Social Dance in the Age of (Anti-)Social Media

A few years ago I started teaching a class at Berklee called “DJ Cultures and American Social Dance.” We survey the history of social dance across the Americas, with particular attention to the era of DJing, but we try to place that cultural turn within the long-view of how dance has functioned in different societies, from the US to Cuba, Jamaica, Mexico, and Brazil. Teaching the course has helped me to cultivate a perspective on social dance history (and race and gender and class), which has spilled into my other classes and lectures, and I’m especially excited that it has also begun to inform my research.

Last spring when the Journal of Popular Music Studies put out a call for someone to write about dance in the age of Fortnite, I jumped at the chance. It’s a topic we had been discussing in class and presented set of questions I found myself increasingly drawn into, especially vis-a-vis the longer history of dance, race and gender, transgression and appropriation. It seemed to me that the Fortnite dance phenomenon was, in some ways, a lot like previous dance crazes abetted by emergent media (whether instructional pamphlets, short film reels, network television, MTV, YouTube, Vine, etc.). As I discovered writing the article, however, there are other ways in which it seems fairly different in character.

In December, I published the essay in the JPMS, which you can find here (as well as here):

     Wayne Marshall, “Social Dance in the Age of (Anti-)Social Media: Fortnite, Online Video, and the Jook at a Virtual Crossroads.” Journal of Popular Music Studies 31, no. 4 (2019): 3-15. [PDF]

While Fortnite seems less a part of the conversation these days, in just the short time since it was published, the predicament of (black) social dance on (anti-)social media has become a hot button topic — on social media (see e.g. or e.g.) and more traditional media.

I spoke with journalist Tatiana Walk-Morris, who found me via the JPMS article (!), for an article on the subject published last week:

Wayne Marshall, assistant professor at Berklee College of Music, says white users posting #CripWalk videos may not come off as explicitly anti-Black, but there is a bigger question around cultural appropriation that needs to be addressed.

“It’s often been sort of a mark of white American modernity to be able to walk right up to that line, maybe touch that line, maybe cross that line but have the power to enjoy the play with that line,” Marshall says. “Part of it is just a really long-standing problem that’s only going to continue if we still have that power differential here in the cultural and economic space.”

Just a day later, the NYT published a piece examining how some young black creators are being “robbed” on TikTok similar to the ways they were being “robbed” by Fortnite:

To be robbed of credit on TikTok is to be robbed of real opportunities. In 2020, virality means income: Creators of popular dances, like the Backpack Kid or Shiggy, often amass large online followings and become influencers themselves. That, in turn, opens the door to brand deals, media opportunities and, most important for Jalaiah, introductions to those in the professional dance and choreography community.

Obtaining credit isn’t easy, though. As the writer Rebecca Jennings noted in Vox in an article about the online dance world’s thorny ethics: “Dances are virtually impossible to legally claim as one’s own.”

But in this case, unlike many of the contested Fortnite dances, given that it’s a relatively long sequence of moves, I would say that Jalaiah would be within her rights to copyright the Renegade routine as choreography (one of the rare “protected” forms of dance, as I explore in the article, in part because of its “legibility” as art). Either way, it’s great that Jalaiah is both getting this level of attention in the media and more direct forms of credit — and promotion — on social media.

So much to tease out and sort out, and clearly the conversation will continue. Here’s hoping my article might provide a little anchor for those who’d care to wade into such waters.