Crystal CLEAR

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Junior Crystal Liu and the six dance team members of CLEAR were practicing at Broadway Dance Center, in preparation for an appearance on Good Morning America (GMA) on September 26. The team had been invited by the hosts to be interviewed on the show. Liu and her dancers thought this meant a performance on-stage. The opportunity would be a bigger platform for showcasing the members’ dedication to and passion for dancing.

Instead, a TV host from GMA interrupted CLEAR’s dance practice that morning with important news: they had four minutes to get to GMA’s set in Times Square to claim front-row seats to a sold-out Bangtan Boys (BTS) performance. Barely registering the news, Liu and her dancemates sprinted out the door to see the group that had not only made several marks in America’s music industry, but also inspired cover groups like CLEAR to dance.

Liu’s dancing career began at the age of three. She started with ballet, then learned classic, modern, and contemporary dance. But a few years ago, she came across Korean pop music (K-pop). Having heavily evolved from the bowl-cuts, plastic wardrobe, and robotic movements of K-pop of the early 2000s, 2018 K-pop boasts sharp dance moves, expensive outfits, and charming facial expressions. Such confidence, though, isn’t easily gained.

“Back then, I was scared of dancing K-pop. People looked down on K-pop because it was coming from a small country,” Liu said. “But because it’s becoming more popular, I have more confidence to [dance] it.” And her YouTube videos prove it. In front of the camera, Liu takes on a different persona, one that holds an intense stare and smirks as she flashes her abs.

Condescension was not the only thing that discouraged Liu from dancing K-pop. As a student at Stuyvesant, she has always been directed down an academic path. The school, she described, “is so STEM-correlated. What am I going to do with a [dance] major?” Ultimately, it was the people Liu surrounded herself with in school that redirected her to K-pop dance.

Liu met her future co-director Khang Nguyen (‘17) through Stuyvesant Outlet Showcase in 2017. They were also members of a dance group known as Harmonyc Movement, which covers choreography by K-pop artists. Because the members were adults who had other things on their agenda, “the quality of work that we produced was meh, and I wanted something professional and really high quality,” Liu said. She and Nguyen craved a new team dynamic, so they left to produce something of their own, which eventually became CLEAR.

Nguyen introduced Liu to a few New York University (NYU) and Brooklyn College students who also recreationally danced K-pop. As students, they had more time to dance. Liu said, “I wanted not to be just friends with them, but [also to] dance with them.” There was an instant connection, and CLEAR was created at the end of summer 2018 as a dance cover group. It was founded as a haven the members can escape to and find mutual passion, as a way to spread support for BTS and K-pop in general, and as a way of joining the culture of cover dancing that has become increasingly popular among K-pop fandoms.

One of the striking qualities that distinguishes CLEAR from the sea of dedicated BTS fans is the name itself. Not only is it a pun on Liu’s name (crystal clear), but the word also means transparency. Liu wanted her group to be approachable; she wanted her intentions to be clear. “I wanted to show that transparency in terms of integrity, how close I am to my team and members, and how real we are as people,” she said. “Even though we do dance covers and look so professional, we wanted to have a transparent glass for our viewers to know that we’re just fans of K-pop [and] fans of BTS.”

There are groups, made up of people of all ages, all around the world covering choreography by several K-pop artists. There is an endless collection of YouTube videos with the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, or the streets of Australia, Brussels, or Vietnam as the backdrop. CLEAR, based in New York City, has developed its own idiosyncrasies. Liu said, “It’s unique that we’re doing it in Times Square. We’re founded in New York, an iconic place for entertainment.” CLEAR typically performs on the streets in Times Square and in other locations throughout NYC, such as in front of the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.

When they’re not dancing in Times Square, the members are practicing at NYU Tisch studios. Before they film for the official video, they typically have three practices ranging from two to four hours to sharpen every turn and footwork, synchronize, and move gracefully into formation—and that is the ideal. They begin with a warm-up, then focus on positioning. Most of the time is spent on cleaning up moves. On those days, “everyone’s energy is lively,” Liu said.

Some days are more difficult, depending on the members’ moods and energy. Liu said, “[Conflicts arise] when they don’t know the choreo[graphy] by the time we’re supposed to do it. It can get frustrating, but I try to be understanding. Other times, people want center spots. People want to be seen and want a center position. It’s not a conflict yet, but as we move into the future, people will be unhappy with their roles and not doing [their] best as they did in the first video, and this might be detrimental to CLEAR.”

Despite these conflicts, CLEAR’s purpose of being transparent to their viewers and of dancing as a team remains unwavering. “I use the struggle to push dancing to another level,” Liu said. The invitation to be guests on GMA would have been a milestone in CLEAR’s career. But because arrangements had been made last minute, the guest appearance ultimately did not happen. Instead, GMA host T.J. Holmes surprised CLEAR that Wednesday with a different offer.

He began, “Unfortunately, our studio has been booked for weeks for the [BTS] performance. Fortunately, though, you all know me. I have you all front-row seats to the performance this morning. This is not a joke.” The audience, who had been watching the exchange through a hidden camera, cheered as the members of CLEAR erupted into smiles and disbelieving laughter. The only thing they had to do now was to run through Times Square during rush hour to get to GMA’s set. The clock was ticking.

CLEAR made it, and they stood one foot away from the stage as BTS members performed their hit song “Idol.” After the show, the audience stayed to meet and greet BTS. CLEAR did the same, but they weren’t expecting fans of their own. Liu described, “There were fans lining up to see BTS, but when we came out as CLEAR, there were still people cheering for us. The fact that the fans show so much support for other fans, [made me] just so touched to be part of the community now.”

In less than an hour, a group of high school and college students experienced what they had dreamed of doing for a long time: meeting BTS. Their minds still in a high and their senses tangled in a web, the members of CLEAR naturally gravitated to the place where they showed tourists and New Yorkers the product of their dedication and work. “We basically stood outside Times Square, the place where we film, and stood around in a circle, trying to understand the surrealness of this moment,” Liu recalled.

Thirty minutes later, the group parted ways. While the other members headed downtown to celebrate, Liu went to school, just in time for third period class. That morning’s experience had checked off goals and created new ones. In terms of CLEAR’s future, Liu hopes that she and her members can perform at KCON, an annual Korean wave convention held in eight different countries. Beyond that, she wants to expand CLEAR as a dance group in general, not just for covering K-pop, but also for creating original choreography. “That [aligns] with my dream of being a performer and a dancer. I just want to see it be successful,” she said.

Liu’s living a double life, but finding balance between academics and dancing has gotten a little easier. “I’m always going to be stressed about school,” she said. “But now I’m coming in with an attitude of bettering myself and those around me.”