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The Secrets of a Viral TikTok Dance Challenge

Haley Sharpe
Courtesy Photo

Haley Sharpe in the video for Doja Cat's "Say So."

Songs don’t become TikTok hits on their own — they’re often driven up the charts by dance challenges, or short strings of replicable choreography, that turn fans into a new kind of digital street team. Here, the creators of routines behind four Billboard Hot 100 No. 1s unpack their rise.

#SaySoChallenge

350.7 million views

The Song: “Say So” by Doja Cat

The Creator: Haley Sharpe (@yodelinghaley)

The Backstory: Sharpe, an 18-year-old from Huntsville, Ala., had already been posting comedic, dance-centric TikTok videos for months before a friend introduced her to the song in late 2019. “She asked if I’d heard Doja Cat’s new album,” recalls Sharpe. “I hadn’t, so she played ‘Say So.’ That’s when I thought I should make a TikTok dance to it, so I did.”

Why It Took Off: Early participation from TikTok star Charli D’Amelio and beauty personality James Charles helped the dance spread late last year, but Sharpe says the biggest factor in its rise was its simplicity. The routine uses a lot of “arm motions, and not a lot of moving your feet, so anyone can do it,” she says. “People can easily follow along.”

Secrets To Success: “Find a song that’s more underground and upbeat,” advises Sharpe, who first posted the dance in mid-December 2019, weeks before “Say So” cracked the Billboard Hot 100. (A Nicki Minaj remix later ushered it to the top.) “At the time, it was a song that a lot of people hadn’t heard.”

The Recognition: Sharpe was in art class when she got an email from Doja Cat’s team asking her to be in the song’s official music video. The artist “was really nice and told me she was grateful to me for making the dance,” says Sharpe.

#SavageChallenge

1.2 billion views

The Song: “Savage” by Megan Thee Stallion

The Creator: Keara “Keke” Wilson (@keke.janajah)

The Backstory: Wilson, who has been dancing for a decade, says the song “reached out and grabbed me” when she heard Megan Thee Stallion’s Suga EP in early March. “I don’t think anyone was thinking of doing [a challenge to] ‘Savage,’ ” the 20-year-old says of the track, which later topped the Hot 100 thanks to a Beyoncé remix. So she came up with her own, featuring “hard, sharp motions” that drew from her time as a cheerleader.

Why It Took Off: Wilson’s moves were making the rounds just as the pandemic was forcing Americans to stay home. “Everyone was bored and on their phones,” says the Mansfield, Ohio, native. “It was like a quarantine dance.”

Secrets To Success: “Ask your supporters to try it, so it gets pushed up TikTok’s algorithm,” she says. “In the caption, write something like, ‘New dance alert! Try this and tag me.’ ” She also tries to like and comment on other users’ posts in return.

The Recognition: Though Megan has publicly credited Wilson with creating the dance in multiple instances, on social media and in comments to Billboard, Wilson has expressed dissatisfaction with the acknowledgment she has received. “Megan posted multiple TikTokers doing my dance, which gave people the impression that someone else came up with it,” she says. “That really hurt.” (Representatives for the rapper did not comment.)

#WAPChallenge

3.6 billion views

The Song: “WAP” by Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion

The Creator: Brian Esperon (@besperon)

The Backstory: Based in Guam, Esperon draws on his technical training — he studied dance at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and has been competing since he was 8 — to stand out among the typical “ ‘Woah, clap, throw it back’ types of dances,” he says. When “WAP” dropped at 2 p.m. his time in August, Esperon, 28, rushed to the studio and pieced together this athletic routine, featuring high kicks and twerking, by 6 p.m.

Why It Took Off: “Nia [Sioux] from Dance Moms was the first big influencer to do it,” he says. “Teenage girls love doing it because of its shock value. Some of them do the challenge in front of their parents, while some women do it in front of their husbands. I even saw a pregnant lady do the dance.”

Secrets To Success: “There are waves of what people want to do on TikTok,” he says. “Sometimes people just want to blink and make facial expressions. And sometimes people want to use their full body, like in the ‘WAP’ challenge. I try to follow that wave.”

The Recognition: While Cardi B posted Esperon’s video on Instagram, he recommends creators be proactive about getting credit. “There’s still so many people who don’t know that a Filipino boy from Guam created the challenge,” he says.

#MoodChallenge

572.5 million views

The Song: “Mood” by 24kGoldn featuring iann dior

The Creator: Cale Saurage (@calegoes)

The Backstory: Known for his “Cowboy Cale” comedy videos, the Baton Rouge, La., native had already gone viral in 2020 with a dance challenge for DaBaby’s “Rockstar” when Columbia Records approached him about coming up with a “Mood” dance. “They hit me up and said they had this much to spend on me and asked if I’d be OK doing a minimum amount of posts,” recalls Saurage, 22. (He declined to say the amount.) He uploaded his first #moodchallenge post in early August.

Why It Took Off: Featuring well-known moves (at least to TikTokers) like the Woah, the Dice Roll and the Mop, the #moodchallenge is like a greatest-hits set of viral choreography. “When everybody is doing it 100 times in a row, you see it on your [recommendations page] every second,” he says. “You start liking it, even if you didn’t at first.”

Secrets To Success: According to Saurage, dances blow up because either “most people can do them” or “only real dancers” pull them off. “If you’re going to go with [the latter],” he says, “you have to make a dance so good and awesome-looking.”

The Recognition: 24kGoldn himself has participated in the challenge. “I have his phone number,” adds Saurage. “We’re supposed to link up next time I’m in L.A.”

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This article originally appeared in the Dec. 19, 2020, issue of Billboard.