[Video] Exploring the art of K-pop dance

By Rumy Doo

May J. Lee explains how popular K-pop choreography, at once complex and intuitive, is born

  • Published : Jan 31, 2018 - 13:36
  • Updated : Jan 31, 2018 - 13:51

For choreographer May J. Lee, K-pop dance comes off as a mix of two conflicting features.

It’s complex, incorporating all different genres of dance depending on a song’s concept, but still simple enough to be catchy, says Lee, the co-creator of the dances for Twice’s “Knock Knock” and Jay Park’s “All I Wanna Do.”

Choreography has become inseparable from K-pop, from Psy’s easy-to-follow “Gangnam Style” gallop to BTS’ vigorous on-stage performances, where its members showcase complicated routines in complete sync.

Though all dance is a form of expression, in K-pop, choreography offers an even more direct delivery of the lyrics, according to Lee. 

The dance sequence for “Knock Knock,” for example, features its members knocking on each other’s backs and opening their arms like sliding doors.

“When creating a dance, we start out by directly acting out the words, in a sort of one-dimensional fashion,” said the dancer, whose real name is Lee Ji-hyun, in an interview with The Korea Herald last Friday at Seoul’s 1Million Dance Studio. “Those moves are then developed into bigger movements.”

1Million Studio, a collective of expert dancers who create and teach original choreography, has come into explosive international popularity on YouTube for its K-pop dance videos that often feature celebrities like Jo Kwon and Jia. About 60-70 percent of the studio’s students are foreign, hailing from all parts of the world including Brazil, Mexico and Australia. Lee, a professional dancer of 10 years with a background in hiphop dance, has been with the studio for the past four years.

May J. Lee performs a dance at 1Million Dance Studio in Gangnam-gu, Seoul on Jan. 26. (1Million Dance Studio)

K-pop lyrics tend to be very specific, dealing with subtle emotions and everyday actions, according to Lee. K-pop dance takes these lyrics and turns them into memorable gestures, she says. “We’ll use our hands and fingers a lot to express the words.”

Nowadays, K-pop choreography is the brainchild of multiple creators who contribute snippets to complete a whole. When commissioned a song, choreographers listen to the lyrics repeatedly and create movements for the parts that inspire them, Lee said. Coming up with new moves poses a challenge, and dancers spend hours in front of the mirror playing with gestures.

“You find many of the same themes in K-pop. But we need to make a song pop out from the other songs, through dance.” 

May J. Lee performs a dance at 1Million Dance Studio in Gangnam-gu, Seoul on Jan. 26. (1Million Dance Studio)

It’s hard to categorize K-pop dance, says Lee. Like its music, K-pop dance draws inspiration from multiple genres that range from Latin to hiphop. “All types of dance and movement can be discovered in a K-pop dance.”

Lee defines good choreography as something that fits into the song, its lyrics, the voice of its singer and its mood like a missing piece of the puzzle. “When it all comes together and a song immediately brings to mind its dance, even before the song’s singer -- that’s the best kind of choreography.”

By Rumy Doo (