Over the past two years, Cornellians may recall seeing Alex Ellis ’24 dancing across campus. Always seen with clunky headphones and a pep in his step, Ellis became a Cornell icon when a TikTok of him went viral during the fall 2020 semester, surpassing 5.5 million views on the social media platform.
“People from Cornell, people from my high school, my parents’ friends, like any person that can be connected to me in any way sent me the video,” Ellis said.
Though Ellis may appear unabashed to onlookers, his confidence took awhile to grow. Dancing publicly at Cornell has pushed him out of his comfort zone and has allowed Ellis to truly find his groove.
When he first started dancing in public, Ellis assumed he would go unnoticed. He was a bit intimidated when he realized people began to recognize him for his dancing, and he worked to build up confidence in himself.
“When I first started dancing, I was very, very nervous, but I had to work my way up to feeling comfortable,” Ellis said. “It’s not as if anyone is just born like ‘people don’t affect me.’ It’s the process of building up confidence and feeling okay in your own self.”
Originally from Farmington, Connecticut, Ellis began dancing at middle school functions. With no formal dance education, he started grooving by making up his own moves based on the beats of the songs.
“I remember that I went to the first party, and I was a little nervous. I saw everyone was just standing around and not really dancing, and I came to the party because I wanted to dance,” Ellis said. “So, they would play a song I really liked, and I was dancing, and everyone was like, ‘woah, woah, look at this guy!’”
He started to learn new moves from simply talking to other people at the parties, and after he ran out of moves from his friends, he learned remotely, teaching himself breakdancing and body wave moves via YouTube.
Now at Cornell, Ellis works with trained dancers who can teach him proper technique and other dancing skills.
“[Coming to Cornell] was a big resurgence for me, as I got to expand and meet different people and have them teach me things, not even directly, but just by being around them,” Ellis said.
During his first year, Ellis joined an experimental dance team called Team Dance to Inspire, a part of the performance club BreakFree. Through this experience, Ellis met professional dancers with whom he still dances today.
While Ellis enjoys free-styling and breaking on his own the most, he also loves to incorporate locking into his repertoire, drawing inspiration from the late Michael Jackson.
When seen dancing across campus, Ellis may be listening to a scope of different artists and genres. Though his favorite artists include Remi Wolf, J. Cole and Cam O’bi, Ellis does not have Spotify Premium, so he usually listens to whatever song pops up. He enjoys the randomness, as it forces him to listen to music he otherwise wouldn’t.
“This way, I feel like I get a good range of being able to dance to a lot of different styles, so when you see my vibing, it’s not necessarily because I’m listening to a certain genre, it’s just whatever genre it is, they are doing a good job,” Ellis said.
Ellis is also not picky about his dancing locations. “I tend to choose not where to dance, but just where other things are happening,” Ellis said.
Though he is frequently spotted at the Physical Sciences Building, Duffield Hall and Klarman Hall, Ellis tends to dance wherever he is studying or taking classes.
“The location is not super important. The only thing that matters for location is making sure I don’t bother people, which is something that I think about and worry about occasionally,” Ellis said. “I want to look for places that, while they might have people, are at least open enough so that I don’t have to be always in their field of vision.”
In December 2020, Ellis went from an audience of a few onlookers on campus to millions of viewers online when a video, taken without his knowledge, was posted on TikTok. After the video went viral, Ellis said he understood why the video got more traction than his own TikTok page.
“I think what made this video special is the perspective,” Ellis said. “The videos I was posting are just ‘look, I’m a dancer, this is me.’ But the video the person posted was a person seeing someone do something interesting.”
After the video, many students coined the nickname “Dancing Boy” for Ellis when they saw him dancing around campus, though he prefers the moniker “Headphone Jack.”
”I would have so many incidents when I would meet a new person, and then three seconds in they would recognize me,” Ellis said.
Although Ellis acknowledges that some people would not have been okay with a video taken of them without permission, he feels that the joy the video spread was worth it.
“If I was choosing to keep [the TikTok], it wouldn’t be for me. It would be for the people who saw it, enjoyed it and shared it,” Ellis said. “It would be for those who saw something that they really liked and it made them happy.”
As Ellis became more comfortable with himself and his dancing, it helped increase his overall confidence. In turn, it started to bleed into other areas of his life.
“I think there was a time where I would’ve been nervous doing an interview with two people like this. But I’m comfortable,” Ellis said. “I think myself two years ago, or even one year ago, would have been very uncomfortable.”
Ellis’ newfound confidence has also helped him perform better in other aspects of his life. With a busy and rigorous schedule, Ellis applies the diligence and time management skills he learned from dancing to his academic studies.
“I’ve been trying since last semester to work on discipline and consistency, and it’s been something I’ve been trying to push into my schoolwork,” Ellis said. “The best way to be ready for a quiz isn’t cramming it all in the last couple of days but to be consistent and do a little bit every day. You’ll be more comfortable with the material and have it become a part of your routine, a part of you in some way.”
Since coming to Cornell, Ellis has not had much time to dedicate to purposeful dance sessions as an operations research and engineering major. Instead, he dances between classes and during study breaks.
Beyond dancing, Ellis remains focused on engineering, but he hopes to always keep dancing as an important part of his life.
“I will continue dancing for as long as I’m able, but social media is very volatile, so I’m not going to actively pursue success in social media,” Ellis said. “But I will keep posting regardless of what happens.”