“I look different. I have a different ballet history.”
TikTok is the place for dance videos, but Jennifer McCloskey’s @hardcorpsballet TikTok account is far from a collection of all the latest dance challenges. As you can guess from her handle, McCloskey is a member of the thriving ballet community on TikTok. She isn't just making videos filled with perfect pirouettes, though. On her feed, McCloskey seamlessly blends comedy, criticism of ballet culture, and how-to videos. Her mission is to whittle away at toxic ballet culture one TikTok at a time — all while having a little fun, of course.
McCloskey created her TikTok account in February 2020 to combine her love of dance and social media — but she never planned to go viral. But after just a year on the platform, McCloskey had the ultimate “viral” moment when she was featured in a February 2021 New York Times interview about ballet on TikTok. In it, McCloskey was highlighted for one of her favorite pastimes: shattering stereotypes about the ballet industry. “I was honestly shocked that anybody would want to write an article about what was happening on ballet TikTok,” McCloskey says. “I hadn't really viewed my platform on TikTok as having any relevance outside the app.”
I was just so infatuated with [dance], and I knew when I went to college I would want to try out ballet.
The 24-year-old dancer lives in Corvallis, Oregon, where she teaches ballet to pre-school and elementary school-age students. While she makes sure to equip her students with the proper technique, McCloskey is mostly “focused on teaching them to love movement.” She says, “I'm so happy my students get to experience the joy of ballet without it being tainted with body criticism.” She also works as a fifth-grade special education assistant at a local school and tutors students in visual art. In her spare time, McCloskey shares videos to her more than 300,000 TikTok followers, and as of May 2021, she’s garnered 12.3 million likes on the app.
Prior to bursting on the TikTok ballet scene, McCloskey was on an unconventional dance journey. She first dipped a toe into the dance pool as a teenager on her high school’s dance team. “It wasn’t ballet specifically, but it was a start into the world of dancing. I really loved it." McCloskey says. "I was just so infatuated with [dance], and I knew when I went to college I would want to try out ballet."
McCloskey began her freshman year at Oregon State University (OSU) in the fall of 2015, and she signed up for ballet classes her first week there. By spring semester in 2016, she began taking ballet classes more regularly. "It kind of spiraled out of control. At one point, I was taking 20 to 25 hours of classes a week — and I was loving every second of it," she says. As a fine arts major, she also spent her days examining ballet and movement. It was all ballet, all the time.
Eventually, she took her IRL love of dance to the internet, joining a few ballet-focused Facebook Groups in March 2016. From there, she created an Instagram account in September 2018 called @hardcorpsmemes, where she posted memes about — you guessed it — ballet. It was the reaction to a December 2018 Instagram video of McCloskey doing a barre combination (“rather poorly,” she quips) alongside a funny narration of her inner dialogue — “Nope. Deep breath. Hold your abs.” — that led her to keep pursuing videos. McCloskey says, “I remember the response being overwhelmingly positive.” People especially loved her feet, which she acknowledges “sounds weird,” but explains, “flexible feet are highly revered in ballet, and mine are about as flexible as feet can be.”
People found it intensely relatable because Instagram was (and is) such a hell-hole of perfect bodies.
McCloskey saw her combination of skill and relatability resonate with people, and she was ready to fill a ballet TikTok void. “I think a lot of people found it intensely relatable because Instagram was (and is) such a hell-hole of perfect bodies, perfect dancers, and perfect people,” she says. "I knew I had the capacity to create videos, and I had the drive to make things and get my voice out there."
After starting her TikTok account in February 2020, McCloskey’s videos quickly gained attention. In March 2020, the ballet dancer shared videos where she danced in everyday shoes and rated them as if they were pointe shoes, the footwear used in advanced ballet technique. McCloskey joked about wearing heels she found “in the Halloween Goodwill section for $4.99” as pointe shoes, rating them low because of the shank and platform, but she gave an unexpected 10 out of 10 to yellow plastic cups that made a beautiful “banana” foot. "I was so amazed that I was reaching so many people," she says.
McCloskey wasn’t prepared for such high view counts, saying she’s “so different from the path of normal, famous Instagram ballerinas.” The dancer says, "I wasn't expecting people to want anything to do with my content: I look different. I have a different ballet history. I’m not as great of a dancer.” Despite her climb in followers, she doesn't consider herself TikTok famous. "Not to downplay my success, but it's so easy to get followers on [TikTok] compared to other platforms," she says. McCloskey now realizes it’s what sets her apart from classical ballet that makes her so successful, saying, "Everybody's looking for people to follow people that are out of different spheres of the internet than they might usually interact with."
[People are] watching my content as a gateway towards being able to interact with ballet in a non-threatening way.
When it comes to her account, McCloskey wants to share her love of dance and break ballet norms. "I'm not necessarily trying to make money or turn this into a job or get famous," she explains. "I just [want to] put my ideas out there and interact with people and have fun with it." As for keeping herself inspired, McCloskey says her key to success is making sure "it's not a job or a chore." Despite her large following, she doesn’t feel the need to post videos multiple times a day.
The “unconventional” ballet dancer hopes her account helps people feel less intimidated by ballet. "The ballet world is kind of closed off, a little bit snooty, and self-referential. It can be really daunting to try to understand it, [or] to take your first class, [or] go to a ballet," she says “[People are] watching my content as a gateway towards being able to interact with ballet in a non-threatening way.”
McCloskey's relationship with ballet is a complicated one. She loves dance, but she recognizes the issues in the ballet world, including the unhealthy body standards and the pressure to make it into a career. As she pushes back on unrealistic standards, like in this March 5 video where McCloskey cuts down arguments that ballet dancers can’t gain weight or it’ll interfere with costuming, she says having other ballet creators as an online support system has helped her "talk through all of the awful parts of the ballet world."
By existing and making positive content — and sometimes directly confronting all of these awful things — I'm hopefully impacting younger dancers who also feel bogged down by it.
When McCloskey encounters comments about her body or her dancing, she says, "I just respond by blocking them, honestly," adding, "It's best to let it go and keep making the content that I want to make."
As for her future, McCloskey sees possibilities everywhere. She’d like to one day create dancer portraits (McCloskey earned her bachelor’s of fine arts degree in 2020) or design ballet apparel. "A lot of ballet merch, I hate to say it, but it's tacky," she laughs. "I think there's a lot that could be done with it." This summer, McCloskey is “really excited” to teach her first adult ballet class, but she doesn't plan to ditch her TikTok roots.
"As f*cked up as natural society is, the ballet world is like 10 times worse. There's so much racism, misogyny, homophobia, all of that," McCloskey says. "By existing and making positive content — and sometimes directly confronting all of these awful things — I'm hopefully impacting younger dancers who also feel bogged down by it."
In Elite Daily's Life Behind the Likes series, we talk to the people you know on the internet to find out who's really behind the screens. Read more here.