As the COVID-19 pandemic started truly exploding in America last March, health-care workers spoke out about the strains the disaster was placing on the medical system. The pain and urgency of their stories of overburdened staff and waves of death were powerful and palpable. But many frontline doctors, nurses, and other medical workers still found the time and energy in those grim early weeks to make a slew of dance videos, some large and well-choreographed, which they shared on social media.
Some of these dances, planned and filmed in quiet oases at people’s jobs during breaks or after their shifts, were educational, spreading messages about safety measures like masking and social distancing. Some were pure morale-boosting and team-building exercises, shared with the public in hopes of offering a laugh or a smile. Many people embraced these videos in the early days of the pandemic because, while they were often fairly cheesy, they were genuinely hopeful.
As Heather Woods, an expert on memes and social media at Kansas State University, told The Daily Beast, they showed that medical workers “can maintain their humanity in the face of immense tragedy.” If they could still find space for joy in the dark and uncertain early days of an unprecedented modern crisis, perhaps others could, too.
Of course, pandemic truthers saw the videos in a far darker light—and 11 months later, they are seemingly more obsessed with and irked by them than ever before, likely thanks to the key role nurses are playing in vaccine rollouts.
From their earliest days, COVID skeptics saw medical teams’ dance clips not as sources of happiness, but as proof that the pandemic was a hoax—or at least wildly overblown. Pandemic truthers honed in on these videos especially as visual aids in their efforts to discredit consensus COVID narratives and control measures because they are “rhetorically efficient,” as Woods put it.
In other words, they speak flexibly and evocatively to several key denialist arguments and goals.
Actual health-care workers who appear in these videos are shocked by the vitriol denialists level towards them, and dismayed that their content has been co-opted into truther arguments.
“As somebody who uses dancing to make people feel better at potentially the worst time in their lives, I do find this disturbing,” Ana Wilkinson, a health-care worker from California popularly known as The Dancing Nurse for videos she shared while working at COVID wards across America, told The Daily Beast. Wilkinson herself contracted COVID-19 in December.
As early as the start of April, denialists wondered aloud online how “dancing nurses,” as they called every worker in these videos, could have the time or energy to make content if they were truly overworked. They also questioned why they had so much space for shoots if hospitals were really overburdened. From these strawman musings, they walked to the firm assertion that these dancers must, in fact, not have many patients to take care of—that COVID wards were ghost towns. Memes juxtaposing images of packed sick wards during the 1918 influenza pandemic with stills from these dance clips circulated in pandemic skeptical communities. Misinformation and conspiracy groups on platforms like Reddit and Telegram even speculated that the videos were meant to mock and degrade people feeling the loss of their social lives while in lockdown.
Dance videos seemingly started to fade out of the mainstream around the summer. Although doctors and nurses still make them, most observers The Daily Beast spoke to had not noticed any notable coverage of them in major media outlets or social media streams for months.
Yet pandemic denialists never dropped the subject, bringing the videos up seemingly apropos of nothing every few weeks just to heap fresh scorn on them. Truther forums actually doubled down on their “dancing nurse” bashing in December, as COVID vaccines started to roll out in the U.S.
Around the time a few mainstream media outlets carried new stories about medical staff dancing to celebrate the arrival of vaccine doses in America, one major truther Telegram channel posted the video most of them featured, adding “TIK TOK NURSES ARE BACK… What happened to hospitals are overwhelmed? mUh sEcOnD wAvE. Let’s see how they dance after the vaccine.”
Over two months later, this renewed burst of dance-video outrage is still going strong. Towards the start of February, an apparently new “dancing nurse” compilation garnered over 65,000 views on one COVID denialist Telegram channel alone. “NURSES ARE OVERWHELMED,” the account wrote below the video. “Disgusting,” they added, followed by a vomiting emoji.
Late last week, an anonymous Redditor took to the site’s NoNewNormal forum, a community built around pandemic conspiracy theories, to ask: “Does anyone else find the dancing nurses to be one of the most sickening aspects of this entire thing? I don’t know how to explain it, but there is just something so outrageously vile and disgusting about it. It’s as if they are dancing on TikTok for the sole purpose of spitting in our faces and giving us the middle finger.”
“Yeah, you really are ‘heroes,’” the Redditor added at the end of the post, “you absolute pukes.”
Dozens of Redditors chimed in to agree with the original poster, accusing frontline workers of narcissism and weakness, and floating progressively more outlandish theories about the meaning of the videos. Notably, some conspiracy theorists have tried to tie these videos to a nurse-themed dance number in the opening ceremonies for the 2012 London Olympics, which they baselessly claim presaged the pandemic. Others have argued the videos actually prove that many nurses are on the side of the COVID deniers; they claim these clips are their attempts to “wake the sheep up to their lack of real work and patients,” as one Redditor recently put it, without getting fired for going against mainstream narratives.
Unsurprisingly, denialist readings of medical staff dance videos are entirely baseless. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told The Daily Beast that he knows from experience that people working truly grueling shifts often somehow still find the bandwidth to do silly things.
“I spent 20 years of my life practicing emergency medicine,” he said. “I’ve probably worked more hours in emergency departments than most of these people [spreading conspiracy theories about dance videos] have worked in their entire lives. I’ve been in stressful situations. And we absolutely did things like this in those situations… In fact, you have to do things like this, otherwise you will crack up, lose your focus, and not be able to provide adequate care to people.”
Even on brutal, nonstop shifts during extreme crises, he stressed, team leaders know to give staff “crew rest” periods for decompression and diversions, because experience and research have shown that without it people start to become less efficient, to make mistakes.
Several historians of the 1918 influenza pandemic told The Daily Beast that this was as true a century ago as it is today. Nancy Bristow of the University of Puget Sound shared several passages from the diaries and letters of nurses working in hard-hit wards in 1918 recalling “a spectacle never to be forgotten, the wards quiet with the stillness of death.” But they also recalled “the happy memories of the epidemic” and how, “when we got done with our work, we had good times together,” often within the space of one document.
A few doctors have raised concerns in recent months about the optics of broadcasting those vital diversions on social media, especially while still at medical facilities and in their scrubs and PPE. They worry things like TikTok dances could come off as trivializing; some have suggested that medical staff’s public personas should be entirely somber, dry, and authoritative, at all times.
“That is a legitimate point of view. Some communities may not feel that these dance videos are appropriate,” Benjamin acknowledged. It is absolutely possible to take memes too far, into blatantly distasteful territory—as when a group of nurses reportedly tried to recreate the “coffin dance” in late April, a meme used to dissuade people from dumb behaviors, with a COVID-19 body bag instead of a coffin. But all of the medical experts The Daily Beast spoke to stressed that the general health-care field consensus is that, in our social media-saturated world, and in the interests of building a sense of connection between staff and patients, most recent dancing videos are either harmless fun or beneficial.
None of this matters to COVID truthers. Mainstream science skeptics in general tend to adopt “very concrete, black-white, yes-no, dichotomous thinking with no room for nuance,” said David Gorski, a doctor who has been monitoring anti-vax and pseudo-science groups online for decades. In this mindset, “either the pandemic is so horrific that there is no room for joy, or it’s nothing to be worried about.”
So, to them, fleeting moments of joy embedded in TikTok dance videos fully discredit tales of pain and suffering. Notably, COVID truthers tend to be dismissive-to-disdainful towards stories of health-care workers who have burned out and suffered badly due to overwork and emotional fatigue—tales that outnumber dance videos but that they paint as manipulative hogwash.
Pandemic denialists apply similar thinking to every piece of COVID content they consume, and attempt to twist anything receiving mainstream attention, like medical team dance videos did last fall, to support their narratives. But they likely latched onto dance videos harder and longer than many other pandemic memes because they seemed like useful tools for discrediting nurses.
As some of the most consistently trusted professionals in America, and as “eyewitnesses to the tragedies of COVID-19,” as Woods put it, nurses are perhaps the most potent countervailing force to denialist narratives. Yet it is easy to smear the dance videos some of them have appeared in as cringy or attention-seeking, and there are few details within the clips themselves to dispute empty-hospital-ample-free-time readings. So, it’s easy to use these clips to cast nurses in general as glory hounds complicit in a massive lie. Undercutting them out of the gate allows denialists to disregard and slander nurses dispensing accurate COVID-19 information, and more recently and prominently leading vaccination drives.
All the while they lean on lingering trust for nurses to elevate and applaud the surprisingly large pool of conspiracy-minded nurses who back some or all of their ideology. This line of truther outrage shows no signs of letting up anytime soon. Yet most nurses persist in their efforts to both educate and cheer up a beleaguered nation, no matter how often they are slandered.
“It does sadden me to see people use my hard work and compassion in the face of despair to convey a message that goes against what I believe in,” Wilkinson told The Daily Beast. “I am disappointed to see that people would reject truths that are well proven and agreed-upon and cling to ideas or theories that are patently false.”
“But I try to focus my energies on taking care of the person in front of me, no matter their political viewpoint, whether it aligns with or contradicts my belief,” she added. “Until COVID is behind us, I will continue to share my love of humankind through a smile, a comforting word, and even a dance.”