominent. Creators get a cut.
Advertise for brands
Companies will pay stars to promote their products. A study found the following average rates for promotion in a video:
|Source: Klear survey of more than 2,500 influencers|
Viewers can pay YouTube to watch videos without ads. Creators receive a portion based on views.
“Dance has never been super well paid, even in the live performance arena,” dance media scholar Alexandra Harlig said. “And then, on top of it, the fact that the internet works on some kind of exposure economy … you’re ending up with a lot of people who’s labor is not being compensated appropriately.”
But for some, the fight to be seen is more important.
Chelsie Hill was a senior in high school when she was in a car accident that paralyzed her. As a lifelong dancer, social media was her primary tool to connect with other young women in wheelchairs. In 2012, she formed the Rollettes, a dance team for women in wheelchairs and in 2014, she launched an annual convention in L.A. for young girls and women who use wheelchairs, focused on dance, beauty and wellness.
- Age: 27
- Origin: Moved to L.A. from Monterey, Calif., in 2014.
- Crew: In 2012, Chelsie created the Rollettes, a troupe for women who use wheelchairs
- Big break: Hill was part of the cast in the Sundance Channel reality TV series “Push Girls.”
- Goal: Perform at the Paralympic Games.
Although it may seem like the movement toward inclusivity has reached the dance world, there’s much more work to be done, Hill said. There still aren’t many dance jobs for people with disabilities, and Hill said she is often the only wheelchair user in classes and auditions.
Social media is “the biggest platform where I can show my talents and prove to everyone I can do all these things,” Hill said. “Fire dancing, aerial dance, and all these different things.”
Do you have any questions for the dancers we spoke to for this story or about the dance community in L.A.? Submit your questions here.
✶ Behind the story ✶
Here’s more about the dancers’ careers and why we reported this story.
More dance coverage