Have You Seen the New Dancing Girls of Instagram?

Photo: @cool__fun__stuff, @camillamengstrom, @personalpractice, @c__h__e__s__s/Instagram

Last May, painter Camilla Engstrom set her iPhone up on a tripod she’d bought for an art project, put on an reggae song by Eek-a-Mouse, and recorded herself dancing around in a pair of paint splattered jeans. It was a silly, intimate, home-alone-on-a-Saturday-afternoon dance. She twirled, and shrugged, and threw her hair in front of her face. She did five takes, picked the third, and, on a whim, uploaded it to Instagram — where it received about three times as many likes as her usual posts of her artwork tended to garner. Since then, she’s made a point to post a dance video a week, recorded surreptitiously in her bedroom while her roommate is at work. Like the first, each is intentionally unchoreographed; she does Macarena arms, or stilted little “Thriller” claws, or puts her hands on her cheeks and grins. She wears purple tights and does the hand jive.

The strange thing isn’t that Engstrom, who has close to 44,000 followers and no background in dance, regularly posts videos of herself dancing inelegantly in her bedroom. The strange thing is that she’s far from the only person posting videos of herself dancing inelegantly in her bedroom. In fact, over the past couple of years, videos like Engstrom’s — in which untrained women dance Elaine Benes–style in private places — have become a bona fide Instagram genre. The range of the videos is wide. Some are sexy-goofy — the actor Alexandra Marzella, for instance, tends to post videos of herself dancing theatrically in a pair of white, high-waisted underwear, one hand holding her breasts, while the other jolts up and down spastically to the beat of whatever song she’s listening to. Others are insistently chaste, like Laurel Pantin and Emily Holland’s; the two (style editors, both) share an Instagram account dedicated solely to videos of themselves doing synchronized Rockette kicks, or cowboy lassos, or the wave. Most others, like Engstrom’s, seem dedicated to dancing like no one is watching (though, of course, thousands of people are).

There’s precedent for women communicating vulnerability or modernity or intimacy through silly, imperfect dance, and it’s currently being celebrated outside of Instagram as well. In September, MoMA erected an exhibit dedicated to the Judson Dance Theater — a group of visual artists, composers, choreographers and filmmakers who, in the early ’60s, created unpolished, spontaneous pieces out of movements that, then, seemed more in place in the home (there’s lots of rolling around on the floor) than on the stage. “She’s lucid without any attempt at polish,” Alastair Macaulay wrote in a Times review of one of MoMA’s Judson productions. “Awkwardness, rawness, plays its part. Look — they seem to say — how fabulously these people look at the same time both peculiar and natural, self-contradictory and touching.”

Other pop-culture examples of this dance style include a particularly memorable scene from the 2012 movie Frances Ha, in which Greta Gerwig’s titular character is walking home when, in a burst of sheer happiness, she begins dancing with abandon — she wiggles and high-kicks and skips as music swells around her. And then, of course, there’s Miranda July, the reigning queen of intentional, appealing strangeness — who has, in the last two years, posted several videos of herself dancing awkwardly to her Instagram account. In September of 2017, she posted a video in which she dances trippingly in four-inch heels while attempting to take off — then put back on — an ill-fitting jacket. Soon after that, she posted a video of herself dancing in self-imposed slow motion with her mouth wide open. She moves her body like a rolling wave, her loose bangs flopping around on her forehead.

Still, if I had to venture a guess at who started this trend (or whatever you call dozens of indie girls spinning around confidently in front of tripods), I would put my money on Marlee Grace, a dancer-slash-improviser who has recorded what she calls her “daily movement practice” since 2015. Grace has more than 30,000 followers, and self-published a book about the exercise of dancing playfully (sometimes in a graveyard or outside of an outlet mall, but most frequently in her living room) last year. “The weird news is a shit ton of people loved it, loved it so much they wrote me letters, emails, texts, direct messages, about how it reminded them they TOO have a body,” she writes in the forward. “That they also can do anything they want to. They too can show themselves to the world. It’s only scary if we say it’s scary.”

As more women post their attempts at appealingly awkward at-home dance videos to Instagram, brands have began making their own versions. An assortment of retail companies have recently created videos of women clad in their clothing, doing kooky Benes dances — an effort to synthesize the freewheeling feeling these dancers project through their videos and, of course, to capitalize on it. In September, the shoe company Miista shared one of a model clad in all black doing a strange crab-crawl dance along a white brick wall, shimmying with a red heel on her back. Around the same time, designer Ilana Kohn began sending her clothes to Engstrom, who made a series of videos of herself dancing in them (to, aptly, “Dancing on My Own” in a matching linen set, and “Like a Prayer” in a denim jacket); Kohn posts them to her company’s account. Followers seem interested in the videos and the product in equal measure; comments range from “Where can I get this jumpsuit?” to “I want to be this woman” — the ideal response, one would imagine, to any marketing campaign. Outdoor Voices has also dabbled — over the summer, the brand posted a video featuring the artist Juliet Johnstone (clad in a matching workout set) bopping around her bedroom with a smoothie in her hand (“being goofy for Outdoor Voices,” reads the caption).

They are delightful. Or it’s clear that this genre of video, whether advertising a product or the person, is meant to be delightful, anyway: off-kilter, a cheeky demonstration of personality on a platform that generally promotes insincere perfection. Though each dancer I talked to claimed they hadn’t seen a video like the ones they make before they posted their versions, Engstrom and restaurant manager Chess Lopez, who makes videos of herself wiggling and flapping her arms while her dog looks on blithely, and photographer Justice Apple, who films herself dancing madly against a white wall in her living room, all were unified in the reason behind their desire to make this type of video in the first place: as an attempt to show vulnerability.

It’s difficult to ignore that what also unifies these videos is that, by and large, the women who create these videos are lean-limbed and attractive, and that, while unchoreographed, they are staged and often produced after multiple takes (and, of course, presented to followers for likes). Captions like “Tired of opinions and judgments. Confined always by this box we all willingly participate in. Overwhelmingly fraught with feelings of inadequacy. It’s enough to just be alive, experience, and create. Welcoming only levity and calm into my life, and with that, letting go of my past predilections” — can feel disingenuous, and Engstrom, for one, understands that this perception is a risk in her own content. But really, she says, she finds posting her videos often makes her feel frighteningly exposed. “When I dance, I can’t show myself as I usually do online — and I am guilty, as most people are, of portraying my life as perfect and glossy on Instagram. With these videos, I’m giving so much more of myself than I usually do online. People seem to like that. I like it, too.” The videos have voyeuristic appeal that’s similar to watching the Judson dancers. “My close friend tells me that she likes watching my videos, but she almost feels like she shouldn’t be watching them,” says Engstrom. “They make her feel embarrassed.”

Engstrom has made about 100 videos of herself dancing, and while she plans to continue, she recently started feeling the urge up the level of intimacy. “I want to share even more,” she says. “I’ve only scratched the surface of showing strangers the silly things I do at home.”  Next she says, if she can find the courage, she’ll sing. “Sharing the sound of my voice is terrifying to me. I want to do it, just to see what it feels like. And if it’s appreciated.” Strangely, Pantin also mentioned singing, but as a step definitively too far. “I really can’t dance,” she says. “So showing myself dance, how I really dance, it’s vulnerable, meant to be silly and joyful and sincere. But no matter how silly my dance moves are, dancing publicly is less embarrassing than singing publicly. That is something I will never do.”

Why Are Girls Dancing Like Elaine Benes on Instagram?