A 14-year-old in Atlanta created one of the biggest dances on the internet. But nobody really knows that.
Jalaiah Harmon is coming up in a dance world completely reshaped by the internet.
She trains in all the traditional ways, taking classes in hip-hop, ballet, lyrical, jazz, tumbling and tap after school at a dance studio near her home in the Atlanta suburbs. She is also building a career online, studying viral dances, collaborating with peers and posting original choreography.
Recently, a sequence of hers turned into one of the most viral dances online: the Renegade.
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There's basically nothing bigger right now. Teenagers are doing the dance in the halls of high schools, at pep rallies and across the internet. Lizzo, Kourtney Kardashian, David Dobrik and members of K-pop band Stray Kids have all performed it. Charli D'Amelio, TikTok's biggest homegrown star, with nearly 26 million followers on the platform, has been affectionately deemed the dance's "CEO" for popularising it.
But the one person who hasn't been able to capitalise on the attention is Jalaiah, the Renegade's 14-year-old creator.
"I was happy when I saw my dance all over," she said. "But I wanted credit for it."
The viral dance-iearchy
TikTok, one of the biggest video apps in the world, has become synonymous with dance culture. Yet many of its most popular dances, including the Renegade, Holy Moly Donut Shop, the Mmmxneil and Cookie Shop have come from young black creators on myriad smaller apps.
Most of these dancers identify as Dubsmashers. This means, in essence, that they use the Dubsmash app and other short-form social video apps, like Funimate, Likee and Triller, to document choreography to songs they love. They then post (or cross-post) the videos to Instagram, where they can reach a wider audience. If it's popular there, it's only a matter of time before the dance is co-opted by the TikTok masses.
"TikTok is like a mainstream Dubsmash," said Kayla Nicole Jones, 18, a YouTube star and music artist. "They take from Dubsmash and they run off with the sauce."
Polow da Don, a producer, songwriter and rapper who has worked with Usher and Missy Elliott, said: "Dubsmash catches things at the roots when they're culturally relevant. TikTok is the suburban kids that take things on when it's already the style and bring it to their community."
Tiktok is stealing from dubsmash culture😳😳😳— surfboardt (@bbynegress) January 9, 2020
Though Jalaiah is very much a suburban kid herself — she lives in a picturesque home on a quiet street outside of Atlanta — she is part of the young, cutting-edge dance community online that more mainstream influencers co-opt.
The Renegade dance followed this exact path. On September 25, 2019, Jalaiah came home from school and asked a friend she had met through Instagram, Kaliyah Davis, 12, if she wanted to create a post together. Jalaiah listened to the beats in the song Lottery by Atlanta rapper K-Camp and then choreographed a difficult sequence to its chorus, incorporating other viral moves like the wave and the whoa.
She filmed herself and posted it, first to Funimate (where she has more than 1,700 followers) and then to her more than 20,000 followers on Instagram (with a side-by-side shot of Kaliyah and her performing it together).
"I posted on Instagram, and it got about 13,000 views, and people started doing it over and over again," Jalaiah said. In October, a user named @global.jones brought it to TikTok, changing up some of the moves at the end, and the dance spread like wildfire. Before long, Charli D'Amelio had posted a video of herself doing it, as did many other TikTok influencers. None gave Jalaiah credit.
After long days in the ninth grade and between dance classes, Jalaiah tried to get the word out. She hopped in the comments of several videos, asking influencers to tag her. For the most part she was ridiculed or ignored.
She even set up her own TikTok account and created a video of herself in front of a green screen, Googling the question "who created the Renegade dance?" in an attempt to set the record straight. "I was upset," she said. "It wasn't fair."
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 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 credit and attention are valuable even without legal ownership. "I think I could have gotten money for it, promos for it; I could have gotten famous off it, get noticed," Jalaiah said. "I don't think any of that stuff has happened for me because no one knows I made the dance."
Scares of the share economy
Cross-platform sharing — of dances, of memes, of information — is how things are made on the internet. Popular tweets go viral on Instagram; videos made on Instagram make their way onto YouTube. But in recent years, several large Instagram meme accounts have faced backlash for sharing jokes that went viral without crediting the creator.
TikTok was introduced in the United States only a year and a half ago. Norms, particularly around credit, are still being established. But for Dubsmashers and those in the Instagram dance community, it's common courtesy to tag the handles of dance creators and musicians, and use hashtags to track the evolution of a dance.
It has set up a culture clash between the two influencer communities. "On TikTok they don't give people credit," said Raemoni Johnson, a 15-year-old Dubsmasher. "They just do the video, and they don't tag us." (This acrimony is exacerbated by the fact that TikTok does not make it easy to find the creator of a dance.)
On January 17, tensions boiled over after Barrie Segal, head of content at Dubsmash, posted a series of videos asking Charli D'Amelio to give a dance credit to D1 Nayah, a popular Dubsmash dancer with more than 1 million followers on Instagram, for her Donut Shop dance. TikTok Room, a gossip account on Instagram, picked up the controversy and spurred a sea of comments.
"Why is it so hard to give black creators their credit," said one Instagram commenter, referring to the mostly white TikTokers who have taken dances from Dubsmashers and posted them without credit. "Instead of using dubsmash, use tiktok and then ppl would credit you maybe," a TikToker fan said.
"I'm not an argumentative person on social media — I don't want beef or anything like that," said Jhacari Blunt, an 18-year-old Dubsmasher who has had some of his dances co-opted by TikTokers. "But it's like, we all know where that dance came from."
At this point, if a TikToker doesn't initially know who did a dance, commenters will usually tag the original creator's handle. Charli D'Amelio and other stars have started giving dance credits and tagging creators in their captions.
And the creators who are flooding into TikTok from Instagram and Dubsmash are leading the way by example. "We have 1.7 million followers, and we always give credit whether the person has zero followers or not," said Yoni Wicker, 14, one half of the TheWickerTwinz. "We know how important it is. That person who made that dance, they might be a fan of ours. Us tagging them makes their day."
Onward and upward
Stefanie Harmon, Jalaiah's mother, learned the true extent of Jalaiah's online success only recently. "She told me, 'Mommy, I made a dance, and it went viral,' " Harmon said.
"She wasn't kicking and screaming about the fact that she wasn't getting credit," she added, "but I could tell it had affected her. I said, 'Why do you care whether you're not getting credit? Just make another one.' "
Jalaiah continues to post a steady stream of dance videos to Funimate, Dubsmash, and Instagram. She said she doesn't harbor any hard feelings against Charli D'Amelio for popularising the Renegade without naming her. Instead, she hopes she can collaborate with her one day.
Charli D'Amelio, through a publicist, said that she was "so glad to know" who created the dance. "I know it's so associated with me," she said, "but I'm so happy to give Jalaiah credit and I'd love to collaborate with her."
"We're all inspired by other people," Jalaiah said. "We make up a dance and it grows."
Off the internet, she continues to compete in dance competitions with her studio and hopes to one day take classes at Dance 411, a prestigious dance school in Atlanta. Ultimately, it's the art form that she loves. "It makes me happy to dance," she said.
Written by: Taylor Lorenz
Photographs by: Jill Frank
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES