At a time when TikTok challenges have been helping drive songs up the charts, one app is angling for another way to capitalize on the viral dance trend. And unlike that other social media service, this one’s focused on paying choreographers, whose role in spawning those dance crazes tends to go unacknowledged. Steezy, an instructional dance app that offers virtual classes in 13 different disciplines, hires professional choreographers to instruct users in hip-hop, jazz, ballet and more, set to the music of some of today’s biggest artists.
To date, the app has been downloaded over 1 million times by users in more than 100 countries and built up a library of 1,800 classes — all filmed at Steezy studios located at the company’s Downtown Los Angeles headquarters — for which subscribers pay a flat rate of $20 monthly or $100 yearly (roughly three new classes are added each week). The app has licensing deals with Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group and last May began partnering with Def Jam, Warner Records and others on integrations around their latest releases. Several artists have since appeared in-studio for the popular Steezy YouTube series 3 Choreographers, 1 Song — in which a trio of dancers improvise routines to artists’ latest tracks — including J.I.D., Babyface, Chinese superstar Jackson Wang and Roc Nation signee Kalan.FrFr.
The platform also partnered with Prime Video last year on a series of videos around the release of Lizzo’s reality competition series Watch Out for the Big Grrrls, including a dance class with choreographer/influencer Aliya Janell — who taught a routine to Lizzo and Cardi B’s 2021 collaboration “Rumors” — and hosted a dance challenge tied to the series. Steezy additionally helped facilitate a dance challenge tied to the release of Michael Bublé’s latest single “Higher” by creating a free class featuring choreographer Brian Puspos (BTS, Justin Bieber) and his wife Aja Dang, who taught their own choreographed routine to the song to inspire more people to enter. Lim notes it was the most-taken class on the platform for three weeks.
Steezy launched in 2014, initially as a blog offering advice and resources to aspiring professional dancers. But a comment from a friend and future colleague soon started founders Connor Lim and Evan Zhou, who met when both were members of the competitive dance team GRZ, down a more ambitious path. Clay Boonthanakit, who now works as Steezy’s main on-camera personality, came to Lim and Zhou with a simple pitch: “’It’d be really cool if there were videos, because I don’t really like reading,’” Lim recalls with a laugh.
With Boonthanakit coming aboard, Lim and Zhou soon introduced vlogs and — noting a dearth of quality instructional dance videos online — eventually began prototyping video classes, the first of which launched online in 2015, followed by the launch of the Steezy iOS and Android apps in 2018. Since introducing classes, the company has raised $20 million from investors including Elysian Park Ventures, Freestyle Capital, Aglaé Ventures and angel investor Jason Calicanas.
Similar to other subscription-based online platforms like Peloton, Steezy saw a steep rise in subscriptions once the pandemic shuttered dance studios in early 2020. With the professional dance community out of work due to the touring shutdown, it also helped keep some in that community afloat during a desperate time. “All their tours got canceled. All their in-person classes got canceled,” says Zhou. “It felt really good that we could pay our dancers, they could come in and teach and actually keep doing what they do.”
In addition to a standard teaching fee, each dancer is paid from a “bonus pool,” which is doled out on a pro-rata basis (based on the percentage of revenue that can be attributed to classes they taught). “[It’s] a model that’s never existed for dancers before,” says Zhou. “It existed for musicians, where they create a piece of music and it gets monetized on all these different platforms and they get a cut — but dancers have never really had this.”
Like TikTok, which facilitates deeper engagement with music through dance challenges and repetition, Lim and Zhou say Steezy inspires a heightened level of engagement that can make tracks stickier for users. “As you learn [a dance] on our platform, you have to listen to the song like 10, 20 times in order to get it into your muscle memory, so you just have this deeper relationship with the song,” says Zhou. To make routines easier to learn, Steezy allows users to toggle between both front and back views of the instructors as they teach, “mirror” themselves with their webcams to see themselves dance in real time, slow down the tempo and loop sections of videos to nail a specific movement.
In addition to offering an additional revenue stream for dancers, Zhou and Lim feel a broader responsibility to highlight the way choreographers — who often aren’t properly credited for their work — contribute to the success of music at a time when some dancers are pushing for better compensation and even copyrighting their dances (U.S. copyright law allows choreography to be protected, so long as works are fixed in a tangible medium of expression from which the work can be performed). In 2018, rapper 2 Milly sued Epic Games for copyright infringement for using his “Milly Rock” routine in Fortnite, though the suit was dismissed with prejudice (meaning it can be refiled) the following year after the Supreme Court that individuals cannot sue for copyright infringement until the U.S. Copyright Office has either granted or refused their application. In 2020, longtime Beyoncé choreographer JaQuel Knight successfully registered his choreography from the superstar’s iconic “Single Ladies” video, making him the first commercial choreographer in pop music to successfully do so.
For its part, Steezy has been providing a historical timeline of some iconic routines with the original series Viral Dance Moves, in which the company spotlights choreographers who originated dance crazes like the Kangsta Wok (Zaya Sosho), The Dougie (Lil’ Wil) and The Smeeze (Chonkie).
“In the music industry, dancers are…always kind of behind the scenes,” says Lim. It’s really important for us to showcase dancers at the forefront, especially because they drive huge streams for songs, and we know that.”