Dance Diary: SB19’s ‘Alab (Burning)’ & the question of who can represent K-pop

By Nadine Kam I

On March 7, 2020, we learned SB19’s “Alab (Burning)” in our beginner K-pop dance class. It was an outside pick emailed in by a non-student who never showed up for the dance she requested. 

I say outside, because I don’t consider them to be K-pop at all but Pinoy pop. This is a Filipino group trained in K-style by a Korean entertainment company, who perform in English and Tagalog, promoting in the Philippines. What I find with these sort of groups—like the Z-Girls and
Z-Boys—is that they are Kpop lite at best. Their music and vocal style is closer to American than Korean pop and their choreography doesn’t come close to the difficulty level of Korean groups.

They are, however, an extension of the K-pop industry overseas, insurance that after K-pop’s heyday passes—after all, music moves in cycles and it may one day go the way of J-pop—there will be regional stars created around the globe in countries like the Philippines, Thailand, China and India, who continue to enrich the Korean entertainment companies that invested in forming these groups.

I didn’t like the song and didn’t really want to learn the dance, but it gave me an opening to talk about one of the big controversies among Western fans of K-pop, which is, what makes K-pop K-pop?

For the Korean entertainment companies, it has become easier in recent years to fill their artist ranks with talented youths from China, Japan and Thailand, who—unlike their countrymen—don’t have to enlist and disappear into military for two years, throwing groups into long hiatuses from which few have been able to recover.

The clash of cultures hasn’t always been easy. EXO lost three of its four Chinese members who sued to be released from their “slave” contracts, citing long hours, second-class citizen treatment compared to their Korean counterparts, and health issues as a result of intense labor with little time for rest. BlackPink’s Lisa often receives hate, in part, due to her part-Thai ancestry.

This specter of having fewer Koreans in K-pop was a big debate in our University of Hawaii K-pop class last summer. As minorities who don’t like to see appropriation of culture, the class was upset when our professor showed us videos of an American Caucasian male group, EXP Edition, trying to perform as K-pop artists in Korea. For us, their lack of talent added to the cringe factor, but Koreans who watched them perform liked them because they were flattered that white people would want to emulate them!

You can expect this debate to continue as the globalization of K-pop has inevitably given rise to people of every nation who want to follow in their tracks. Right now, it feels wrong, but as they say in this video, you can expect it to happen as each music form evolves. White men in rap weren’t accepted until Eminem came along, and now of course, every Korean idol group has its rappers as well.

Dance Diary: BTS ‘Black Swan’

By Nadine Kam I

I wanted to dance BTS’s “Black Swan” choreography ever since they debuted it in the United States on James Corden’s “Late Late Show” on Jan. 28.

After putting in my request at our beginner K-pop dance class, I finally had the opportunity to learn the last chorus during a Hawaii Dance Bomb class on Feb. 10. I was hoping we could get to the end of the song but unfortunately we couldn’t. I was hoping for a follow-up class, but that looks unlikely.

We took so much time to learn just a brief segment that we ran out of time to record the dance as a class as usual. Afterward I wanted to film a reaction to the video with one of my friends in the class, and when we finished we decided to give the dance one more try and see how much of it we could remember. It’s funny how so much is forgotten the minute we walk out the door, and after no more than a half hour we struggled to remember which parts came next.

👁 We tried a little bit of the last chorus at the end of this vid:

Anyway, because BTS performed the dance barefoot, I went barefoot the whole class—which was pretty typical every time I took a modern or contemporary dance class—and continued to dance it barefoot on the concrete outside.

I was afraid it might be painful but because it is more of a modern dance piece there were no jumps that might have caused pain. A few weeks ago I tried to learn Dawn’s “Money” by myself, and even on a wood floor it became painful because of all the jumps he does.

👁 BTS “Black Swan”

Just watching the dance ahead of time, I knew it would be painful in other ways, such as trying to match their wide and low stance. The flexing of their backs made me realize it was an area I had to work on because my back is too stiff to get the arch and flow of their swanlike stretches. I spent about three days trying to stretch and flex my back without the help of an exercise ball, which I really should get. I also kept up my plies and tendus, adding squats, just to prepare for a few minutes of dance! Even though classes are an hour long, about 15 minutes is spent in warmup and socializing, and much of the time we are walking through the moves. We are only dancing at 100 percent for about 10 to 15 minutes.

This dancer outlines differences between major Korean entertainment company dance styles. I favor sexy SM style and Big Hit (BTS) style, but this explains why I feel so tired and hurt so much every time after dancing BTS! Turn on subtitles.

Yet … a day after class my muscles were aching, from my core to back of my thighs. I mean, BTS puts a lot of rigor into the dance but I hadn’t felt pain after a dance class in a long time so I thought I had done enough prep. That just shows how grueling BTS choreography continues to be. I haven’t hurt for a long time after many of the other boy dances that call for a lot of powerful and rapid movements. When I look at the video of myself, I see I’m putting in a quarter of the energy BTS puts into their performances.
I know the millions-strong ARMY already respects and admires BTS, but if they tried their dances they would respect them even more.

Dance Diary: SF9 ‘Good Guy’

By Nadine Kam I

On Jan. 30, 2020, I took on chorus choreography for SF9’s “Good Guy” during my weekly K-pop dance class. Even when it looks fairly easy and doable, it never is because of the speed of these songs.

In this video, I wanted to show more of the process and the false starts as we make our first few attempts at the dance at 100 percent speed. We generally start at 50 percent, and move up to 75 percent before taking on this challenge.

I wanted to show this because the bane of one of my former hiphop and heels—and perhaps every—dance teacher is encouraging new students to try a class. People who have watched my videos—no matter how sloppy we look—nevertheless are intimidated and tell me they don’t think they could ever do the moves shown.

I tell them I am just as uncoordinated as they believe they are, but it doesn’t stop me from trying. Because I always love a challenge, I see it more as fun than intimidating.

What may have boosted my attempts from the beginning was that I didn’t listen to K-pop at all, and wasn’t even sure what K-pop dance was. I approached these classes more as fitness than dance classes. I think that if I started with the idea that I wanted to master dance, I may never have started, because I think people always assume that one must start dance at an early age and toil for years to gain proficiency. I’ve found that’s not true at all. One can start at any age and mastery comes with effort and discipline, not any prescribed length of time.

At the time, I just wanted to move, I hate exercise, and this seemed more like learning an artform than a rote workout. Even so, it didn’t take long for me to really get into it and want to improve, so that’s when I went from a single class to nine a week in many styles to gain more technical skill: ballet, hiphop, heels, Afro-Caribbean, jazz, modern, body mechanics, etc.

Yes, of course, during my first year of trying to learn to dance (I enter my second year at the end of this month, February 2020) I stepped off the floor during the filming. No one wants to be looked at and judged. But one thing dance has given me is some fearlessness. Of course beginners are going to make mistakes, but it isn’t the end of the world, and even though I am not particularly gifted, so what? I am learning every day and it allows me to enjoy dance performances with a whole new level of understanding.

Dance diary: Playing catch-up with Pentagon, Twice and EXO

By Nadine Kam I

It’s funny how we lose motivation so quickly after the new year. Last year I wanted to post my dance videos to track my progress over time. I had some catching up to do, as this thought occurred to me after I had already built up a 6-month backlog of videos.

Well, now I find myself 10 months behind, so I will probably try to bunch them up. These dances are from March 9 and 16, 2019, Pentagon’s “Naughty Boy,” Twice’s “Yes or Yes” and EXO’s “Love Shot.”

At any rate, this is a good time to talk about my journey to date. When I started, I didn’t know what I was getting into. A friend wanted to learn to dance, and it sounded like fun so I said OK to K-pop dance. I didn’t even like K-pop. I was the only anti in class and I couldn’t understand why women my age were gushing over young boys. Whenever the teacher asked for requests for favorite songs or groups, I said I didn’t know any and that I was just there for exercise. This was in late February 2018, but by the end of April I was hooked.

A switch came in May when we did EXO-CBX’s “Blooming Days.” It’s a really difficult dance and at the time I didn’t want to be recorded on videos, but even without seeing how I looked, I never felt good about it, so I knew I had to go back for some remedial technique, having never danced in my life. Also, prior to starting K-pop dance, I was living a sedentary life for 30 years, but I wanted to lose some weight and become stronger as I thought about issues associated with aging, since I am no spring chicken and want to remain ambulatory in my old age.

I also had regrets about never having taken dance classes when I was a child, the result being I was never a good mover, and never had the coordination one develops when making those brain-to-limb neural connections in childhood.

I’ve made some interesting discoveries along the way. I once thought that dance is a purely physical activity, but I have learned the physical part is the easiest. I believe that dance is 1 part physicality, 1 part musicality and 1 part mental strength.

The hardest part is mental, not only remembering the moves—which I have extreme difficulty doing—but also having the focus and confidence to get out there in the first place. You really have to believe you can do it. I struggle with the mental challenge of dance, and it’s not something that instructors—who are typically natural movers and naturally gregarious—can help me with. I feel like what I need is a good sports coach.

Although K-pop is one of the few styles that requires no dance experience to get started, to improve my lines and form, I added on ballet, modern, jazz, hiphop, heels, some African-Caribbean and body mechanics, everything employed by K-pop choreographers. I did all that for the next six months and came out of it ready for the camera by February 2019. Well, imperfect of course, but I wanted to track any improvement over time.

Even though I’m still not very good, I am enjoying the journey, and I both see and feel some improvement. I have a long way to go, but along the way, I hope I can inspire others to get up and move. Don’t let the fear of learning something new stop you from getting started. You may surprise yourself. I know I did.

Dance Diary: Taemin’s ‘Move’

By Nadine Kam I

I wanted to dance to Taemin’s “Move” for a long time and tried to learn the choreography on my own at home.

This is where memory fails me, coz I actually made it through the entire song, but in dancing it could never remember the order of the segments. Just like working out at home, people don’t usually push themselves as much as when risking humiliation in front of other people in a class. So at home I just didn’t do the number of repetitions that would drill the movements in brain and body.

I feel like this is a dance that could be done in its entirety if given three class sessions or so, but I didn’t like the way the segments were chopped when we did this on March 2, instead of staying true to the choreography. It kind of messed me up because the flow of movement was lost.

Oh well, enjoy Taemin in action:


Dance diary: BTS ‘Dope’ and ‘Not Today’

By Nadine Kam I

In beginner K-pop dance class, we did BTS back-to-back on Feb. 16 and 23, “Dope” and “Not Today” on the respective dates.

Their dances are always energetic and fun. For that reason, more people tend to show up whenever BTS is being taught. That’s how I ended up not appearing in my own video for “Dope,” because I didn’t check to see whether I was in the frame when I positioned myself. Usually the class is small so I stand in my usual spot, but this time I had to go to the far end. So I don’t know how I did. Even when it looks bad, the videos are a good tool for knowing what you did wrong, what you could do better, etc.

As much as I hated to be in class videos a year ago, by now I feel a little more comfortable and around this time started dressing up more for classes, knowing the teachers always want to have videos as part of resume building and to have something to share on social media.

The timing was good to post these in light of my recent post about BTS being a force for good in this world, using their platform to speak about societal issues and deliver hope to their ilpo, or give-up generation, a name given to the current generation of Korean youths who have given up on their dreams due to intense competition for higher education, a high unemployment rate. Without employment, one also gives up hope for marriage, children and home ownership, and with so much sacrificed, it’s a generation that has given up on having a better life than preceding generations.

These are the issues raised in “Dope,” as well as the anti-establishment “Not Today,” that includes lyrics: “A day may come when we lose / But it is not today / Today we fight!” pushing back against corporate and government corruption.

I really enjoy dancing their choreography because it’s fun, and while there are those highly stylized movements that are a signature of K-pop, there are not as much as other groups so you can enjoy more of the song’s vibe without worrying about a hundred small details!

👁 🎧 Watch BTS’s practice and MV

Dance Diary: Chung Ha ‘Gotta Go’

By Nadine Kam l

Skipped ahead to March 14, 2019, because I wanted to post this in honor of Xiumin, who danced a bit of Chung Ha’s “Gotta Go” as part of girl group dance medley to entertain fans during his “Xiuweetime” fanmeet May 4, prior to his May 7 departure for the South Korean military.

We danced this during beginner K-pop dance class. The video with Xiumin is followed by another segment featuring more of the dance.

This dance called for bringing out a little sexy, which is not really me. So this is part of the psychology of dance that I always talk about. It really calls for acting and embracing certain feelings, emotions and characteristics that one may not possess.

You have to will yourself to be sexy, strong, cute, whatever the dance calls for. Sometimes I’m really resistant, which makes it hard to perform well. I really hate cute dances because that’s so not me. I think of myself as a strong person and my preference is for strong male dances. When we do cute dances, everyone is always smiling, and I’m the only one who looks really grouchy and serious. I just cannot smile. So these dances really call for a strong will to overcome one’s prejudices and predilections, and embrace the choreography presented.

👁 🎧 The official music video:

Dance diary: Black Pink’s ‘Ddu-Du Ddu-Du’

On Feb. 2, 2019, we danced the chorus of Black Pink’s “Ddu-Du Ddu-Du” during our beginner K-pop dance class. As I’m still catching up on the past after starting this dance blog, the timing is good in light of the quartet’s debut yesterday, April 12, at the Coachella music festival in Indio, Calif.

I’m happy about their reception in this country because back in September I said on Facebook that Black Pink is likely to be the next K-pop breakthrough act in America. Why? I said so because of racism in this country. It’s been the case in entertainment since the 1920s that this country has been willing to support only one major Asian-American star at a time because some non-Asians think we all look alike. So whenever an Asian role comes up, the chosen one typically gets cast over and over again, from Anna May Wong to Bruce Lee, Nancy Kwan up until today’s Margaret Cho and her successor Awkwafina.

In K-pop world, the band of the moment in this country is BTS, but because they’re men, there is room for an act people can recognize apart from that group of seven Koreans, that is, a group of women.

Black Pink is certainly deserving, and at that moment were arguably the hottest girl band in South Korea, prior to the arrival of Itzy.

👁 🎧 Black Pink’s music video

At any rate, “Ddu-Du Ddu-Du” is a really catchy song, and so is the dance created by American choreographer Kyle Hanagami, who is based in L.A.

Usually in class, we just dance in a line, but on this day we tried the moving formation. It was really fun, but Black Pink tends to be sexy and I am so not.

Dance calls for a lot of acting, but I grew up without movement, so it feels like an awkward lie.

Around this time I started thinking that there is so much more to dance than people realize. Non-dancers think of it as merely a physical act, but there’s a lot of psychology behind it, and just as there are sports psychologists who help athletes perform better, I feel as if I need a dance psychologist.

When I mention this to my dance instructors, they don’t really understand. They are instructors likely because they moved naturally and started dance lessons in early childhood, so they’re not likely to understand the trials of someone starting as an adult.

I would go as far as saying dance is 40 percent physical, and 60 percent mental, just because I am not a great mover, but can certainly follow along and pick up the choreography. Making it look good is still a problem, but my mental blocks are even harder to overcome.

Dance Diary: IU’s ‘BbiBbi’

By Nadine Kam I

On Jan. 19, 2019, in our beginner K-pop class, we danced part of IU’s “BbiBbi.” It’s a cute, lazy-looking dance that actually sends a serious warning to gossips and haters.

Her greeting, “Hello stup-I-D,” refers to the anonymous trolls hiding behind made-up IDs to leave hateful messages for their targets online.

In her gestures in the dance she draws a line that should not be crossed and wards off haters with a yellow card, referring to warnings used in soccer games.

I really like the strength she shows in singing this song. Korean entertainers are subject to a lot of scrutiny and nasty criticism for everything from the way they dress to the smallest of so-called infractions that veer from the mean.

They are constantly apologizing for any behavior that results in criticism, so it’s nice to see IU stand up for herself, because Korean society is particularly hard on women they expect to conform to a strict code of feminine behavior and appearance. Through this song, she shows she’s no one’s easy target.

👁  IU’s music video

👁  IU’s dance practice

Dance diary: 8 secs of SHINee’s ‘Lucifer’

By Nadine Kam I

On a previous dance post I talked about SHINee’s “Everybody” and the robotic, mechanical movements of dubstep.

On Jan. 13, we revisited SHINee, but this time going back to the year 2010 and “Lucifer” choreography incorporating tutting, stylized hand movements associated with the rendering of human figures in ancient, hence the “King Tut” reference.

Our limbs don’t naturally form those poses, so the gestures require a lot of mind-body coordination, and it’s difficult to perform them cleanly and clearly at the high speed of K-pop dance. I continue to be amazed by how fast the moves are when performing them vs. simply watching, when they seem like they have all the time in the world to make those moves.

Which is why, after an hour, we only learned this 8-second bit. I was sad that we didn’t get to do the much easier iconic part of the dance that involves the spreading index fingers and the electric shock move, but I’m always happy to dance SHINee if it helps to keep Jonghyun’s legacy alive.

👁 Watch: The whole MV

From left in both videos, Key, Onew, Taemin, Jonghyun and Minho.

👁 Watch: SHINee’s dance practice