Dance 'Cult': Are TikTok Dancers Being Isolated by Management Company? - Rolling Stone
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Personality Changes and Viral Disco Videos: Friends and Family Worry Dancers Have Joined a ‘Cult’-Like Management Company

Dancers for 7M Films rack up millions of views on social media, but some claim the management company is isolating dancers from their loved ones 

Hip Hop DancersHip Hop Dancers

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Samantha Long knew something was wrong with her friend James Derrick when he started talking about fringe ideas on their first phone call in months. “It was essentially two hours of conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory, from things like ‘Covid isn’t real,’ to [theories about Joe] Biden, who was about to be sworn in as president,” Long says of the call. “He would say things along the lines of, ‘Just do your own research.’ The tone he was speaking in really concerned me and I could tell that something was really off.”

Long, a Los Angeles–based choreographer and dance captain for J Balvin on his 2019 tour, met Derrick around 2015 on the city’s commercial dance scene. Long says Derrick — who goes by “BDash” — was “world-renowned” for krump, a high-intensity street dance style that originated in L.A. As they were building their careers, they would take classes at the same studios and audition for gigs together. He’d teach Long krump and she’d help him pick up hip hop choreography. In 2018, she got to see him compete on NBC’s World of Dance. The two shared a house with another dancer before the pandemic, and Long says she even introduced Derrick, 33, to his now-wife.

When Covid hit, Long moved to her own place, and stopped seeing Derrick every day. “Obviously we weren’t around each other as much,” she says. “But when things started to clear up a little bit, I was reaching out to him, like, ‘Hey, let’s get together.’” Throughout late 2020 and into 2021, she says, he’d agree to meet up but repeatedly bail. Then came the bizarre phone call in January 2021, which she says felt like talking to a different person. “It was very unlike him,” she says of Derrick’s new conspiratorial bent. “That’s not that’s not the BDash I know.”

Around that same time, the family of Derrick’s girlfriend, Miranda Wilking (now Miranda Derrick), was growing similarly concerned about recent changes they saw in her behavior. Miranda, 25, and her sister Melanie, 22, trained dancers who have performed in music videos and advertisements, built an influencer career posting videos together on social media as the Wilking Sisters. By 2020, they had over 2 million followers on TikTok, where they were known for quarantine dance trend videos, sometimes featuring Derrick, and occasionally including their parents, who seemed game to embrace their Boomer roles for their daughters’ growing audience. 

In early 2021, the sisters suddenly stopped posting videos as a duo. Melanie continued posting home dance videos with parental cameos. Miranda changed filming locations, cut her hair short, and started new Instagram and TikTok accounts where she posts exclusively high-production dance clips with Derrick and a rotating cast of other scene partners. The videos are made by 7M Films, a management company Derrick and Miranda began working with — it is unclear exactly when, but their social media posts suggest it was in late 2020 or early 2021. Most of the dancers appearing in the videos with them are also represented by 7M, according to the dancers’ social media bios. In recent weeks, the company has drawn attention on social media from some of its dancers’ loved ones. According to posts by the Wilkings and other people who say their friends work with 7M, the company, which specializes in social media dance videos, is isolating clients from their friends and family.

In a recent tearful Instagram live video, Melanie and her parents said Miranda had essentially stopped communicating with them a year earlier, which would have been around the time she and Derrick began working with 7M. They said she had also begun attending a church — Rolling Stone confirmed the owner of 7M is also the founder of a church (it is unclear whether it is the same church the Wilkings referred to since they did not share the name of it in their video) — and had married Derrick without telling them. “Miranda is a part of a religious group, and she’s not allowed to speak to us,” Melanie said in the video, seated on a sofa, flanked by her and Miranda’s parents. They said Miranda had refused to come home for her grandfather’s 2021 funeral, had blocked her family members — even her grandmother — on social media, and had transformed into a different person who was behaving like she wanted nothing to do with them,. The occasion for the instagram live announcement, the family explained, was Miranda’s birthday, Feb. 24, the second one they had been unable to celebrate with her, her father said in the video. “​​We always had hope that she was going to come back,” Melanie said. 

The Wilkings also said in the video that their concerns about Miranda had led them to research cults to learn how to convince her to come home. Diane Benscoter, an expert at helping people leave cults and other high-control groups, told Rolling Stone that the Wilking family had spoken with her about their concerns for Miranda in early 2021, the same time frame when they say she stopped communicating with them.

“They don’t need anybody to tell them who they can’t be around. They’re smart enough and talented enough to be their own boss.”

The Wilking family, as well as Miranda and Derrick, have not responded to repeated interview requests. After the Wilkings posted their video, Derrick and Miranda have both issued public statements denying they are in a cult. A lawyer for 7M offered a statement on behalf of the company, saying it supports Miranda. “Miranda Derrick is a successful businesswoman and a loving wife and daughter who cares very much about her family,” the statement said in part. “It is pathetic and contemptible to try to turn her private family matters into a tawdry public scandal for clicks and clout.”

Derrick and Miranda aren’t the only 7M dancers people have expressed concerns about. Since the Wilkings went public, several people in the L.A. dance community have spoken out on social media saying they’re worried about friends involved with the management company. Rolling Stone is refraining from naming other 7M dancers, since they have not issued public statements to the extent that Derrick and Miranda have. Some members have posted videos joking about the controversy, or sparred in comments sections with other social media users, insisting they are safe, happy, and successful working with 7M. None of the other dancers in 7M or members of its creative team responded to DMs requesting comment on their experiences with the company. Members of the Los Angeles dance industry who spoke to Rolling Stone say they want their friends to leave this company. They claim it has changed the people they once knew and dominated their lives, causing them to worry about their loved ones’ wellbeing. “We’re trying to come to their defense because we’re all friends, family, so we love them,” says Joey Turman, a krumper who knows multiple dancers working with 7M. “They don’t need anybody to tell them who they can’t be around. They’re smart enough and talented enough to be their own boss.”

 

Making a living as a professional dancer is a grueling pursuit. The avenues are limited, and insane physical demands are often coupled with low wages and unforgiving schedules. Even dancers who find relative stability in an established company typically have an unpaid off-season during which they have to find other ways to make ends meet. Other dancers are freelancers, booking one job at a time, whether it’s in a run of a musical theater performance, a tour with a recording artist, or a one-day shoot for a TV commercial. Social media can offer some stability and agency in an otherwise unpredictable career. It gives dancers a platform on which to market themselves and book jobs, establish their brand, and potentially earn money. If a dancer makes it big on social media, the paychecks and opportunities they might earn as an influencer — big brand deals, TV appearances, viral videos — have the potential to easily outstrip those of a dancer working more traditional gigs. In 2019, Derrick spoke to the Washington Post about the independence social media afforded him in his career. “With these platforms, at the end of the day you don’t need a label, all you need is fans,” he said. “That’s why social media is golden for people like us, because you can become an artist without anyone holding us back and telling us what to do.”

7M appears to be capitalizing on the popularity of dance videos on social platforms by pooling creators’ popularity for views. This follows the example of TikTok content houses, where several popular TikTokers form a collective, appear in each other’s videos, and everyone reaps the rewards. Long says the opportunity to work for a company that lets you focus on your craft instead of hustling to find work is extremely appealing. “Every creative’s dream is to not have to worry about logistical things and bills and payment and just create,” she says. Some collab houses are helmed by a company that takes a cut of creators’ earnings. 

7M specializes in putting out a high volume of short dance clips — all featuring talented performers and set in appealing locations like picturesque patios, inside fancy homes, or near landmarks like the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The videos are polished, catchy, and somewhat hypnotic. It’s content tailor-made to go viral, and 7M’s approach seems to be working. Several of 7M’s 11 dancers have millions of followers on TikTok and Instagram (although it is unclear whether they earned those followers before or after joining the company). The dancers’ success extends beyond social media, too. According to 7M dancers’ videos, some of the company’s clients have recently appeared in national ad campaigns and performed in the 2022 Super Bowl halftime show led by Dr. Dre.

“Every creative’s dream is to not have to worry about logistical things and bills and payment and just create.”

In the Wilking family’s live video, they offered more insight into how they claim Miranda made her way to 7M – and cut herself off from her loved ones. Melanie explained that recently, she and her sister had started going to a church, something they never did growing up. While it seemed fun at first — with lots of other dancers in attendance and music during the services — Melanie said she was put off when the congregation became increasingly demanding of her time. She described once having to miss a service to pick up a friend at the airport, and claimed members called her repeatedly trying to get her to cancel her plans. She claimed that when she didn’t, she wasn’t invited to the next service. Soon, she decided to stop going, she said. “I was like, this is not healthy and this is not normal.”

In January of 2021, the Wilking family claimed in their video, Miranda refused to go home to Michigan for her grandfather’s funeral. Her mother said Miranda told them “she was sorry, and you won’t understand.” She said that when she’d pressed Miranda to come, Miranda had told her, “I’m afraid I’m going to make a mistake. I’m just learning.”

Miranda’s parents said in the video that, out of concern, they’d traveled to check on her at her California apartment. They claimed she acted like “a different person,” and eventually stormed out, taking her belongings with her.

After Miranda’s family released their live video, she and Derrick posted long blocks of text, rebutting the family’s account. Miranda claimed she had talked to her family multiple times over the past year, but had lately chosen not to communicate as frequently because they disapproved of her decision to move in with Derrick. “I am not involved in a religious cult,” the statement said. She wrote that she had missed her grandfather’s funeral because she was afraid she would be “held captive in Michigan,” it read. “I didn’t feel safe with my dad.” 

Miranda further described an altercation with her parents when she returned to her old apartment to collect the last of her belongings and then prepared to drive away. “My dad took his car and blocked me in my own driveway and my mom was holding my arm speaking out to me and reading what a cult meant and saying I was part of one,” the statement read. She said her parents called the police after she left and alleged that Derrick had kidnapped her. The cops demanded she meet with them to assure them she was OK, she said. “They saw that I was fine and we actually laughed about the situation because they said wow it seems that your family was really upset that you moved out,” her statement said. 

Derrick’s post said Miranda’s parents disapproved of their relationship because he is a “poor Black man from Compton.” He said Miranda’s father had told police he was worried for her safety and had falsely accused Derrick of kidnapping and domestic abuse. He went on to praise the management company he said they’d both “joined.” “I’ve been able to pay off my debts, buy a new car and move into a nice home,” he said. The company is not a religious organization, he said, but a “secular for-profit company run by people who have faith in God.” He added that the company “manages [his] bookings and helps with taxes and finances.” He added, “Talents pay agencies and management companies to control their bookings and finances. That is not a cult activity. It’s called doing business.” 7M declined to comment on the record about the management of clients’ finances. 

In March, Miranda and Derrick documented a trip to Michigan for what Miranda described in one of her Instagram stories as “a family meeting” that both sides have since conveyed did not go well. Miranda’s mother posted on her own Instagram account saying she had been hopeful when Miranda and Derrick reached out to meet with them, “but sadly very little progress was made.” For his and Miranda’s part, Derrick reiterated that it’s not that they can’t talk to their families, but that they choose not to talk to Miranda’s parents “because of the harassment and the hate.”

“I was like, it’s standard SAG rates, and she was like, what are those? That’s what agents and managers would know off the top of their heads.” 

One L.A.–based choreographer who’s been in the industry for more than 20 years tells Rolling Stone she had a strange experience hiring a 7M dancer for a gig. (She asked to remain anonymous to avoid online backlash.) While scoping out talent for an early-2022 project, she DMed a dancer she’d interacted with before on social media who now works with 7M. “I was like, Hey, are you interested in doing this project with me?” she says. “And I was just asking what styles he did. And he’s like, ‘Please reach out to my manager for any questions.’” This was out of the ordinary to the choreographer, who says she doesn’t typically communicate with managers. Every follow-up question she asked, she said, from confirming whether he could do a particular style to whether he was vaccinated — a requirement to work on the project she had in mind — she says he would direct her to his manager at 7M. That manager didn’t seem particularly knowledgeable about the dance industry, either. “She was asking for the rates and I was like, it’s standard SAG rates, and she was like, what are those?” she says. “That’s what agents and managers would know, like off the top of their heads.” 

7M declined to discuss its business practices on the record, but one thing is clear: the company’s owner and CEO, Robert I. Shinn, is also the founder and pastor of Shekinah Church, based in Santa Ana. The organizations are separate entities. 7M also declined to speak on the record about any link between the two other than Shinn.

According to an archived version of the Shekinah Church International website from 2009, the church was founded by Dr. Israel Shinn — another name apparently used by Robert Shinn — whom the website describes as “a former medical doctor who had successfully practiced medicine for seven years before God spoke to him to go into ministry full time.” The current site makes no mention of the founder, but says the church has a mission to save “one billion souls” and calls on followers to “support the gospel with all means.” 

The church has weathered attacks in the past. A failed 2009 lawsuit, initially publicized by YouTuber Katie Joy, who has been following the recent developments, and independently obtained and reviewed by Rolling Stone, shows a woman named Lydia Chung sued Shekinah’s pastor, Robert Shinn, allegedly also known as Israel Shinn, and several other defendants for alleged fraud and labor laws violations. Chung claimed that Shinn “exerted undue influence, mind control, coercive persuasion, oppression and other intimidating tactics” over her to get her to turn over $3.8 million in property and other assets, “all in the name of God,” and that she’d been forced to work six days a week without pay. Shinn and the other defendants successfully rebuffed all of Chung’s claims. After a bench trial, the judge ruled in favor of Shinn and the other defendants on all counts.

Some social media users have pointed out that in conservative Christian religious circles, 7M or 7MM is a common shorthand for the Seven Mountains Mandate. According to Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at People for the American Way, who has observed and written about the religious right for 20 years, the Seven Mountains Mandate is espoused by a certain group of Pentecostal Dominionists who believe Christians like them should take charge of seven spheres of societal influence, including media, business, and arts and entertainment. “For years, the religious right has complained about how Hollywood is a purveyor of godless secular values,” Montgomery says. “There’s definitely a push to have conservative Christians exert more influence over movies and music and everything else, because they have a big cultural impact.” 7M would not speak on the record about whether the company name refers to the Seven Mountains Mandate. California business records show Shinn was CEO of a company called 7th Millennium, Inc. that was dissolved in 2008.

 

When Joey “Knucklehead” Turman saw Derrick and a couple of his other friends from the krump scene dancing to disco and Spice Girls in videos by 7M Films, he tells Rolling Stone he knew something was up. “I said, bro, they have lost their damn minds,” he says. “What are they doing? It was funny to see because of the personal level that I know them on. Like, I know you guys would laugh at this if you were me. But at the same time, I was like, this is kind of weird.”

The high-gloss videos the 7M Films dancers post on social media look like they could have been choreographed by a youth pastor. The music and moves are squeaky clean and outdated, at least compared to lightning-speed trends on TikTok. Grease reenactments, air guitar, and disco numbers abound — which is surprising, especially for performers established in the street dance world. “BDash was always open to trying new styles and doing new trends,” says Long. “But I can say that his style of dancing and the music that he would dance to is completely different from the music that he dances to now.” 

When Turman saw the Wilking family’s video about Miranda, he said his friends’ odd videos suddenly made sense to him — and brought back chilling memories. According to Turman and Long, Derrick was previously involved in a high-control group more than a decade ago. Long says Derrick had told her about the experience. She recently reminded him of it.  “I texted him, like, ‘Please look out for similar warning signs and red flags from your past,’ because he’s been down this road before,” Long says. Turman says he knows about Derrick’s past experience first-hand, because he was a member of that high-control group, too.

Around 2008, when Turman and Derrick were dancing in a successful krump group in Los Angeles, he says both he and Derrick had been required to attend a church in the city several nights a week. Turman noted that this was not Shekinah Church. “Pretty much, we weren’t allowed to go anywhere,” he claims. “We weren’t allowed to go back home to visit family because we were told that there would be a natural disaster or we’d be cursed.” 

The dance group was doing well in the dance industry, and Turman says he was making money teaching krumping workshops all over the world. The success made it easier to ignore the controlling situation he was in, he says. Turman describes not caring  what other people were saying about it, telling Rolling Stone, “We were like, ‘Look, we’re following this, and we’re successful.’”

When he saw the Wilkings’ video, he says it reminded him of the excuses he and others in the group used to make for not visiting their loved ones. “We would just tell them that we couldn’t make it, or we’re practicing, or we’re really focused on what we’re doing with dance,” he says. At the time, he thought he was doing the right thing. “There was so much religion pushed on us, we felt like we’re doing what we’re supposed to do because this is what God said,” he says. “We were already groomed to have a certain mindset with family, so when people would be like, ‘Man, that sounds like a cult,’ we’d already been programmed to think, ‘Yeah, we knew you guys would say something like that.’”

“​​It was really important for me to make sure that these people knew that they weren’t alone.”

Dr. Janja Lalich, professor emerita of sociology at California State University-Chico and an expert on cults and coercion, says it is normal for people who have gotten caught up in high-control groups to react defensively. “People who are in a cult don’t know they’re in a cult,” Lalich says. “Nobody joins a cult on purpose. And if people accuse them of that, they’re going to get very defensive because that’s what they’re trained to do. The cult will always do damage control and say, ‘People are going to persecute us, people don’t understand what we’re doing.’”

It wasn’t until 2011, when, according to Turman, a prophecy the pastor had made related to a major event didn’t come true, that Turman says things started to fall apart. Soon, other issues with that church came to light, and he and Derrick left. Turman moved back to Oceanside, California, where he grew up, and has been working through the experience ever since. “It’s still hard to this day,” he says. “When you look back and you just realize all of the years that you were being controlled and manipulated, and all the friends that I lost in the process, and all of the things I was not here for, for my family.”

Turman worries about the industry success dancers are achieving with 7M. “We didn’t have millions of followers verified on Instagram, Super Bowl halftime show,” he says. “We weren’t doing anything close to that, and it was hard to get us out. So I just feel bad. I don’t know what angle to come at it, to try to get them to see.”

In recent weeks, Turman says he DMed Derrick and talked to another 7M dancer he’s friends with, expressing concern for their situation. He says both assured him they were fine. Derrick wrote, “Bro, Life is good. I have money now, I am married to a beautiful woman that I want to be married to! I don’t see a problem with that. So if people are jealous and have something against that, then that’s their problem.”  

Turman felt like the reply didn’t line up with the message he’d sent. “I’m like, well, I didn’t say anything about your success or if you have money or not; I wrote you because I was concerned that you’re involved in the same thing, because your wife has not talked to her parents and all that, and it’s looking exactly the same, like what we went through,” he says. He just wants his friends to know he cares about them. 

To Long, the Wilkings’ video was a turning point. Days after they spoke publicly about Miranda, Long streamed her own 30-minute live video describing her friendship with Derrick. “​​It was really important for me to speak out to make sure that these people knew that they weren’t alone,” she says, referring to Derrick and other 7M dancers, “And to let them know that there is a community of us who are fighting to save all of our loved ones…and bring them out of this.”

In Late February, Long reached out to Derrick again. She says she poured her heart out. “I was just like, I feel like I’ve lost my brother,” she says. “I broke down my emotions, and how I was not even invited to the wedding of him and the woman I introduced him to,” she says. “His response was along the lines of, ‘I have a lot of people wanting to collaborate with me. I can make time to collaborate with you.’ And I’m like, I’m not a collaboration, I’m your friend.” 

In This Article: dancers, direct, RSreports, Social media, TikTok

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