Gone Viral

Ever dream of having one of your dance videos go viral online? The experience may not be all that you expect. Four dance artists reflect on their sudden fame after their videos became online sensations. And Sydney Skybetter, a dance media and online presence expert, offers his tips for how to make the most of your 15 minutes.

Henning and his dancer groomsmen surprised the bride with a dance that drew over 120 million views. PC Mike Topham Photography, Courtesy Henning.

Kirk Henning is a company member at Richmond Ballet. You’ve seen Henning and his groomsmen dancing for fellow company member Valerie Tellmann-Henning as a surprise at their wedding reception.

“After the wedding, our videographer asked, ‘Do you mind if I put this online?’ We had just come back from our honeymoon, and I was moving out of my apartment and into my wife’s house right when it blew up. The YouTube video got 7 million hits, and then Jay Towers, a morning radio DJ in Detroit, put it on his Facebook page, where it’s been viewed more than 120 million times. Answering phone calls and emails became my full-time job. I was squeezing interviews into our 5-minute breaks between rehearsals. That was the hardest thing: The demands on my time, which came out of nowhere, from every angle. If someone was being too aggressive or it didn’t feel right, we just wouldn’t respond.

“I didn’t apply for rights to any of the music I used because I didn’t expect it to go viral. Sony Music Entertainment had the video taken down for the longest time. This experience has made us look more closely at contracts, for sure; as dancers, we tend to just sign our contracts, happy that we have a job. Now I’m more likely to say, ‘Can we talk about this clause?’

“Valerie and I were both surprised to be getting so much attention, but it was fun to ride it out together. The dance was done as a gift to her, so it was nice to have it last that much longer, and be so much bigger than I thought it would be.”

TIP: Never improvise your online presence. Designate who can put something of yours online, where it can go, how long it’ll be accessible and to whom.

TIP: Don’t be afraid to ask what a contract term means. If the other person is put off by that, chances are you shouldn’t be entering the relationship.

TIP: If you think anyone other than family and friends will view your video, take 30 seconds to find out who owns the music; 99 percent of the time, it’s either ASCAP, BMI or SESAC. Send an email to cover your bases—or accept that your video is liable to be taken down anytime.

Online fame led to opportunities like a video for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. PC Lukas Korschan, Courtesy Bryant.

Homer Hans Bryant is founder and artistic director of Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center and a former member of Dance Theatre of Harlem. You’ve seen Bryant’s students practicing “hiplet,” his own blend of hip hop and pointework.

“I’d been posting videos for two years, of all of the kinds of classes we offer, when the Facebook page Só Bailarinos posted our hiplet class video. It got 8 million views there. BuzzFeed picked it up and that story received 25 million. We went on ‘Good Morning America,’ then came back to Chicago and did ‘Good Day Chicago’ and ‘Windy City Live.’ We’ve done the ‘Steve Harvey’ show and gone to New York for a big Vogue thing with Anna Wintour, we did a video for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, and I gave a TEDx Talk in October in San Francisco. About 15 production companies have contacted us wanting to do a reality show.

“The reactions we get are from one end of the spectrum to the other, from ‘You’re ruining their feet. This is not what classical ballet is all about!’ to ‘This is incredible!’ and ‘I wish I had this when I was studying ballet; I wouldn’t have hated it so much.’

“There are people who think ballet is pure and perfect as it is, but they don’t want to talk about how kids of color have to wear pink tights. So there’s a disconnect there to begin with. Our students wear flesh-colored tights, so their pretty legs match their pretty faces. What I’m managing to do is to keep the kids centered, grounded and focused. The parents can’t believe what’s going on.”

TIP: If you plan to put minors in front of a camera, parents or guardians must sign a release form, ideally one that’s been vetted by a lawyer.

Alexandra Beller’s company in milkdreams; footage of her son “leading” a rehearsal got a billion hits. PC Judith Stuart, Courtesy Beller.

Alexandra Beller is a choreographer and artistic director of Alexandra Beller/Dances. You’ve seen Beller’s son Ivo, at age 14 months, “leading” her company’s dancers in rehearsal as part of the process for an ensemble work titled milkdreams.

“The nature of virality is that it escapes you. By the time you realize it’s happening, there’s not a ton you can do about it. You lose your grasp on it and, once that happens, other people can take hold of it.

“I’m not against people using social media to create an image of themselves, even in a very calculated way, but I don’t do that myself. A lot of people tell young artists, ‘Just put it out there. Be visible. Start building your brand.’ I see that kind of advice often; some of it’s from the book Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon, which, actually, I liked a lot.

“When something goes viral, that is all you are, for millions of people. I don’t say, ’Hi! I’m Alexandra Beller, from the viral baby video,’ but that’s what I ‘am.’ I spent 22 years in the dance world. I danced for Bill T. Jones, I’ve had a company for 15 years. But at this point, that one video has gathered more than a billion views. It gets very skewed in terms of representation and, for me, it’s led me to become more focused on curation, where I’m being much more thoughtful about what I put out there.

“That moment with Ivo was beautiful to me and I was happy to share it, and the response toward the video was mostly overwhelmingly positive. There were certainly times that people would troll us, with comments like, ‘This baby is a schmuck!’ [Laughs]

“I can certainly imagine myself posting a 1-minute clip from rehearsal without doing anything to it, even after all of this, although I haven’t posted a whole lot of video in the last two years.”

TIP: Platforms like Facebook encourage you to put everything online. Ask yourself whether you’re okay with the possibility that what you’re about to post will be accessible online—forever.

TIP: It’s usually best to simply ignore, block or delete antagonistic comments.

TIP: Best practices for protecting your media constantly change. If you’re interested in tracking your videos, familiarize yourself with the analytics tools provided by the services you use, whether it’s Facebook, Google or YouTube.

Mainstream media outlets responded to Cavanaugh’s unconventional body shape for a dancer. PC Meleana Felton, Courtesy Cavanaugh.

Erik Cavanaugh is a former student at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. You’ve seen Cavanaugh’s improvised solos to songs such as “Eye of the Needle,” by Sia, and Rachel Platten’s “Stand by You.”

“The day after my birthday I got a notification that the account @worldwidedance started following me on Instagram. I thought, Hey, that’s cool. Maybe 20 minutes later, everything was blowing up. Hundreds and hundreds of likes and new followers. I thought, What just happened?

“By that night, my video had already been viewed more than 100,000 times on Worldwidedance’s Facebook page. The New York Post messaged me asking if they could run a video of me, and what was I going to say? No? They ran it the next morning and the Facebook video broke 1 million views—then 2, then 3…Now it’s at, like, 10.8 million views. Someone shared a GIF of me dancing on Reddit and it made it to second from the top on the front page. Forbes magazine messaged me. People magazine and The Huffington Post reached out. I was on the website for the ‘Today’ show and on mic.com. The Radio City Rockettes named me ‘Dancer of the Week’ on their blog. The New York Post flew me out to New York for a live segment, which was fun. I said ‘yes’ to all of it.

“I’m very happy that this happened. It helped me gain confidence about who I am. I think people are opening their eyes a bit more that dance is not just for a slimmer body type or a certain aesthetic, and I think I’m helping move that conversation to a better place. I didn’t always have the courage to keep going through discouragement in my younger days, and I’d love to be able to give that to people. I’d love to give a TED Talk, or go on ‘Ellen,’ or ‘The Late Show.’ I’m willing to do whatever—even ‘The View.’

“If you are fortunate enough to go viral or to get recognized for your talents, don’t shy away from it. Take everything that comes your way. The internet can be scary, but it can also be very loving.”

TIP: If there’s a video of you online, it can be turned into a GIF by anyone, and you will have as much control over that GIF as you have over your image anywhere else online—which is to say, basically none.

TIP: Most talk shows have teams of scouts that look for people and trending topics to cover. Make it easy for people to find and contact you.

Leave a Comment