This paper will reflect on a short piece of ethnographic research I conducted, into K-pop in London dance schools. Firstly, by considering the phenomenon of K-pop dance through practicing participation in a dance class. Secondly, through 2 short interviews – with a student who took up K-pop dancing, and a K-pop dance teacher – focusing on how it came to be so popular in dance schools. Due to Covid19, this research took place in online spaces using Zoom which came with challenges in terms of field constraints, technical problems, and adapting to the pandemic in attempting to procure reliable data.
Part 1 – Practicing Participant
Many of the K-pop classes and communities I looked at attending for this research have an emphasis on judgement free spaces that allow absolute beginners to feel comfortable. This means that a non-participating observer would be a very inappropriate, and likely unwelcome role to take in this engagement. Apprenticeship provides an optimum context within which the researcher can gain entry into a space and conduct meaningful research without disrupting the community. Downey et al (2015) argue that apprenticeship makes an excellent site in understanding “what cultural learning actually is” (p185). While the scope of this project will not allow a lengthy immersion typical of an apprenticeship, I will use a practicing participant method for this research, trusting that what is learned by participating yields equally important insights. This approach is limited in that, it can be difficult to assess the practitioners outside the learning space of a class and therefore, the behaviours observed with this method are bounded by the context of the class.
To begin, I booked a class with LOVEKPOPDANCELONDON (LKDL) from Base Studios, we enter a Zoom waiting area as the teacher prepares the first class. The song we will be learning in this class is used as waiting music, perhaps as a suitable build-up for entering the class. The teacher lets us know to warm up on our own as there’s connectivity issues. She allows us in after a few moments and opens up by apologising for the double delay – this class was meant to be held in the Base Dance Studios but moved online due to the announcement of yet another lockdown. Because Zoom took time to set up, she informs the class that they will run over time, but people are free to leave earlier if they need to.
Now that we are in a Zoom gallery mode and it is possible to see inside people’s homes, the teacher requests we do not record the class, in order to preserve people’s privacy and ensure people can dance comfortably. I have only attended 2 classes previously with LKDL, so I am not familiar with the students here, however many of them seem to know each other and greet each other accordingly. Due to the earlier delay, we moved through each section of the choreography very quickly, there were very few breaks where people disappeared off screen to drink water. In apprentice-based research, note taking differs from traditional fieldwork due to the impracticalities of doing so in an active and intensive practice-based environment (Downey et al). I quickly realised there was no Zoom equivalent of the brief catch ups and chats people had with each other in physical classes during the breaks, the breaks being much shorter. This hindered some of the observations I had anticipated and affected my original plan to take notes during breaks. A traditional note-taking approach feels absurd to even try, given the intensity of the class and the speed we are moving through the choreography. I adapted instead, by reflecting on the experience post-class, which also became a reflection on body – K-pop dancing is challenging. I have danced other forms before but lacked the movement style required for this routine. Mauss (1979) asserts that a person’s society may not provide an appropriate body technique for certain movements – a useful consideration for comparing dance styles.
Participation allows for the ethnographer to reflect on the challenges, errors and progress by engagement in the practice (Marchand, 2010). With the limitations of Zoom classes in observing participants, I am still able to recognise the appeal and attraction of learning this routine. Drawing on existing theoretical frameworks of skill, one can argue that the relational capacity the students have with the original K-pop artists, operates as a transmission of both, the physical skill of learning the choreography, and what Ingold (2000 p.352) refers to as “scaffolding” – building upon the student’s learning through mimicry and repetition. I would extend this further and propose that there is also a transformation of the imitation of the dance, into a shift in perspective or understanding, that comes with the repetitive actions of learning. Comments made in the class reflect this, as students compare this current choreography with previous ones they have learned and observe that K-pop artists are creating more challenging routines. This fuels the students existing admiration and extends their desire to keep learning. Thus, although for many this is a hobby, it becomes a transformative action through the process of rehearsing and skill scaffolding, which provides a transformative process for deeper knowledge through embodied learning (Ingold, 2000).
Part 2 – The Interviews
Min teaches K-pop at Danceworks. He came to London for a dance job he was hired on and stayed here to develop his career. It took a few attempts to arrange an interview as we were coming up to Christmas and the rules around Covid19 were changing frequently, but we finally settle on a Zoom meeting for Jan 4th.
Even though Min is trained in other dance styles, he began teaching K-pop in London after noticing there were no Korean teachers in London doing it. I ask if he was aware of the popularity of K-pop when he started teaching.
“When I came here, I didn’t know that K-pop is really popular here… I thought that K-pop is just in Korea because that is Korean culture.”
In the same location he also teaches contemporary but tells me that K-pop is much more popular. “Contemporary dance is not commercial, it’s a little bit artistic” and he found students who came to his contemporary classes struggled “if they want to do contemporary dance, they have to train a lot”.
K-pop, I’m told, “is way easier than just learning one style….because they can check the original movement on video and they can see first and follow…. So they see something like an idol, that is so fantastic and the stage is so great and the idol is dancing so beautiful, so when they dance, they can feel like, “Oh, I’m like them” it’s that kind of feeling… So that feeling can make them think to specialize a bit (in dance).” Marcel Mauss (1979) observed that cultural shaping takes place through “body techniques” which can be more competently performed through cultivation. This echoes the sentiment of students during the class I participated in, who appeared to have transcended a desire for basic imitation, into deeper learning.
I ask him why he thinks K-pop is so popular right now in the West. He is reluctant to answer this. “If I dig really deep deeper, I can say a lot of things, but it’s really complicated…” I stay patient hoping the silence will elicit a response, which works out well. “I also experienced K-pop and I was really young as well. And there also was a fandom culture in Korea. At that time, we didn’t have, you know, a really global internet system… so we just had like, our idols in Korea. And then I think 10 years ago, the internet was, it was really increased globally know, and then the speed was also increased a lot, so everyone can watch any other cultures”.
This also explains the lag in K-pop’s popularity within Korea vs globally. Korea established high speed internet a few years ahead of Europe, and because the world was not homogeneously synchronized in terms of connectivity and speed, not everyone had the same access (Hong, 2014). But once the internet, especially platforms like Youtube, became more widely accessible, so did the cultural interactions between global communities.
Min’s students are a diverse crowd, in terms of both ages and nationalities. Just before our meeting cuts off, Min tells me, he sees his K-pop class as bringing together people who would otherwise never meet but are able to integrate due to a shared interest in K-pop. This is just a small example of the global appeal K-pop has with audiences.
Comparing this with Mira, who had attended salsa nights in a small Milton Keynes studio for a few years before trying out K-pop when she moved to London. For the first time it was intimidating.
“It felt like a big, like a very big thing to try. Like it would be you know, new, different, I’m not sure if I can do it. That’s not my usual thing. Would I actually be good at it? But when I heard they were learning the song Kill This Love, I decided that it was a good thing to try because, I kind of like… that song and we would fool around with the dance at home. So I was like …this could be interesting to try. Let’s do this”
The DGC classes work differently from other London studios because students learn an entire song’s choreography, and there is an opportunity to perform it and be in a cover music video.
I ask Mira about the phenomenon within K-pop dancing of doing cover videos. “Isn’t that the culture of like idolizing them and copying them, wanting to be like them…I feel that that’s where it [Idol culture] comes from.” I ask if they make money from shooting these music video covers.
“So, if you actually decide to film, to audition, and even go for the filming, you have to be ready to pay for all the costs and everything. Every student who wants to be in a video pays for it themselves… you have to buy your costume… you pay for the extra rehearsals, you pay for the filming space…”.
The students it seems, invest a lot of time and money into these cover videos.
“…it’s very, … very fan based. The biggest difference I noticed between the people that go to K-pop and the people that do Latin, with the Latin dance thing… it’s very much about the social experience…Whereas in K-pop, it’s very, very much fan-based, based on the band. Like, you know, people will go for all the dances of a certain band…the ones that go all out are pretty much, they are the biggest fans of it”.
Because of this fandom-based culture, the community revolves heavily around liking specific groups in the genre. In both Min and Mira’s description, for those dancing in these classes, socialising begins with a shared interest in K-pop and slowly extends beyond the classroom.
Finally, I ask Mira why she thinks K-pop has such a global appeal. “Because, the artists and the bands, they are good. They are. There is amazing choreo for you to learn…if you look at, Western pop or anything like that, like you don’t see choreo that you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I want to learn that. I wish I could do that.’ Whereas, in K-pop you have amazing choreo that you can learn, you have amazing filming, which draws you into it.” This is reiterated by authors like Hong (2014) who suggests, K-pop offers the song and the visual hook.
“The biggest and most obvious difference between K-pop and western pop is in the dancing. MNET’s Shin explains “In the United States, with the popular bands, the choreography is very different.” And by different he means bad.” (ibid p97).
In asking the question of K-pop’s popularity, I recognise this has a Western centric and patronising tone to it. British Invasion bands and American pop music have permeated global audiences with far less investment and were able to transcend cultural barriers with relative ease (Hong, 2014). The reverse of Korean influence over global audiences should not be so surprising; it is easily accessible and has significant investment not only from its creators but the fans as well (Leung, 2017). There are many insights to reflect on with regards to K-pop and its success that go far beyond the scope of this project, but the dance movement it has created in London offers a space for fans to physically express their love for it. As Hong (2014, p98) noted, music is able to transcend national and language barriers because it is so “directly felt”. The ability to dance to your favourite artists takes this sentiment literally, offering an embodied experience of Korean culture. The methodological approach of apprenticeship and skilled learning provides a distinctive insight into the everyday details of enculturation and transmission and is therefore an ideal way to tackle this type of topic (Dalidowicz, 2015). Researching through Zoom still poses challenges; with mics cutting off, and cameras not always on, it’s difficult to observe the type of behaviours and interactions you would see in a studio-based class, similarly, my interview with Min was cut off abruptly due to connectivity. Yet despite this, actively participating offers perspective through embodied learning, and its transformative characteristics, that a bystander would not derive from the outside.
You can learn more about and support the London dance schools mentioned in this paper at the following websites –
- Base Studios
- Dance Works
- Min can be found at https://www.kpopinlondonmin.com/ or on instagram
Dalidowicz, Monica. 2015. Crafting Fidelity: Pedagogical Creativity in Kathak Dance. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (JRAI)
Downey et al 2014. Apprenticeship as Method: Embodied learning in ethnographic practice. Qualitative Research 15. P185
Hong, Y. E. 2014. The birth of Korean cool: how one nation is conquering the world through pop culture. pp.90-101 https://www.overdrive.com/search?q=4E408D1E-7262-49BA-AD4F-F06B308AA63A.
Marchand, T. 2010. Making knowledge: Explorations of the indissoluble relation between minds, bodies, and environment. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 16, S1-S21. Retrieved January 5, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40606062
Marcel Mauss 1973 Techniques of the body, Economy and Society, 2:1, 70-88, DOI: 10.1080/03085147300000003 Accessed on Jan 6 2021
Leung. L.Y 2017. Ch5 Unrequited Love in Cottage Industry? Managing K-pop (Transnational) Fandom in the Social Media Age. pp. 87-109 In The Korean Wave. Yoon, T. and Jin, D., Lanham: Lexington Books. London.