In January 2021, Kayla Mallari, a 34-year-old Southern California dancer, unexpectedly became the main character of Attack on Titan fandom. A 2014 YouTube video of her dancing in cosplay went viral on TikTok with the footage showing Mallari performing an Attack on Titan hip-hop routine set to Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty to Me.”
This was not the first time this performance went viral — the dance gained some notoriety in the Attack on Titan community after it was posted to YouTube in 2014 — but nothing could have prepared Mallari for what happened when the video made it to TikTok. The platform is known for quickly spreading content to a vast audience, immediately catapulting someone to a level of celebrity within an online community that can leave an indelible impact on their life — regardless of whether this is what the person intended.
This is precisely what happened to Mallari. Even a year after her TikTok virality began, she is still feeling its impact. Her video spawned thousands of copycats and duets, racking up millions of views and making Hange’s dance set against the unlikely pairing of “Talk Dirty” an internet touchpoint for many Attack on Titan fans.
Mallari is the co-founder of the The Corps Dance Crew, an Anaheim-based cosplay dance troupe she created with her best friend Sonali Samarasena in 2013 under its original name, The Survey Corps. At the time, Attack on Titan had only recently begun airing its first season, but Mallari became immediately hooked on the show, which finds the last of humanity living clustered behind walls to protect themselves from monstrous titans. Since the series debuted, it’s become a global phenomenon, as well as a beacon of controversy, but the discourse has not dampened the show’s reach. Parrot Analytics reported that Attack on Titan was the most popular TV series in the U.S. the week of Jan. 31-Feb. 26, 2021 — the same time the TikTok of Mallari first went viral.
Though Mallari and Samarasena named their dance crew after the branch of the military that Attack on Titan’s main characters serve in, the duo never intended to incorporate anime into their performances. But after they began performing under that name, “People kept asking me, ‘Well, if you’re called The Survey Corps, why don’t you guys do something Attack on Titan?’ And we’re like, ‘You know what, why don’t we?’” Mallari told Polygon in November.
The Corps Dance Crew debuted their first Attack on Titan set at the hip-hop competition Ultimate Brawl XIV in April 2014. The six-minute performance covered the basic storyline of Attack on Titan’s first season with Mallari playing the role of Hange, a member of The Survey Corps who has an intense obsession with studying the show’s monstrous titans. The set was a hit with the Ultimate Brawl crowd and on YouTube, where it’s been viewed over 3 million times.
After the performance’s success, The Corps Dance Crew was asked to do a 30-minute version of their Attack on Titan set at the 2014 Anime Expo in Los Angeles that July. When figuring out how to extend the set, Mallari took on choreographing a group number to go along with the on-stage introduction of Levi, a commander in Attack on Titan’s Survey Corps played by Mallari’s boyfriend and Corps dancer Rosten Zeon Carmona.
For the set, Mallari selected Jason Derulo’s 2013 hit “Talk Dirty to Me” featuring 2 Chainz. If you lived through 2013, then you know how devastatingly unavoidable Derulo’s earworm of a song was, particularly if you frequented places where taking shots and grinding on strangers were the primary activities. The campy horniness of the lyrics — “our conversations aren’t long but you know what is” — couldn’t be more different from the no-nonsense, disciplined Levi, which is precisely why Mallari chose it. “It’s supposed to be ironic.” The fact that Carmona’s Levi entered wearing the character’s iconic cleaning outfit and spent the first part of the dance tidying up with a broom adds an extra level of humor.
A two-part fan recording of the extended set was posted on YouTube in July 2014. The second video, which featured the two-and-a-half-minute “Talk Dirty” dance, quickly gained attention within the Attack on Titan fandom; over the years, it’s climbed to nearly four million views and more recent re-posts of the performance on YouTube have clocked in over 10 million of views. At the time, the overwhelmingly positive response was centered around Carmona’s performance as Levi. (Carmona’s prop work with the broom drove the simps particularly wild.) But time moves fast and memes move faster, so after the initial hype died down, The Corps Dance Crew moved on and the Attack on Titan fandom seemingly did too. That’s why Mallari and her fellow Corps members were so shocked when the dance went viral on TikTok over seven years later.
“What was weird was it wasn’t centered around Levi,” Mallari recalled. “Everyone kept centering it around Hange.”
In the TikTok, user @paris_dela cropped all the other dancers out of frame so the sole focus was on Mallari. They added a text overlay to the video that said the Hange cosplayer’s dancing would fix your bad day. The video sparked a new wave of love for the “Talk Dirty” dance and specifically Mallari’s energetic performance in it. “I think it’s because that’s what Hange would do. They would go all out in that dance,” TikToker, stuntwoman, and Hange cosplayer Julia Maggio (@juliastunts), who was wearing her Survey Corps uniform for the interview, said of why Mallari’s performance resonated so strongly within the Attack on Titan fandom.
The interactive nature of TikTok catapulted the “Talk Dirty” dance to virality once again. “Everybody went crazy and then all of my For You Page filled up and piled up on the Hange dance,” said Ary, a SCAD student and TikToker whose account, @ijustwannabeapenguin, consists of a mix of anime cosplay and original art. Users began making duets, fan edits of Mallari, and animated versions of the dance. Plenty of other Hange cosplayers stepped in front of the camera to make their own TikToks performing Mallari’s choreography. And of course, the simping soon followed. “There were a lot of comments that [...] said, ‘Step on me, Hange.’ And I’m like, um, no, I won’t do that,” an amused Mallari said.
Even if “Talk Dirty” didn’t turn into a massive trend across TikTok (there are fewer than 5,000 videos on the audio associated with it), there continues to be a cult audience for “the Hange dance,” particularly when Mallari is involved. The day after the original TikTok was posted, Mallari posted a duet in which she bopped along to the old footage to the tune of 2.2 million views. Later that day, she posted a TikTok of her performing the dance out of cosplay, netting a massive 6.5 million views. But it seemed fans wouldn’t be satisfied until she donned Hange’s ODM gear. So, Mallari told fans in February that if the official Corps Dance Crew TikTok account reached 300,000 followers, she’d bring back her Hange cosplay. When the goal was met in March, her next “Talk Dirty” video skyrocketed to 6.7 million views. She continued to post Hange content throughout 2021, including a TikTok from August in which she jokingly ran away from those asking her to do the dance again.
Other creators within the Attack on Titan community also found their followers calling for them to jump on the micro-trend and saw similar success with their own posts. Maggio, who went viral for doing a different Attack on Titan dance as Hange a few weeks earlier, got over 266,000 views when she dueted “Talk Dirty” in January 2021 and even more when she posted another TikTok incorporating the Hange dance in April. GiGi, a cosplayer who goes as @gigi.cos on TikTok, posted three videos of themself doing the dance in May and June, which got one million, 1.7 million, and 3.6 million views, respectively. The dance “was a must-do for me,” GiGi said. The German dance instructor praised the way Mallari’s choreography made them feel while performing it — even though, they noted, dancing in Hange’s harness was “extremely exhausting.”
The continued enthusiasm for the “Talk Dirty” dance throughout the seven-and-a-half years since it was first performed and the year since it went viral on TikTok stems from the “harmony between the dancer and Hange,” Ary explained. A passionate and curious member of the Survey Corps, Hange has an intensity about her that “people kind of get turned off by. But it’s fine, because you’re like, I don’t care. I’m doing my own thing,” said Mallari. This no-fucks attitude can be liberating and thrilling to channel, which, for many cosplayers, is the underlying appeal of Hange cosplay and the Hange dance.
“It felt powerful,” Ary said of doing a simplified version of the “Talk Dirty” choreography in October. “That short part where the beat drops is where you feel the power. You feel the center of attention [is] on you and I’m guessing that’s what [Mallari] felt in that moment too.”
This power is precisely what Mallari wanted to convey in her original performance. She was so successful at embodying the beloved character that she’s now become synonymous with Hange to a large portion of The Corps’ 462,000 TikTok followers.
“I kind of feel like I’m in permanent Disney mode,” Mallari said, referencing the strict guidelines of how Disney theme park employees must act while on the job. “Everyone’s always gonna see everything I do as Hange, which isn’t by any means a negative thing. But it does mean that if I ever do anything outside of Hange people get thrown off.”
Though this acclaim was never anything she had planned for, Mallari has embraced being known online as Hange and is nothing but grateful for what “Talk Dirty” has done for her and for The Corps. “What’s nice about this is that it did give us the social media clout” to be considered for more opportunities and visibility within the dance industry, Mallari said. Since they first performed the extended Attack on Titan set in 2014, The Corps has gone on to perform at Anime Expo annually, as well as landed recurring gigs at San Diego Comic-Con, WonderCon, and other major events in the convention circuit. “It’s opened a lot of doors that were cracked open for us before. Now they’re blown wide open.”
With Attack on Titan’s final season airing this winter (it premieres Jan. 9), Hange cosplayers like Maggio and GiGi are planning to do the “Talk Dirty” choreography again, but Mallari isn’t so sure. “The idea of revisiting old stuff is very hard,” she said, noting that her focus is on current sets. Plus, she added, “I don’t want to taint that first time as well.” But, Maggio insisted, regardless of whether Mallari returns to “Talk Dirty,” the dance “will be forever a part of the Attack on Titan community.”