Even by the razzle-dazzle standards of TV talent competitions, “Dancing With Myself” sets an impressive scene. Two stacked rows of room-size cubes, trimmed in shimmering lights, fill the stage — “Hollywood Squares” meets “Saturday Night Fever.” At the judging table sit the pop stars Shakira and Nick Jonas and the internet celebrity Liza Koshy; behind them, a cheering studio audience. One cube’s door slides open to reveal the show’s first contestant, who begins to perform …
… a TikTok-style dance challenge. The kind that creators on the app are known for filming in their bedrooms, pajamas optional.
The engineered glamour of network reality TV might seem at odds with the carefree looseness of TikTok dance. “Dancing With Myself” has set out to prove otherwise. The new NBC show, Tuesdays through July 19, tries to translate the viral dance challenge phenomenon into a reality competition format.
The packaging is familiar: an elaborate set, a live audience, a collection of celebrity judges. But the program’s social media-fluent contestants — who perform short dance challenges in isolated “pods” — don’t look, or move, like most dance-show competitors. And the judges aren’t just commenting from behind the table: They’re also billed as creators, setting and teaching the show’s dance routines.
“Dancing With Myself” is tapping into the of-the-moment power of TikTok as well as the now vaguely nostalgic power of a network television talent show. In its efforts to marry these two cultures, it has confronted some of the same issues that have roiled the social media dance world — and revealed how much TikTok dance itself has evolved.
“It’s trying to legitimize TikTok dance in a venue that is the antithesis of TikTok,” said Trevor Boffone, a teacher and author of the book “Renegades: Digital Dance Cultures from Dubsmash to TikTok.” “But it’s also showing how deeply this kind of dance has become embedded in popular culture.”
“Dancing With Myself” went into development in early 2021, just after the dance challenge reached its zenith. “We saw people having these virtual dance parties and posting these dances from their living rooms, with everybody looking for a way to connect,” said the executive producer John Irwin. “And we thought, ‘My gosh, there’s got to be a show in this.’”
Celebrity star power clinched the idea. In December 2020, Shakira and the Black Eyed Peas released the dance-forward music video for their song “Girl Like Me.” It quickly went viral as fans attempted to recreate a jazzercise-inflected passage of the choreography, which was created collaboratively by Maite Marcos, Shakira, Marc Tore and Sadeck Waff. Already a dance challenge veteran, Shakira began reposting her favorite “Girl Like Me” videos to her social accounts. “She felt like the perfect person to pull into this,” Irwin said.
Shakira came on board as both an executive producer and the leader of the show’s judging panel. Later, the model Camille Kostek joined as the host, and Koshy and Jonas rounded out the judging panel.
You’ll never hear the name TikTok on “Dancing With Myself.” (“We didn’t want to be ‘the TikTok show,’ because we thought this movement was larger than that,” Irwin said.) But TikTok culture, shined up for television, shapes many aspects of its format.
The 12 contestants on each episode learn a series of routines that resemble social media dance challenges in their brevity and relative simplicity. They perform in square “pods” that suggest the boxed seclusion of phone screens, unable to see each other for most of the challenges. Like many TikTok dance creators, Jonas, Koshy, Kostek and Shakira are not experienced choreographers, but all demonstrate and help teach the show’s routines. Though judges have opportunities to save favorite dancers, “likes” are the currency of the competition, with winners determined by audience votes that are animated onscreen as showers of hearts.
The “Dancing With Myself” approach to casting is perhaps most in line with TikTok’s ethos. “On the app, what leads to success is not necessarily good dancing, but, really, the personality of the performer,” Boffone said.
Though some “Dancing With Myself” contestants are gifted and highly trained dancers, the show makes a point of including charismatic competitors of all skill levels. Many are already TikTok standouts: the dancing flight attendant, the dancing police officer, the dancing dentist. (And the dancing TikTok scholar. Boffone, who posts routines with his students on Instagram and TikTok, was cast as an alternate for the show’s fifth episode.)
“This is a show that is for everyone,” Shakira said in an email. “It’s about celebrating the love of dance and personal stories among all people, not just professionals.”
“Dancing With Myself” has arrived as TikTok dance reaches an inflection point. In 2019 and early 2020, when the platform was still primarily known as the “teen dance app,” its culture revolved around the dance challenge. But as TikTok has grown to include a wider range of users and uses, dance challenges have become less dominant. The Renegade challenge, which Jalaiah Harmon choreographed in fall 2019, has 124.8 million views. This spring’s blockbuster dance, choreographed by Jaeden Gomez to Lizzo’s song “About Damn Time,” has about 31 million views.
Continuing questions about the proper crediting of dance creators, particularly creators of color, have also contributed to the cooling of the dance challenge trend. Last summer’s #BlackTikTokStrike campaign saw some Black artists, frustrated by white influencers co-opting their dance content, take a step back from the platform. (The app recently added a built-in crediting feature that allows users to identify the original creator of a dance.)
The show’s relationship to this conversation is somewhat complicated. “Dancing With Myself” does not include its contestants’ social media handles or even their last names, making it difficult to find or follow them online. It also replicates, after a fashion, some of the crediting issues many TikTok creators have protested. During the show, the celebrities are identified as creators of the dance challenges, and demonstrate the choreography as if it were their own. Behind the scenes, they’re aided by a team of professional choreographers — Brittany Cherry, Cameron Lee, Will Simmons and Kelly Sweeney — who were themselves chosen by the choreographers and co-executive producers Tabitha and Napoleon Dumo, who are married.
“If you’re not a choreographer, it’s quite a to-do to create that many dances in a short amount of time,” said Napoleon, who, with Tabitha, has worked on “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing With the Stars,” among other shows. “We’re there to assist the creators in the choreography. We put a base together, and then we work together with them on what feels good and what moves they want to put into the dance.”
Napoleon notes that the show’s end titles include all of the choreographers’ names, which is already more crediting than some television dance artists get. “To put that information in the episode itself, I think it’d be confusing for the audience,” he said. “We don’t always say when Tom Cruise is doing a stunt or when it’s a stuntman.”
The “Dancing With Myself” contestant roster includes several successful social media stars. Why would they subject themselves to the reality-television meat grinder? Because popular creators’ large follower counts can obscure the narrowness of their fame, which is often limited to a niche online group. A national TV show offers a larger spotlight — a boon for those craving better recognition for their work.
“I mean, it’s network,” said Marie Moring, a second episode contestant who has nearly 700,000 TikTok followers. “Social media is fairly new, but NBC has been around. People know NBC.” And Moring, 46, found that the show helped her reach a new demographic: her peers. “A lot of Gen X-ers, my people, they’re not on social media, but they watch TV,” she said. “People are coming to my page now just to say they saw me on the show.”
TikTok celebrity is also limited by the platform’s short-video format, which allows only brief glimpses of its creators. Keara Wilson, 21, the winner of the second episode of “Dancing With Myself,” is one of the most famous TikTokers to appear on the show: She choreographed the Savage challenge that swept the internet in spring 2020, and now has 3.4 million followers. Despite her viral moment, Wilson said she thought few of her fans knew much about her.
“There’s just not much you can show doing 15- or 30-second videos,” she said. Hers was a strange half-fame — further complicated by white creators’ appropriation of her choreography, which meant that many who encountered the Savage challenge never knew Wilson created it. (Wilson is now in the process of copyrighting her Savage dance.)
But reality TV is the realm of the back story, and “Dancing With Myself” includes packages showcasing contestants’ offline as well as online lives. On the show, not only did the judges shout out Wilson as the creator of the Savage challenge but viewers also learned about her coming wedding, and her extensive dance experience beyond TikTok challenges. “It’s been two years,” Wilson said during her episode, “and I finally get to show who I really am.”
Neither Moring nor Wilson saw a significant bump in their TikTok followings after appearing on “Dancing With Myself.” Both, however, said they forged valuable bonds with many of the creators they met on the show. Boffone described the hotel where contestants stayed during filming as “TikTok summer camp,” with everyone staying up late to practice dances and share career advice.
“A lot of us were very excited to be around other people that get it,” he said. “It’s like, hey, how do I talk to brands? What are some good strategies for using hashtags? It’s become this cohort of people that are all sharing resources and helping each other be successful.”
Though “Dancing With Myself” is far from a runaway hit, it might reflect the next step in the development of TikTok-style dance: taking the dance challenge offline. As the app’s vocabulary and memes have seeped into mainstream culture, TikTok dance-alongs have begun happening everywhere from concerts to baseball games. There may be a day when you are less likely to see TikTok dance on TikTok than you are to see it on TV.
“These kinds of movements, it’s not the platforms that are creating them, it’s the people,” Irwin said. “We’re offering another place for that movement to spread.”