June 22, 2021

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What Online Communities Do You Participate In?

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Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Have you discovered a corner of the internet that speaks to your interests or your sense of humor? Do you take part in any virtual communities that allow you to connect with others who share your passions? Perhaps it’s a group on TikTok, an online gaming community or something else.

If so, which online groups are you involved with, and what do you enjoy about them? If not, would you like to be a member of a digital community? Why or why not?

In “On Ballet TikTok, a Place for Young Dancers to Be Real,” Margaret Fuhrer writes about an online community that has created an environment of validation and camaraderie for ballet dancers:

“How am I supposed to feel confident in myself when these are the ballet body standards?” begins a TikTok video by user @hardcorpsballet. The question stopped this former dancer mid-scroll. An honest conversation about ballet’s cult of thinness? Yes, please.

Then came the slide show: not a parade of waiflike bodies, but instead the well-padded Bear from Boston Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” and the furred and feathered creatures of Frederick Ashton’s “Tales of Beatrix Potter.”

Reader, I giggled.

I had entered ballet TikTok, where a rule-bound art form meets unruly creativity. Casual, confessional and playful, TikTok offers a release for ballet dancers, particularly students, who spend their days chasing impossible perfection. TikTok is a place to laugh about the impossibility, rather than obsess over perfection.

As more and more stuck-at-home dancers join TikTok, it has also become a place to dissect some of the problems and clichés that dog ballet. Users make darkly funny memes about body dysmorphia, eating disorders, abusive teachers, misogyny and homophobia. They are the same issues that dance films and TV shows mine for drama and melodrama. But the wounded whimsy of ballet TikTok reflects what it actually feels like to be a ballet dancer — the frustrations and joys of a demanding, problematic, beautiful art.

“A lot of people who don’t do ballet have a very specific view of what it is: Everybody’s very serious, very thin, very talented and probably very rich,” said Jennifer McCloskey, 24, the amateur dancer behind @hardcorpsballet. “But ballet can exist in so many different ways. My approach on TikTok is to be as real about it as possible.”

Though a few professional dancers have built followings on the app, teenage students form the heart of ballet TikTok. A virtual dressing room, it allows them to talk to each other without worrying about who’s watching. While Instagram seem to prefer polish — elevating implausibly pliable dancers with impeccable technique — ballet TikTok feels more democratic, with popularity tied to sensibility, not physicality. “On TikTok, rather than your technique going viral, you could have your ideas about ballet go viral,” the dancer and writer Minnie Lane (@minnielane) said in an interview.

And TikTok culture promotes candor, encouraging young dancers to examine sensitive subjects. “Regular TikTok creators, not just dance creators, talk about their personal struggles, and that makes me feel comfortable doing the same thing about dance,” Yazmine Akamine (@hasssminee), a 19-year-old trainee with Sacramento Ballet, said in an interview.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • Tell us about an online community that is deeply important to you. How did you find this community? What was the moment when you knew you had found “your people”? What unites you? What part of yourself are you able to express when you’re around them?

  • In what ways are the digital communities you participate in similar to or different from ballet TikTok? Do members share jokes or memes? Do they talk about their personal struggles or offer critiques of your shared interest? How do you typically spend your time in this space?

  • Ms. Fuhrer writes that ballet TikTok allows teenagers to “talk to each other without worrying who’s watching.” Is this how you feel in the online groups you participate in? Do you feel that you are able to be more honest, authentic and candid there? Why do you think it might be easier to be a truer, less polished version of yourself in these virtual spaces?

  • Have you turned to digital communities during the pandemic? What have these spaces offered you during this challenging and socially isolating time?

  • Are there any dangers or downsides to online friendships like these? Have you ever taken part in groups that seemed harmful, destructive or toxic? What limitations are there to connecting through digital communities like those on TikTok?


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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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