“K-pop dance covers democratize dance education”: expert

July 28, 2022

SEOUL – K-pop cover dance videos rack up tens of thousands of views on YouTube.

They are filmed in locations all over the world, from a mall in China to a park in Spain. In the clips, young dancers, usually dressed in colorful and coordinated outfits, show off their moves to an intrigued audience, as the latest K-pop hits play through the speakers. Exuding confidence, the dancers almost look like they’re in their own music video.

In his book “K-pop Dance: Fandoming Yourself on Social Media,” published earlier this month, Chuyun Oh, an associate professor at San Diego State University, dives into the global phenomenon from the perspective of a dance theorist and historian. She argues that by mimicking K-pop dance moves and sharing videos on social media, these amateur dancers are indeed creating something of their own.

“K-pop cover dance is clearly an imitation practice. The dancers try to look like K-pop idols by imitating their choreography, fashion, makeup, hairstyles, and even lip-syncing in Korean” , the researcher said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

“By imitating idols, however, they are not just idolizing K-pop idols. They are actually “fandomizing” themselves.

“I think the central desire (behind this phenomenon) is the strong motivation of young people to present the best version of themselves on social media.”

As part of five years of research for the book, Oh followed approximately 40 K-pop fans and dancers, including refugee teenagers in New York, college dancers and professional choreographers in California and Seoul. Being a trained dancer herself, she said the inspiration for the book came after meeting these young dancers.

At 194 pages, “K-pop Dance,” published by Routledge and written in English, also seeks to reinterpret the value of imitation on social media.

Some might criticize the trend as a manifestation of neoliberal capitalism, where everyone wants to be a celebrity, Oh noted. But as a dance historian, she believes K-pop dance covers are making dance education more accessible.

“It democratizes the teaching of dance. You don’t have to go to the Juilliard School to be a dancer. You don’t have to have a master or teacher or choreographer who can hire a theater for you,” she said.

The dancing has been a bit inaccessible, especially the traditional style, she added. “But on social media, people have the opportunity to show off their talent, and I think that’s meaningful.”

In terms of style, K-pop dance has evolved over the years. Similar to her sound, her dance moves have been influenced by many other styles including hip-hop, street dance, voguing, modern dance, pole dance, spread dance, and traditional dance, to to name a few.

And when it entered the 2020s, what Oh described as “gesture dot choreography” became mainstream, resonating with traits of dance challenges on social media platforms such as TikTok.

The similarities between K-pop dance in the 2020s and TikTok dance challenges is one of the major themes of her book, as evidenced by Blackpink’s “Kill This Love” which has become one of the best dance challenges on the platform.

Oh argues that one of the glaring features of what she describes as “social media dance” and K-pop dance is “the individualization of a dancer through their facial and gestural choreography.”

“On social media, a dancer’s face is likely to take up 30% of the stage. And in TikTok dance challenges, they tend to face forward and don’t take up a lot of space.

Unlike watching a performance in a big theater where you might not be able to see the dancer’s face, the focus is now on the upper body and face in the age of social media. It’s about further distinguishing individuals from one another, Oh said.

The K-pop industry is quickly adapting to current technology, especially on social media, she said, initiating new communication channels.

“The industry tends to change the choreography to fit small smartphone screens.”

As K-pop’s cover dance challenge has been organic — one of the examples of fandoms wielding their own agency — Oh said K-pop labels and the government should recognize the power of fandoms operating on their own.

One of the chapters of “K-pop Dance” is about teenage refugees from Thailand doing K-pop cover dances not because of any government or agency push. They do it because they love to dance and it’s accessible — it makes them feel empowered, the author said.

“Fandoms have their own agency and it’s unpredictable. But at the same time, that’s where the power comes from — the autonomy.“

Colleen D. Ervin