Staring into my phone, I often find myself thinking of an essay by the dance critic Deborah Jowitt. Dance, unlike more permanent arts, “doesn’t hang about on walls to be revisited or wait by your bed with a bookmark in it,” she wrote in 1997. Nor does it “spill out of your glove compartment ready to be popped into a car’s cassette deck.”
That “cassette deck” takes me back to another time: a time before I could pick up my phone, at any hour of the day, and scroll endlessly through images of dance and dancers. A time, that is, before Instagram.
While there’s no substitute for live performance — for gathering to share physical space and time — dance now also lives at our fingertips, if we want it to, a few taps away at any moment. If we see something we like onscreen, chances are we can return to it again and again. And when we don’t like what we see, we can easily move on to the next thing.
Like many pockets of social media, the world of dance on Instagram can be as uninviting and dull as it is revelatory and weird. The sheer abundance of dance content can be overwhelming, not to mention monotonous, tending toward the blandly sensational or self-promoting.
Much of what the app recommends to me — a little girl hanging out in a straddle split, a pair of feet arched to what looks like a hazardous degree — I have little desire to see. (In a much-discussed Dance Magazine article last year, the writer Theresa Ruth Howard drew awareness to the popularity of such “Insta-worthy tricks” and their negative ramifications for young dancers.)
Most of all, I appreciate artists who are making novel use of the platform, etching their own creative practices into an interface of right angles, whether they have 700 followers or 700,000. These are a few accounts that, for me, fit that bill, showing that self-expression on the app can be an art in itself.
Founded in 2018 by the freelance dance artist Joy-Marie Thompson, Issa Dance Look (@issadancelook) chronicles what dancers wear in and out of the studio, a source of fashion inspiration whether you dance or not. A leotard over a biketard, gym shorts over jeans, all manner of Adidas pants: The looks not only work, they shine.
Ms. Thompson, 22, who lives in Pittsburgh, started the account while attending the dance conservatory of Purchase College, where she was known for documenting her friends’ outfits. “I just thought a lot of my classmates dressed so well,” she said in a phone interview, noting how their clothes, often inventively layered, would “reflect the day’s activities”: dance class, then grocery shopping, then dance class again, for example. (The phrase “issa look,” she added, comes from the ballroom world, an affirmation of good style.)
Ms. Thompson, who runs the account with Dava Huesca, another Purchase graduate, encourages dancers from around the world to submit photos. What constitutes a look? “It’s all about personality and confidence,” she said. “Is it unique? Did you commit to the outfit?”
Larry Arrington: An eternal loop
The Bay Area dancer, choreographer and astrologer Larry Arrington (@larrylarryarrington) traces her interest in Instagram to a bad breakup. Unable to sleep at night, she came up with an alternative: “I might as well set my phone up and dance in my bedroom,” she recalls thinking.
Ms. Arrington, 37, has since learned her way around the app. Using only its tools, she assembles animated collages in which her dancing body communes with the stuff of myths and outer space: rotating planets, free-falling skeletons, fish raining from the sky. While often captioned with astrological insights, these posts can also stand on their own as ornate, magical GIFs.
The digital format lets her play with ideas that might not work in the theater. “I can be on Instagram and place a crow on my shoulder,” she said. “It would be much harder for me to do that on the stage.” And the app, she noted, has a choreographic structure built in: Videos can last no more than a minute, and when they’re over, they repeat. “I’ll end up making things with that in mind, knowing that it’s going to be a loop,” she said, “a loop that just runs for eternity.”
Joanna Warren: Movement blogger
Plenty of dancers post clips of their rehearsal processes, but Joanna Warren (@joannasmovementblogg5678) always catches my eye with hers. Maybe it’s her use of color (often fluorescent), or outdoor space (a rooftop, a sidewalk) or simple camera tricks, like speeding up movement or rotating the frame 90 degrees. Or maybe it’s the sense of focus, mixed with play, that comes through as she practices handstands and partners with chairs and with friends.
For Ms. Warren, 24, Instagram has infused more levity into the work of making dance. “Though it’s a complicated platform in regard to external validation and being seen (and so much more),” she said in an email, “its casualness has helped undercut some of my own seriousness about dance and dancing.” She also finds it useful as a young artist finding her place in New York. “As someone whose tangible opportunities to show work are few and far between,” she said, “it feels good to have a platform to share what I’m working on and thinking about on a daily basis.”
Donté Colley: The love bomb
By far the most Insta-famous of this bunch, with about 800,000 followers, the 22-year-old Canadian dancer Donté Colley (@donte.colley) delivers unequivocal joy through his widely shared motivational videos. Emoji hearts, stars, confetti and rainbows emanate from his emphatic moves, along with inspirational messages like “Keep on doing you!” A hip shake or shoulder roll might usher in a new message or smash it out of the frame, making way for more. Who couldn’t use an occasional pirouetting reminder that “your hard work is not going unnoticed”?
Through this outpouring of fun, Mr. Colley also raises awareness about serious mental health issues; his most recent dance post draws attention to Suicide Prevention Week. The hundreds of comments include one from the actress Jennifer Garner: “You are a love bomb.”
Biscuit Ballerina: Laughing at flaws
Shelby Williams, a 29-year-old soloist with the Royal Ballet of Flanders, has also used social media to counter negativity — in particular, the perfectionism that runs rampant in ballet. Her alter ego, Biscuit Ballerina (@biscuitballerina), has earned 140,000 followers by doing ballet badly. (Biscuit is dancer slang for an unshapely foot.) She sees the account as comic relief in a high-pressure profession, a way to laugh off the flaws that can cause a dancer so much anguish.
A weekly highlight is #FallingFriday. Throughout the week, dancers submit videos of themselves falling, and on Fridays, Ms. Williams posts a selection. She estimates that she receives between five and 25 submissions a day. In the world of ballet on social media, exposing flaws hasn’t always been so accepted, or desired. “You wouldn’t share this bad photo or horrible video online, because then people will know, heaven forbid, you are human,” Ms. Williams said. “I love that so many dancers are now wishing to share it.”
An earlier version of this article misstated Dava Huesca’s academic status. She is a graduate of Purchase College, not a senior.