How an Irish dancing TikTok broke the internet
Morgan Bullock has set the internet alight with her takes on traditional dances set to Janet Jackson, Koffee and Megan Thee Stallion bangers.
Over the course of the pandemic, viral TikTok crazes have been pretty much keeping us sane. Not content with gifting us Dalgona coffee and tiny pancake cereal, the video sharing platform has also gifted the world with countless dance challenges. But in amongst all the phenomenal choreographers and performers on TikTok, Morgan Bullock’s work stands out. The 20-year-old blends traditional Irish dance choreography with hip-hop hits to produce something truly exciting. Earlier this month, she uploaded a video of herself performing in what Irish dancers call ‘heavy shoes’ to the Beyoncé remix of Megan Thee Stallion’s "Savage". It quickly went viral on both sides of the Atlantic.
Irish dancing has a centuries old history. Today, many are familiar with the art thanks to the juggernaut stage show Riverdance which was first performed as the interval act during the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. “It was like nothing I’d ever seen before,” says Morgan, recalling the first time she encountered Irish dancing at a recital in Richmond, Virginia, where she grew-up. “It was so cool and exciting. I immediately asked my mom if I could try it.”
Fast forward eleven years and Morgan is now an accomplished Irish dancer who has competed in Ireland and the United States, ranking highly. Since the success of her TikTok video a few weeks ago, she has released more clips to growing acclaim. However, as an African-American Irish dancer, Morgan has also faced accusations of cultural appropriation, and had to endure a vile wave of racist abuse from online trolls. Here, she discusses her love of Irish dance, the whirlwind of the past few weeks and the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.
How did you get into dancing, Morgan?
In my first class, I fell in love. It was just amazing. I couldn't stop smiling on the way home. I was involved in so many other sports and types of dance, but stopped all of that so I could commit one hundred percent. I just went full force into Irish dance. It was a combination of things... the speed of the footwork and just how, like, lively it looked. Everything looked so exciting.
And how did you create that first big TikTok video?
I downloaded TikTok because it was something that a lot of people were doing. I'm an Irish dancer, I'm not really a TikTok dancer. I tried to learn some of the popular dances [but] I'm not that great at moving my upper body. I saw the "Savage" remix video with Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé was trending. I listened to it and immediately I was choreographing in my head, because the beat sounded like something I could very easily dance to with my hard shoes on. It actually took hours just for me to be happy with how it sounded and looked. But I mean, I was still just doing it for fun. I'm just a perfectionist.
When did you realise it had gone viral?
When I posted the clip it immediately got a lot more likes than any of the rest of my videos, which was pretty cool. Then it started getting shared a lot and my phone was blowing up. I actually turned my phone off for a couple hours just because I was getting so many notifications. When I turned it back on, a couple of hours later, Beyoncé’s mom had shared it. My whole family and all my friends were texting me. I was like, 'you're joking, that's not true'. And I checked and it wasn't a joke! I almost dropped my phone. It was just surreal. And then it just kept coming, messages from Riverdance and Bill Whelan [creator of Riverdance] and you know, the Taoiseach [Ireland’s Prime Minister]. It's been crazy.
The reaction to your work has been overwhelmingly positive but there has been some negativity, particularly on the issue of cultural appropriation -- how'd you respond to that?
It was mostly on Twitter where the internet trolls came out. At first, I was kind of shocked because I’ve been Irish dancing for eleven years now and I've never heard anything like that. There were some comments that were just blatantly racist and those I ignored because, you know, when that's your argument -- that I can't do it because I'm black -- then it's very clear what their goal is. But with the people who were, like, genuinely thinking that what I was doing was cultural appropriation, I wanted to use those comments as a way to try to educate people on the difference between appropriation and appreciation and the fact that Irish dance has spread all over the world. And it's a beautiful thing.
Another passion of mine is teaching. So I tried to use it as an educational moment. I grew up thinking that culture is something that should be shared, especially with dance. You don't need to speak the same language as someone else to enjoy dance because it's visual.
What's been the highlight of this whole experience so far?
Besides being invited to perform with Riverdance, I think the biggest thing has been other people of colour or black people reaching out and being like, "this is something I never thought I could do or enjoy". I heard from a mother who has a young daughter who loves watching Riverdance. She has it on DVD and she's a young black girl. Her mom never wanted to sign her up for dance classes because she didn't think she would be accepted. She messaged me on Instagram and said that she had signed her daughter up for classes at her local Irish dance studio. The fact that my videos can make that much of an impact on people has been so surreal and amazing. I think it's opened the door for people who are interested in something that they didn't think they could be interested in.