Beyond the songs, glamor and idolization of K-pop, the genre is known for its highly choreographed and in sync dance routines. Despite the viral nature of its choreography, the K-pop industry continually ignores the choreographers behind the global craze.
No group better illustrates the reach of K-pop choreography than BTS. Similar to other K-pop groups, BTS’ videos boast massive numbers that extend beyond the official music videos (official MV). The Official MV usually comes accompanied by a separate “official choreography music video” or “performance video,” which includes the same scenes from the official music video but without any storyline or filler — just choreography. Individual songs also have videos of dance practices, which feature the same choreography in the official MV and the performance video but takes place in the dance studio while the team is still “learning” the moves. These videos are simple, using a still camera facing the group. These simplified “dance practices” are then flipped and “mirrored” by fans to make the routine easy to imitate and learn.
This small arsenal packs a big punch. Take BTS’ Fire, for example, choreographed by Keone Madrid. The official MV has 637.9 million views; Fire’s official dance practice has 47 million views; a single live performance has 68.6 million views; and the mirrored dance practice boasts 72 million views. In total, those four videos alone accumulate to over 826 million views on YouTube for a single song with only one choreography. The most shocking fact remains Fire is not BTS’ most-watched video with 637.9 million views — it’s the fourth.
Not all K-pop songs, however, are a global hit like Fire. In a way, these video format possibilities allow for more flexibility should one song not be worth a huge production. As a result, not every K-pop song has multiple videos. Some BTS songs have official MVs but no dance practice videos, such as Mic Drop. Other songs have dance practice videos but not an official MV. BTS’ Silver Spoon, for example, does not have an official MV, but the dance practice has 28 million views and — perhaps even more surprisingly — its mirrored dance practice has 130.5 million views.
The numbers between dance practice and mirrored versions might indicate that while fans enjoy watching choreography, they enjoy learning it even more. Large groups of K-pop choreography enthusiasts will gather from Taiwan to the United States for “Random Play Dance Challenges,” where K-pop songs are played and any attendees with knowledge of the specific choreography join to perform. These vast gatherings are based on K-pop groups performing “Random play cuts” on Korean talk shows, where a song is played and the group members must assemble and dance the given choreography without prompting. On a smaller scale, groups will post “K-pop in public” videos featuring performances of K-pop choreography around the world, from Vietnam to Brussels to Australia. All of these videos receive millions of views, and solely focus on the performance of choreography.
K-pop groups have tapped into this powerful dancing fanbase by initiating dance challenges. BTS featured Nicki Minaj on a version of one of their most famous songs, Idol. Idol‘s Official MV received over 312 million views in just four months, and the Minaj version has over 90.9 million views with a promotion of the #IdolChallenge, the song’s social media dance challenge. Idol choreography is perfectly positioned to go global; it features the South African “Gwara gwara” alongside Bollywood-esque moves. This appeal to different cultures by reflecting familiar styles has had tremendous results. Alongside the thousands of #IdolChallenge tweets, there were multiple Twitter accounts dedicated to accumulating submissions and Vine-reminiscent compilations videos. Even more recently, BTS member J-Hope — known as the lead dancer of BTS who has helped with multiple choreographies — partnered with pop singer Becky G to produce Chicken Noodle Soup, a remake of the 2006 viral hit. The resulting Chicken Noodle Soup challenge led to an array of remakes and covers by famous choreographers.
Despite the viral and vital nature of their work, the choreographers behind K-pop are often given recognition disproportionate to the popularity of the routines they design. The South Korean music industry as a whole must improve its formal recognition of choreographers by awarding them for the work that has made Korean entertainment globally renowned. The absence of categories and awards dedicated to choreographer was evident throughout the slew of 2019 Korean music award ceremonies. While there are various dance-related awards, the awards typically focus on the performers of dance choreography and not the choreographers themselves. For example, the Mnet Asian Music Award for “Best Dance Performance” and SBS Music “Dance Award” have only been given to K-pop idols. Two award shows, Mnet and Gaon Music, do award for the respective categories “Best Choreographer of the Year” and “Style of the Year.” Korean Popular Culture and Arts Awards (대한민국 대중문화예술상), an awards ceremony hosted by the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, has more broadly commended choreographers for their contribution to culture, including K-pop’s Son Seong-deuk (BTS) and Lia Kim.
Beyond formal recognition at award ceremonies, K-pop labels must do more to highlight the choreographers behind their K-pop idols. Only recently have K-pop groups started to highlight the process of learning choreography alongside the choreographers themselves. Of the “Most Liked Dance Videos” category in the 2019 YouTube Rewind, K-pop group Mamamoo’s dance practice to the hit Gogobebe ranked as the 7th most liked dance video of 2019. The video, featuring Mina Myoung, a well-known choreographer out of 1MILLION Dance Studio in Seoul, received 34 million views compared to the Official MV’s 46.8 million. Mamamoo more recently collaborated with 1MILLION’s Minny Park and Lia Kim for HIP, posting a similar in-studio dance practice video, a video of the group learning the moves with Park, and a “plain clothes” version. K-pop group Red Velvet (레드벨벳) recently released Psycho and unexpectedly gained attention for its choreographer, Bailey Sok, a 15-year-old dancer out of Millenium Dance Complex in Los Angeles. Despite these small steps forward, most K-pop labels do not list choreographers in the description of music videos alongside credits for the crew behind the videos.
Names like Son, Myoung, Kim and Sok may be well-known within global dance circles, but they remain minimized in comparison to the idolization of the K-pop superstars they create. As currently stands, K-pop fans remain a critical actor in pressuring labels to more frequently and formally recognize the choreographers. The same viewers who watch, learn and perform K-pop choreography must be the same voices that demand a warranted change.