The Rise of K-Pop Dance

K-pop and dance culture have become a greater part of the Stuyvesant experience in recent years.

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By Stefan Engquist

The month of May marks a time of celebration of generations of Asians and Pacific Islanders who have enriched American history with their cultures. Music, with its ability to transcend language, has become a powerful platform for Asian artists to break boundaries. Initially an Asian phenomenon, Korean pop music (K-pop) gained global popularity over the last decade for its stunning audiovisual elements and charismatic members.

K-pop has developed its own culture, one that celebrates hard work, talent, and a sense of community. It combines synchronized dances, iconic fashion trends, and catchy melodies into thematic music videos. At Stuyvesant, the dance culture has evolved greatly with the influence of K-pop groups like Bangtan Boys (BTS) and Girls’ Generation on the American entertainment industry.

In an e-mail interview, senior Shaney Hwang shared that her dance career began with a goal to learn all the K-pop choreographies. “All I knew was that while some girls wanted to grow up as princesses and fairies, I wanted to become a K-pop star,” she said. “When a day went poorly, I would turn on some music and practice for hours until my breath was taken away—that was the feeling I craved endlessly.”

Her passion for dancing to K-pop was not looked upon favorably by her teachers in middle school. For the annual talent show, Hwang and her friends performed Electric Shock by a group called f(x). As the Korean lyrics blasted through the speakers, the teachers watched with distaste and frowns. “Even five years ago, the backlash from America on K-pop and Korean culture merging into our country was beyond ridiculous,” Hwang said. “[The faculty was] just really narrow-minded, and I wasn’t fazed by their discrimination against me because I knew it was their loss.”

Now in 2018, K-pop has made a powerful entrance in international music industries. Artists like Girls’ Generation, 2NE1, PSY, and most recently, BTS have made it big on the Billboard charts. Hwang said, “I’m so shocked and grateful to see that in 2018, BTS is killing the American music industry, and even more groups are blowing up across the world. This is the progress that I’ve always wanted to witness.”

Stuyvesant’s dance culture, which Hwang described as “unparalleled,” shares many elements with the culture of K-pop. Like the artists who train alongside each other for years before debuting, “everyone is so eager to improve and so determined to learn from their fellow dancers,” Hwang said.

Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), there is a darker side to the booming music industry. Many idols have forced themselves or have been forced to undergo extreme diets and hours of practice to create a perfect debut image for their groups. According to Koreaboo, one of the most remarkable transformations was undergone by BIG BANG’s T.O.P., who reportedly lost around 20 kg (around 44 lbs) in 40 days by surviving on yanggaeng, a red bean jelly, and drinking water, on top of strenuous exercise and dance rehearsals.

Perpetual harsh judgment from netizens and the public, including negative comments under music videos and on social media like Twitter, and the failure to live up to their own expectations have a significant impact on the mental and physical health of idols. The most extreme example is the suicide of Shinee’s Kim Jonghyun in December of 2017, which exposes the pressure that K-idols face, along with the internalization of problems and stigma against mental health in the Asian community.

Though less daunting than the lives of professional K-pop artists, the demands from dancing have taken a toll on Stuy students. For junior and Stuy Legacy social media manager and member Christine Kim, it is often difficult for the student-led team to handle the heavy Stuy workload and dance. “We don’t have any adults supervising,” Kim said. “We’re in charge of congregating 40 people, making choreography, staging formations, and making a five-minute set to perform on the biggest stages against adult teams.”

The dedication that these dancers have was evident in their decision to condition and go on a team diet prior to their first competition, SAYAW 2018. Kim said, “It wasn’t as restrictive as what most K-pop dancers go through, but it’s an extra step we had to take just to prepare for a competition.”

Junior and former Stuy Legacy member Joy Ha also shared her struggle to maintain a balance between dance and schoolwork. There were also high expectations she had set for herself and the girls’ K-pop crew in Stuy Squad 2016, the annual dance showcase. She recalled, “My co-directors and I strived to create a very much picture perfect set, which made me compare our performances to those of actual groups. I can see how that’s sort of similar to the emphasis that many K-pop groups place on absolute perfection, though we don't have half as much of the pressure.”

To work long hours for an outstanding show is a goal for many performers, but it might be an underwhelming comparison to idols whose every move is under the scrutiny of professionals. Regardless, it is ultimately the determination and passion of both K-pop idols and aspiring hip-hop dancers that overpower the challenges they face. Ha said, “I thought it was so worth it when I performed on stage. It's a super rewarding feeling that I'm sure I wouldn't have experienced if I had just studied all day and had not taken the risk of devoting time to something else.”

From the outside, the dance community might appear exclusive, but Hwang testified that it has come a long way to destroy the nepotism that used to dominate recruitments. She said, “We’re always eager to express and learn side-by-side, and I hope that the dance culture at Stuy will only continue to grow once I leave.”

Though Stuy Squad hosts a variety of dance forms, each having its distinguishing look and cultural background, the K-pop dancers ultimately see their art form as one of many that have taken root at Stuyvesant and are here to stay. “In the end, it’s just one big dance community,” Hwang concluded.