Dancing for the Devil and what makes 7M different from other cults

Journalist Sarah Berman and podcaster Ashley Ray talk about the new three-part series about a TikTok dance cult.

Journalist Sarah Berman and podcaster Ashley Ray discuss the new Netflix documentary series

Three people stand in a formation facing the camera with a digital distortion effect overtop.
A still from episode 1 of Dancing for the Devil: The 7M TikTok Cult. (Netflix)

The new Netflix documentary Dancing for the Devil: The 7M TikTok Cult tells the story of a group of TikTok dancers trapped in a cult masquerading as a management company/church.

The series follows dancers and former members as they escape and work to rebuild their lives, and the families desperately trying to bring their loved ones home.

Today on Commotion, journalist Sarah Berman and podcaster Ashley Ray join guest host Amil Niazi to talk about the new three-part series and how it exposes the tactics used by cult-like organizations to exert control over people.

We've included some highlights below, edited for length and clarity. For the full discussion, listen and follow Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud on your favourite podcast player.

WATCH | Today's episode on YouTube: 

Amil: Ashley, you've spent a lot of time watching shows about cults. How does this one about an alleged cult stack up against the others?

Ashley: I think what's really scary about 7M is that Robert Shinn has been able to deliver on these promises that he's made to these people. Usually with a cult, the comet doesn't take you to a planet, Mother God doesn't save everyone and bring back Robin Williams — it doesn't happen, and people start to doubt and they leave. But with 7M, he is getting them these contract deals. Brands don't seem to care that they're a cult; they just care that the dancers have followers. So these people have seen their money increase, their material wealth get better, everything.

That to me is different, and I think is why it is a little more insidious to break down this cult, because there is no silly belief you can point to and say, "Oh, look at how ridiculous this is. This is so funny," or whatever. It is truly people who are like, "No, this could be an entertainment thing. I am making money. How are you going to say that's the problem?" So it's just really scary how they're able to blend that line of legit media, talent agency and scary church cult.

Amil: Yeah, definitely. Sarah, I know you've written extensively about the NXIVM cult. What did you think watching this series given all the extensive knowledge you have about these types of groups?

Sarah: My first thought is, "Wow, everybody on every side of this documentary is just so much savvier than like five, ten years ago," you know? The parents already know the signs, the red flags, and they're talking about family separation; they don't need a cult expert to explain it to them. They have been watching the documentaries and they know what's going on.

But then also on the Robert Shinn side, there's just a slickness and a savviness. When NXIVM was trying to put out a statement about people leaving, it sounded insane. It sounded made to make two people feel guilty, and not presentable to the world. So this does mark a new formulaic era of cult documentary and new era of everybody being super savvy about cults.

WATCH | Official trailer for Dancing for the Devil:

Amil: Okay, Sarah, let's talk about this pastor, Robert Shinn. What is this guy's M.O.?

Sarah: He's been this pastor for more than 20 years. Before that, he was actually a doctor in Canada. I think it's noted in the documentary, he has these elements of a Black church — call and answer, some folks coming up to the pulpit — but he's got a lot of elements that look like just straight-up manipulation. So, for example, you have to die to your family, and that's somehow going to come around and save them eventually. There's tithing, you have to set aside big chunks of your income, and over the course of the documentary you start to see a little bit more of that money coming out of their pockets when they get these big brand deals.

My brain is just assuming there's got to be a sex component to this. I think when there's religion and money together, there's just so often that third element, and I think the documentary pays off on that aspect. But to the outside world, he looks just like a regular guy. You're not getting those pretty out-there elements; everything he says sounds like regular church, except for the "die to your family" thing.

Ashley: And also the NDAs, I just want to mention. He rules with NDAs. If you go to the church service, you have to sign an NDA.

Sarah: Yeah, but that sounds like L.A.

Amil: I was just going to say that exact thing, Sarah. For the record, Robert Shinn has denied all the allegations and he's counter-suing the people suing him for defamation…. Now, Ashley, this is still unfolding. I wonder, what's our role in all of this?

Ashley: I do think we have a duty to not follow. I know people love to watch a trainwreck, and they want to follow these people in a cult and see what's going to happen, but that treats it as entertainment. These are real people who are in a dangerous situation, and I'm really just shocked that brands are still working with them. That really, I think, is the key to taking away his power. He has financial control over them, and as long as he is still able to put together these brand deals, he will always have control over them.

You can listen to the full discussion from today's show on CBC Listen or on our podcast, Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud, available wherever you get your podcasts.

Panel produced by Jess Low.


Amelia Eqbal is a digital associate producer, writer and photographer for Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud and Q with Tom Power. Passionate about theatre, desserts, and all things pop culture, she can be found on Twitter @ameliaeqbal.