The queer community has found a new home on TikTok.
Although not without its downsides—trolls seem to find their way onto every social media platform—many users who identify as LGBTQ+ are finding support on the app, which has opened up space for them to present their identities in a way that feels authentic. For dancers, who train and work in a world that often reinforces the gender binary, claiming space on TikTok can feel especially validating.
That sense of inclusivity is "primarily due to the fact that the main demographic of creators and users on the app are Gen Z," says dance and social media star Dexter Mayfield, who's done everything from performing with Jennifer Lopez and Katy Perry to walking major runway shows. "I have never seen a more intelligent and inclusive and engaging group of young people that are determined to truly be better than those who have come before them."
That network of support has propelled some queer dancers to the forefront of TikTok fame. Here are four of those artists who are dominating the app, doing things their way.
Dexter Mayfield<blockquote class="tiktok-embed" cite="https://www.tiktok.com/@dexrated/video/6864999640115236101" data-video-id="6864999640115236101" style="max-width: 605px;min-width: 325px;" > <section> <a target="_blank" title="@dexrated" href="https://www.tiktok.com/@dexrated">@dexrated</a> <p>Obvi HAD to bring this dance back for <a title="duavideo" target="_blank" href="https://www.tiktok.com/tag/duavideo">##DuaVideo</a> ✨💯 dc: ME! @dualipaofficial <a title="levitating" target="_blank" href="https://www.tiktok.com/tag/levitating">##levitating</a></p> <a target="_blank" title="♬ Levitating - Dua Lipa" href="https://www.tiktok.com/music/Levitating-6807875066697615361">♬ Levitating - Dua Lipa</a> </section> </blockquote> <script async src="https://www.tiktok.com/embed.js"></script><p>Dexter Mayfield is the kind of influencer who's easy to become "friends-in-your-head" with. The L.A.-based dancer and creator has built a brand of feel-good, genuine content, and his smile, which lights up his face whenever the body-positive role model dances, is infectious. "We need to smile," he says. "We need to be hopeful; we need to grasp on to whatever light or happiness we can find in all of this darkness. And if I can help do that with a 15-second video, then let's do it!"</p><p>Mayfield's positive attitude has helped him attract more than 400k followers on the app. His popularity has even begotten deals with high-profile brands—he says the app has been essential to creating opportunities during the pandemic, which has shuttered dance communities all over the world. "I truly feel creating content for TikTok has singlehandedly secured almost every job I've had in 2020," he says.</p><p>To those trying to climb the TikTok ladder, he recommends finding your own voice and staying true to it. If you don't, "the TikTok audience will see it immediately," he says.</p>
Zackery Torres<blockquote class="tiktok-embed" cite="https://www.tiktok.com/@zackery_torres/video/6827244679126437125" data-video-id="6827244679126437125" style="max-width: 605px;min-width: 325px;" > <section> <a target="_blank" title="@zackery_torres" href="https://www.tiktok.com/@zackery_torres">@zackery_torres</a> <p>PSA! <a title="dancemoms" target="_blank" href="https://www.tiktok.com/tag/dancemoms">##dancemoms</a> <a title="thenandnow" target="_blank" href="https://www.tiktok.com/tag/thenandnow">##thenandnow</a> <a title="tranformation" target="_blank" href="https://www.tiktok.com/tag/tranformation">##tranformation</a> <a title="gay" target="_blank" href="https://www.tiktok.com/tag/gay">##gay</a> <a title="fashion" target="_blank" href="https://www.tiktok.com/tag/fashion">##fashion</a> <a title="dance" target="_blank" href="https://www.tiktok.com/tag/dance">##dance</a> <a title="foryou" target="_blank" href="https://www.tiktok.com/tag/foryou">##foryou</a> <a title="fyp" target="_blank" href="https://www.tiktok.com/tag/fyp">##fyp</a> <a title="viral" target="_blank" href="https://www.tiktok.com/tag/viral">##viral</a> <a title="xyzbca" target="_blank" href="https://www.tiktok.com/tag/xyzbca">##xyzbca</a> <a title="gendernonbinary" target="_blank" href="https://www.tiktok.com/tag/gendernonbinary">##gendernonbinary</a></p> <a target="_blank" title="♬ Woah - KRYPTO9095" href="https://www.tiktok.com/music/Woah-6691366574592396038">♬ Woah - KRYPTO9095</a> </section> </blockquote> <script async src="https://www.tiktok.com/embed.js"></script><p>The last time you saw Zackery Torres may have been on the reality-TV show "Dance<em> </em>Moms," but these days, the USC Kaufman dance major is laser-focused on advocating for inclusivity, especially for people, like Torres, who identify as nonbinary. "I love being able to serve as a role model, or even as someone relatable on the app," they say. "The more people, no matter what age they are or what reason they stumble upon my profile, that hear about gender inclusivity, the more our communities can evolve."</p><p>Torres is more than just connecting with their over 100 thousand followers. Their passion for activism revealed another calling: "I recently started a company called Continuum Community, which empowers communities to make the necessary steps to be gender inclusive," Torres says.</p><p>Like most influencers, Torres gets some negative comments from users on the app. "I'm not going to gloss over it: Being on TikTok is hard," Torres says. "I notice the most hate coming from people who don't realize they're doing it." But Torres shakes it all off and has pressed forward to, perhaps, their most meaningful achievement yet: publishing a 27-page guidebook called <em>An Evolving Conversation on Gender: Dance Edition</em>. Torres says they hope the book will help "bring people into the conversation in a welcoming manner, so that they feel empowered to learn and grow."</p>
Howard Johnson<blockquote class="tiktok-embed" cite="https://www.tiktok.com/@howardjohnson_/video/6873253468329512198" data-video-id="6873253468329512198" style="max-width: 605px;min-width: 325px;" > <section> <a target="_blank" title="@howardjohnson_" href="https://www.tiktok.com/@howardjohnson_">@howardjohnson_</a> <p>A repost because im still so proud of this moment. <a title="fyp" target="_blank" href="https://www.tiktok.com/tag/fyp">##fyp</a> <a title="viral" target="_blank" href="https://www.tiktok.com/tag/viral">##viral</a></p> <a target="_blank" title="♬ original sound - Howard Johnson" href="https://www.tiktok.com/music/original-sound-6873253397772946181">♬ original sound - Howard Johnson</a> </section> </blockquote> <script async src="https://www.tiktok.com/embed.js"></script><p>If you haven't seen the <a href="https://www.them.us/story/gay-wap-dance-video-cover" target="_blank">Nicole Kirkland–choreographed "WAP" concept video</a>, run, don't walk, to your nearest streaming device. (Disclaimer: The video features the explicit lyrics of the song, so click with caution!) The video amplifies a message of queer power, and features dancer Howard Johnson, who slithers across the floor, left split by right split—in three-inch pumps, no less. Johnson is such a standout that rapper Cardi B took notice. "She reposted a clip of me from the video to her Instagram account. I was extremely excited," Johnson says.</p><p>And he has every right to be: His "more is more" persona, gag-worthy vogue dips, and rubber-band flexibility have helped him amass over 600 thousand followers on TikTok. He's parlaying his success not only into partnerships with huge brands and companies, including HBO Max, but he's also using his platform to spread a message: Just be you. "Everyone is truly capable of anything they put their minds to," he says. "I am inspired daily to keep creating content that, hopefully, inspires my audience to be authentically themselves, no matter where they are or who's around them."</p>
Prima Punk<blockquote class="tiktok-embed" cite="https://www.tiktok.com/@primapunk/video/6858001709650775302" data-video-id="6858001709650775302" style="max-width: 605px;min-width: 325px;" > <section> <a target="_blank" title="@primapunk" href="https://www.tiktok.com/@primapunk">@primapunk</a> <p>🙃🙃🙃 <a title="trans" target="_blank" href="https://www.tiktok.com/tag/trans">##trans</a> <a title="ballerina" target="_blank" href="https://www.tiktok.com/tag/ballerina">##ballerina</a> <a title="penche" target="_blank" href="https://www.tiktok.com/tag/penche">##penche</a></p> <a target="_blank" title="♬ How You Like That - BLACKPINK" href="https://www.tiktok.com/music/How-You-Like-That-6842582526297393154">♬ How You Like That - BLACKPINK</a> </section> </blockquote> <script async src="https://www.tiktok.com/embed.js"></script><p>If you don't know Prima Punk, her life motto almost perfectly sums up her personality: "I'm trans. I'm 6' 3". And I'm here to break the ballet binary!" We're convinced she very well could.</p><p>With legs for days and a facility that could make even Dusty Button blush, Punk exudes the elegance of a classical ballet dancer, but with a no-effs-given attitude that distinguishes her from other TikTok dancer influencers. She wasn't always this confident, though. "When I was working with ballet companies, I was not out as being trans, and always had to perform masculine roles, which felt inauthentic," she says. Punk hopes to one day get a contract with a ballet company, but as a ballerina, playing the roles she identifies with.</p><p>She credits TikTok and the community she's cultivated there—more than 340 thousand followers—with helping her feel more comfortable being out. "I think the best thing to come out of being on the app is the amount of support and validation I receive from the queer community," she says. "I'm living life as my authentic, feminine self."</p>
You may know what it means to earn a silver, gold, or platinum award for your performance—but probably not an A, B, or C grade. Often, dancers don't encounter the idea of grading in dance until they enter collegiate dance programs. When you're evaluating an inherently subjective art form, what distinguishes an A student from a B student?
The answer: It's complicated. "There's a lot that goes into creating a well-rounded, successful student, which hopefully produces a well-rounded, successful professional," says Angelina Sansone, a ballet instructor at University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
In college programs, set movement phrases, repertory selections, or audition-style classes often serve as graded midterms or final exams. Written components such as self-assessments, audition research projects, and dance history tests might count as well. But the largest contributing factor to your grade is usually how you approach the work, day in and day out.
Dance Spirit talked to faculty across the country to discover what it takes to be a top student—and why dance grades matter.
What makes an A student?<p>A common misconception when it comes to grading in dance is that dancers with natural facility are automatically at an advantage. But banana feet, easy exten-sion, or a slender physique won't earn you straight A's.</p><p>"You don't have to be the most naturally gifted dancer to get the highest grades," says Michelle Loucadoux-Fraser, Hussian College, Los Angeles' associate dean of undergraduate studies and dance instructor. Butler University dance professor Susan McGuire agrees. "We don't grade facility," she says. "It's what you do with the facility you're given that makes the difference." An A student shows up prepared for class, and stays present and engaged throughout its entirety. An A student is professional and approaches any and all work with the same level of vigor. An A student thinks critically, behaves positively, and performs reliably, striving for growth each day as an artist and as a technician.</p><p>University of Arizona's dance professor Tamara Dyke-Compton says grading has everything to do with effort, dedication, progress, and discipline. "Those are the things that, for me, changed when I earned my A's at Juilliard," Dyke-Compton admits. "It wasn't how much better my feet were. It was about what was deep in my soul."</p>
University of Arizona's Tamara Dyke-Compton (front) teaching class (Ed Flores, courtesy University of Arizona)
What's the point?<p>Why bother grading dance, besides the fact that many colleges require letter grades? Grades are a benchmark, a way of assessing your progress. When grades are inflated, dancers get the wrong idea of where they are in their training. "It gives the student the false impression that they don't have a lot more to do," McGuire explains.</p><p>Don't be surprised if your highest grades come in your later years at school. Dance faculty determine grading criteria based on what will best prepare dancers for a professional career. As you meet those expectations, your grades will rise, and you'll be better prepared to enter the real world—a process designed to progress each semester. "In the first year, I tend to give very few A's," McGuire says. "For me a B is good; an A is excellent. You're doing good work. It's just going to take a while. We have to up the ante." </p><p>Loucadoux-Fraser says there's no point to being in college if you're getting all A's all the time, anyway. "Along with that not-perfect grade comes an impetus to improve," Loucadoux-Fraser says. "I don't think the right thing for students to do is to fixate on grades. I think the right thing to do is to focus on improving, and then the grades will come."<span></span></p>
University of North Carolina School of the Arts students in class (Pete S. Mueller, courtesy UNCSA)
Do grades matter?<p>Your undergraduate grades will definitely matter if you're hoping to earn a graduate degree in dance. Your transcript will be requested and your GPA assessed during the application process, though not the audition process, for nearly every graduate program.</p><p>In the professional dance world, grades are less important. When it comes down to it, dance companies won't look at your grades when hiring. They'll look at the dancer in front of them, the way you work, and how you carry yourself. That said, the grades you earn in college are a good indicator—though not the only indicator—of how you'll handle the demands of the professional world.</p><p>Dyke-Compton compares an under-graduate degree to the foundation of a house: "It builds your life skills as a dancer to allow longevity in your career. It will stand strong for the rest of time." Your grades reflect the strength of this foundation. "Having a high GPA in your undergrad," Dyke-Compton says, "proves that you have accomplished a difficult task that not everyone can do." </p>
It's National Hispanic Heritage Month, a period observed from September 15 to October 15 that recognizes the contributions of Latinx and Hispanic communities to American culture. The dance world has been lucky enough to be on the receiving end of those contributions, with Latinx dance artists leaving legacies that have helped move it to a more inclusive place.
At Dance Spirit, we're celebrating the month by highlighting four Latinx dancers whose groundbreaking work is opening doors for the next generation.
Abdiel Figueroa Reyes (Todd Rosenberg, courtesy Reyes)
Abdiel Figueroa Reyes<p>The concert contemporary world—where companies, including Nederlands Dans Theater, the Hofesh Shechter Company and the Batsheva Dance Company, create out-of-the-box works that make bold, artistic statements—can sometimes be intimidating to aspiring professional dancers. But this wasn't the case for <a href="https://www.instagram.com/abdiel522fr" target="_blank">Abdiel Figueroa Reyes</a>, who'd been preparing for a career in this exclusive world most of his life. That hard work paid off and landed him a job with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in 2019.</p><p>Reyes' contract with the company came after years of training at the Rock Center for Dance and Contemporary West Dance Theater, both in Las Vegas, NV, and after joining the inaugural program of Hubbard Street's Professional Program and apprenticing with the company, where he is the only Latinx dancer. "It can feel very isolating to be the only Latinx dancer in the room, but I have been fortunate enough to work in an environment where it has never been a dominating factor, and where my true self is authentically supported," the 22-year-old says. "It was not until the past couple of years that I realized the weight that my brown body carries, inside and outside of the studio."</p><p>His body also carries this capacity to move in creative, near-alien ways. He is captivating, the way his improvisation vocabulary can move from sultry to rigid to utterly vulnerable. He attributes his movement aesthetic, in part, to his Puerto Rican heritage, which he says gives him "incentive and a more innate reason to keep pushing for more out of my career while proudly being Boricua."</p>
Carlos Gonzalez (Benjamin Majors, courtesy Gonzalez)
Carlos Gonzalez<p><a href="https://www.instagram.com/cargo5" target="_blank">Carlos Gonzalez</a> is a dancer with American Ballet Theatre, whose gorgeous feet, dreamy extensions and effortless ballon make him a standout in the company.</p><p>Gonzalez also happens to be one of only a few Latinx dancers in the company. "It's difficult," he says. "But I think the best way to handle the pressure is by trying to do your best every day, bringing your own personality into your work, and believing in yourself and the artist that you want to become."</p><p>Born in Madrid, Spain, Gonzalez trained at El Conservatorio Profesional de Danza Fortea and El Real Conservatorio Profesional de Danza Mariemma before joining the ABT Studio Company in 2015. He was quickly noticed, gaining an apprenticeship with the main company in 2016 and joining the corps de ballet in 2017. He says he's grateful for the opportunity to represent the Latinx community at ABT, which is largely underrepresented in the Western ballet world. "There aren't that many of us in the company, which makes my experiences very special—but hard at times," he says.</p><p>The challenging moments in his career haven't stopped him, though. He says he loves connecting with audiences too much to let anything get in the way of his success. "I probably feel the proudest as an artist when I receive messages of gratitude for doing what I do, for transporting the people that come to see me or ABT to a parallel world where, for a while, all the problems of the real world disappear," Gonzalez says. </p>
Monica Douglas performing with singer Becky G (Vivian Phann, courtesy Douglas)
Monica Douglas<p><a href="https://www.instagram.com/monicagiavanna" target="_blank">Monica Douglas</a> grew up dancing as a classic comp kid, winning regional and national titles at some of the biggest events in the circuit. After attending Penn State University, Douglas moved to L.A., and almost immediately began booking jobs with major artists.</p><p>Among her favorite memories is performing at the 2014 Essence Festival in New Orleans, LA, with rock/pop legend Prince. "It was definitely one of my first big milestones within my first year of living in Los Angeles that told me 'You can do this!' " Douglas says. "To me, it meant that no matter what I look like—my skin color, height, weight, anything—I could be successful in this industry."</p><p>That drive and determination have served her well. She's since worked with tons more iconic musicians, including some of the top Latinx artists in the world, like Daddy Yankee, Jennifer Lopez, Bad Bunny, Pitbull, J Balvin, Becky G and Camila Cabello.</p><p>"Working with these artists is empowering as a Latina dancer because we really get to celebrate our culture to the fullest extent," Douglas says, who identifies as part Panamanian. "There's nothing like performing to Latin music in front of thousands of screaming fans."</p>
Jon Rua (Susan Stripling, courtesy Rua)