Dancers find TikTok fame during COVID stay in North Carolina

Professional dancers Marideth Batchelor and Austin Telenko had been dating for two months before she asked him to move in with her — into her parents’ house, that is.

At the time, the pair didn’t realize the permanence of the situation. It was March 2020, and as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world, Batchelor decided to make the trip from her home in Manhattan to stay with her family in her hometown of Raleigh. And she invited Telenko, originally from Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, to come with her.

It’ll be two weeks, tops,” they thought.

Now, the two professional dancers have traded in the New York hustle for a new lifestyle: as dancers and choreographers on the social media app TikTok. Just over a year since the two posted their first video under the handle @cost_n_mayor, they have over 1.5 million followers, have choreographed social media campaigns for brands like GrubHub, Panera Bread and Cheetos and have been featured on the CBS show “The Greatest #AtHome Videos” — an entire career generated all from North Carolina.

From New York to NC

Here’s the back story: Batchelor, 23, and Telenko, 26, met while on a job in September 2019. Both were part of the cast of a Halloween show at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey. The cast quickly became close, and they started a friendship rooted in inside jokes and constant laughter.

Back in New York City, Batchelor was also working in an immersive dance show as a swing, meaning she would fill in whenever a cast member was absent. And the cast member who she had to swing in for turned out to be none other than Telenko’s roommate. Needless to say, they saw a lot of each other.

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Marideth Batchelor, 23, and Austin Telenko, 26, met in September 2019 while on a job. Heights Digital

In February, the pair officially started dating. But just a few months later, everything stopped due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Suddenly, they found themselves away from the busy life of a New York City professional dancer, where every day was a combination of exercise, rehearsals, classes and auditions, not to mention other side jobs that supplement income. Now, they were in a North Carolina family home, doing nothing.

And at first it was nice — a two-week break away from the constant grind of working in the arts gig economy.

“And then it turned not great,” Batchelor said. “It got to that stir crazy point where we were like, ‘OK, now what do we do now? We’re still here, and everything’s not getting better, so we have to find something to do so that we don’t go nuts.’”

Unemployment, income, rent — it all came crashing back into their consciousness, Telenko said. Both of them still had leases on apartments in New York, yet the outlook of the pandemic had only gotten worse. So they settled on a plan: apply for unemployment to pay the rent, but stay in North Carolina for safety.

Enter TikTok

Batchelor and Telenko had never considered becoming a dance duo. The only time their careers had ever overlapped was during the Halloween show, and they had never before choreographed together, or even truly danced, just them, together. It was Batchelor’s mom that first raised the idea.

Insisting that they use their time away from the city to grow, she suggested — “in the most ‘mom’ fashion,” Batchelor said — that the two post on TikTok, a growing social media app known for its viral dance trends.

“We hit rock bottom hard enough that we gave it a chance,” she said.

Marideth Batchelor and Austin Telenko became a dance duo on a suggestion from her mom. Heights Digital

The two named their account “Cost N’ Mayor” — another inside joke between the two of them. One day, Batchelor asked Siri to start a new note for “Aust” and “Mar,” their nicknames, to keep score for a card game.

“OK, creating a new note for “Cost” and “Mayor,” Siri responded back with.

They started posting short, 15-second videos of themselves dancing to trending choreography and songs. Quickly, the pair realized that the moves were too simple. So they started adding their own steps, their own original “flavors,” as Batchelor describes it, hitting an extra beat in the music there, adding an additional turn there.

The first post that hit 1 million views was a video of the two dancing to the song “Funkytown” by Lipps Inc. While the choreography wasn’t their own, the pair added an additional move, a foundational step in hip-hop style called locking, that viewers in the comments thought was original — and hilarious.

“It kind of combined something that you were expecting to see with something that you weren’t expecting to see,” Batchelor said. “And that’s the sweet spot.”

After finding success with their unique take on popular dance trends, the two finally decided it was time to just choreograph themselves.

“That’s when we finally had a niche and we started really, really growing,” she said. “We had a thing that was ours.”

The creative process

There is no one process behind their posts. Sometimes it takes 20 minutes, sometimes it can take up to two hours. They don’t sit down with a notebook, planning out moves and steps and formations. Instead, it’s more of a session.

“We get up, we listen to the music and we choreograph to what it feels like, to what looks best on our body,” Telenko said.

And also what looks best on camera, Batchelor added.

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The first Cost N’ Mayor post that hit 1 million views was a video of the two dancing to the song “Funkytown” by Lipps Inc. Heights Digital

One of the biggest differences between their careers in New York and their careers on TikTok was the transition between the stage and the screen. Now, they found themselves performing their choreography on a four-inch screen.

“You have to really change the choreography approach to fit the small scale,” Batchelor said.

Another part of their process is the camera position. When a piece features lots of footwork, the camera is set low to the ground. When the choreography has smaller, more intricate movements, they zoom in to get closer to the action.

But the most important part of the process is just listening to the music, she said. Their goal is to create movements that physically embody the sounds.

“The thing that resonates most with people is when what you’re watching looks like what you’re hearing,” she said.

This music-first approach has also brought in fans that don’t have a background in dance. In general, they said one of the most rewarding parts of TikTok is that dance — what they’ve spent their lives training for and what they’ve based their careers on — is what sets the trends. The repostable and shareable nature of the TikTok audio also helps make choreography and dance available and accessible to a wide range of audiences.

“People who have never taken a dance class in their life get up, learn a dance and post it on the Internet,” she said. “The amount of confidence that that takes is a lot — that’s incredible.”

And some of their favorite posts are from fans who have filmed renditions of Cost N’ Mayor’s own original choreography.

“I will never forget that feeling, to see people from all over the world doing our choreography,” she said. “Like even now, the feeling never gets old.”

What’s next?

As a dance-fueled engine, advertising on TikTok has largely centered on choreography. Because of the app, the duo has noticed dance becoming a commercial necessity in the marketing and influencing sphere. They have created sponsored content and ads for brands that they never would have imagined could be connected to the dance industry — like baked beans, Batchelor said.

“If you would have told me a year ago that we would have been paid to create choreography to promote beans, I would’ve — ”

“Laughed in your face,” Telenko finished.

TikTok has even created a shift in their career path. The duo’s tentative next step — “this isn’t set in stone, but the concrete’s drying,” he said — is to move to Los Angeles. Together they hope to branch out into the TV, film and video game industries. After TikTok introduced them to the commercial possibilities of using dance as a form of marketing, they realized it’s a dream they want to continue to pursue.

For now, they are continuing to post their “quirky, hyper-synchronized” choreography several times a week. Now that they are vaccinated, they go out on date nights into the city. Even though they have only been together for a little over a year, it’s felt like 10, Batchelor said.

And on May 31, the duo announced on Instagram that they were engaged.

“Mr. & Mrs. Cost n’ Mayor *coming soon*,” the caption states.

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On May 31, Marideth Batchelor and Austin Telenko announced their engagement via Instagram. Heights Digital

Becoming a dance duo has only strengthened their relationship, Telenko said. Working together, they learned how each other operates, their work ethic, their day-to-day routine. They got to truly know each other fast.

“We’re lucky that we like who we got to know,” Batchelor said.

But they are the first to admit it: The trajectory of their relationship has been unorthodox.

“Maybe don’t move in with the person you just started dating,” Batchelor cautioned.

“We’re not saying that it’s going to work for you,” Telenko added.

“But it’s been great for us,” she said.

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Maddie Ellis is a reporting intern with CharlotteFive. She studies English and journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.