‘Dancing for the Devil’: A Cult Docuseries That Takes Its Time

‘Dancing for the Devil’: A Cult Docuseries That Takes Its Time

There’s a train wreck quality to most documentaries about cults, an invitation to crane your neck at weird rituals, bizarre leaders and peculiar anecdotes. By nature, cults are insular, inscrutable and strange to outsiders. But for those on the inside, every teaching and action seems to follow a logic, to make sense. That’s sort of the point.

I’ve watched a lot of cult documentaries in the past years, and so have a lot of Americans — they’re adjacent to true crime, which makes them perfect streaming fodder. Like many people, I settled in to watch Derek Doneen’s three-part documentary series “Dancing for the Devil: The 7M TikTok Cult” (streaming on Netflix) because I realized I’d seen some of the dancers on my own social media feeds, and was baffled to discover that lighthearted dancing to popular oldies could be cultish behavior.

To my surprise, the series made its case by digging behind headlines, exposing how the supposedly controlling and manipulative pastor Robert Shinn found ways to dominate his church members for decades, long before the advent of TikTok. Parishioners tell stories that are disturbing, especially for anyone who’s had sustained contact with high-control religious groups — tales of abuse, extortion, grooming and worse. The series claims that Shinn most recently started a talent management company (called 7M) and attracted beautiful, aspirational young people, and then filched their earnings and kept them under his thumb. (Shinn did not participate in the documentary and denies wrongdoing.) Former 7M dancers as well as former church members describe the tactics they say he used to exploit them. They are chilling.

I happen to know a lot of people who’ve been in cults, some of whom managed to leave, so I’m extra sensitive to a common flaw of cult documentaries: Sometimes they focus more on the train wreck than on those the train wrecked. This is particularly an issue in feature-length documentaries — it’s tough, in two hours, to explain the entire story and center the survivors, rather than the perpetrator.

Watching “Dancing for the Devil,” I realized that this is why a series can be a more effective way to tell a cult narrative. There’s breathing room, space to explore the difficult journey away from the manipulation and toward a totally new life. That’s not to say that all cult series are good; certainly some still choose the gawking approach. Even “Dancing for the Devil” can occasionally veer in that direction, especially since the dancer at its center, Miranda Derrick, didn’t participate in the film, and has said publicly that she feels her life is in danger because of it; her parents and sister are instead the main tellers of her story.

But like HBO’s “The Vow” — a show with a second season that’s among the best of the genre — “Dancing for the Devil” moves away from Derrick’s story, spending almost all of its three one-hour episodes exploring the long, complex process of others who left Shinn’s church and have been on the bumpy road of healing. The series revisits several of its subjects over a year, so their feelings evolve; it’s like watching them change in real time.

That’s why “Dancing for the Devil” ends up feeling daring, instructive, thoughtful and moving — even if it doesn’t really solve the central question: What exactly is going on at Shinn’s church? Instead, it illustrates the power of focusing on those who left, and how escaping a controlling cult or religious environment can still entail a lifetime of trying to unlearn that programming. To process and unpack the complexities of such an ordeal, cult survivors and their stories ultimately need the same thing: time.

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