Korea to London: Research Proposal

Abstract

This project proposes to look at the relationship between K-Pop groups and their fans, beyond the consumption level of fandom and towards hands-on engagement with K-Pop music through dance. Through participant observation in a London dance school K-Pop class, and an interview with a K-Pop dance instructor, it will look at the ways in which fans engage with the music and pursue the hobby of dance with little or no prior experience, creating a media intersection between producers and consumers that perpetuate the notion of Henry Jenkin’s media convergence, where old and new media collide (Jenkins, 2006). It will seek to uncover the communities that arise in these spaces and the social dynamics of amateur dancers engaging in a cycle of consumption and production of a common interest.

Summary

Existing ethnography in the field of dance has conceived that all dances are purposeful products that carry all the social markings of the time, place and culture (Kealiinohomoku, 1969). In the last 10 years K-Pop has permeated throughout the globe, first making its way through Asian markets before finally taking Western consumers by storm (Glasby, 2020).

K-Pop is no longer simply music that is listened to, you watch it and furthermore, you dance it. Dance is one of the most important features of K-Pop music for both its aesthetic function, and marketing opportunity (Romano, 2020). The evolution of K-Pop as a music enjoyed through listening, towards a complex art form that is immersive and explored through the analysis of lyrical and narrative symbols has resulted in a very actively engaged fanbase (ibid).  Choreographies in K-Pop are designed to unify the catchy music under an overall aesthetic, usually brought together by successful choreographers in both Korea and America (Glasby, 2020). These routines serve an additional function – groups encourage their fans to learn the choreographies and produce new content through cover videos and fan interpretations. It is common practice to release a dance video alongside the more cinematic or narrative style music video in order to facilitate this learning (ibid). This aligns to the participatory culture highlighted by Jenkins who observes that through new media technologies “fans and other consumers are invited to actively participate in the creation and circulation of new content” (Jenkins, 2006)

 Due to this unique approach to marketing from the Korean music industry, London dance schools have seen an influx of K-Pop classes and even entire schools dedicated to learning K-Pop choreographies, often fully booked with participants eager to learn their favourite routines. These attendees do sometimes include those with dance backgrounds but often these classes consist of those who have never danced before, for whom K-Pop is their first interaction with a dance environment.

This phenomenon of cultural circulation has been observed in many scholarly frameworks, and within anthropological terms, through understandings of exchange (Mauss 1976, Bourdieu 1977, Appadurai, 1996). These critical perspectives have often placed cultural exchange in a conventional context, with a focus on formal process and mainstream conduits of cultural economy. This framework may therefore be able to offer a model through which to understand the informal transcultural exchanges operating between the Korean music industry, and the engagement by fans in content production of amateur dance videos.

Therefore, I propose to investigate the dance studios in London, where K-Pop is taught and learned, with the aim to analyse how the studio becomes an arena for the collective pursuit of fandom-based interests and participation between the fans and the groups they follow. Subsequent questions such as: What kind of communities are formed in these environments? What cultural productions take place in these spaces? What informal cultural flows arise through fan practices and pursuits in the dance studio?

Methodology:

The core method of data collection will be participant observation. Due to the ongoing circumstances with Covid19, this will likely take place on Zoom. Initially, I will focus on observing and understanding the various backgrounds of those who come to these classes through the common self-introductions found in these classes, additionally I will notice the interactions that take place in these spaces.

Examining dance from an ethnographic perspective focuses on dance as a cultural knowledge that is embodied in movement, particularly, but not exclusively, dance (Skylar, 1991). Thus, I will adopt the role of student (Skinner, 2012) and proceed through an embodied approach, which I will use to inform my interpretations of meaning and attempting to “feel” the point of view of the subjects (DeWalt and DeWalt, 2011). Danceworks, Base Dance Studios and At Your Beat in London are all professional dance school for many types of styles. They’ve recently begun teaching K-Pop classes often with teachers who trained in Korea or other Asian dance schools. DGC is another dance school that solely teaches full K-Pop choreographies in London. I will conduct an interview with one of these teachers to better understand the motivation in teaching K-Pop choreographies as opposed to other styles. I will use a semi-structured format that allows the conversation to flow beyond ‘yes’ and ‘no’ style answers (Skinner, 2012) to encourage revelatory discussion.

Using existing anthropological theories of exchange, I will be exploring the closely interrelated relationship between the traditional, top down, corporate music production to consumer process, and the grassroots cultural circulation of content by amateur fans and dance hobbyists, who are able to act as both, consumers and producers, of this global cultural phenomenon. This project will expand on existing ethnographic work of dance as cultural exchange by illustrating the transnational nature of K-Pop fan communities in dance schools. It will offer insight into the dynamic process of cultural consumption, involvement and creation through fandom activities.

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