The Republic of South Korea has deeply rooted dance traditions that date back for thousands of years as well as a vibrant popular dance culture that has exploded over the past three decades. People share meaning through dance within the South Korean culture in a traditional theatrical setting, as a celebratory engagement, and Internet video throughout its evolution. According to Pegge Vissicaro, Joann Keali’inohomoku defines dance culture as “a component of the total cultural knowledge system” (61). Vissicaro says that dance culture is ever changing and dynamic due to evolution of context (61). Since dance culture deals with the conception of a dance or movement form within a larger culture, I want to focus on one major aspect of modern South Korean popular culture: the hip-hop movement from which K-hop emerged.
In modern South Korea, the popular dance culture has a strong western influence as it follows western styles in much of the music. One of the major movement forms, and one that I chose to focus on, is called K-hop: Korean hip-hop. What is unique about K-hop is that it was inspired by American hip-hop, but morphed into it’s own style of both dance and music. K-hop happens everywhere. The streets of both small towns and major cities, like the capitol, Seoul, light up with the sights and sounds of K-hop. Studios offer K-hop lessons for all levels of dancers, national and international dance competitions welcome K-hop crews to battle it out for the championship title, and popular musicians invite K-hopers to the stage. Artists dance for the title of “best in the world.” K-hop mega crew, Lock N’ LOL, competed against crews from over 50 different nations across the globe at the 2015 World Hip-Hop Dance Championship in California (Jordan 1). They took home the gold in their division. This crew, like many others in South Korea, learned how to dance from the most millennial teacher of all: the Internet. “Choreographer and dancer Choi Jung Eun said she had learned hip-hop dance from watching it on YouTube, where she had studied the Lockers, an American troupe that pioneered the locking style…” according to Jordan (1).
People dance in this movement form because it “provide[s] a dream of escape from the poverty of young working-class Koreans,” (Mitchell 23). The K-hop genre of dance really flourished out of what is called the Korean Wave or Hallyu (Um 60). Young Koreans in the early 2000s took part in the movement under strict control of government regulators. “Since the 2001 establishment of the Korean Cultural Contents Agency… all aspects of Korean culture, including music, are increasingly managed from the ‘contents industry’ point of view” (Um 61). The ‘contents industry’ had pushed to bring Korean culture to the global market since the 1990s. They developed a cultural brand called HanStyle that encapsulated the six elements of Korean traditional culture, “language, food, clothing, paper, house and music” (Um 60). One project was the development of K-hop and fusing it with other performing arts. Out of this manufactured cultural wave came an authentic movement among young Koreans who wanted to participate in K-hop on their own terms. The ‘underground’ K-hop scene developed as a rebellion against government regulated arts and culture. “The creative output of the underground hip-hop artists is an invaluable source for the industry while for the fans and audiences this genre is an important component of their youth culture as a symbolic signifier of the individual and their social identity” (Um 61).
The dancers in the Lock N’ LOL dance crew who won gold for mega crews at the 2015 Hip-Hop International World Finals and the smaller all girls group CUPCAKES provided two very different perspectives of the K-hop dance culture. Neither group uses props and dances in controlled settings such as in a studio and on stage. Both perform choreography that was created specifically for those dancers and perfected after hours of rehearsal. The dancing is solely for entertainment and competitive purposes. One difference besides the size of the groups is the clothing choice. Lock N’ LOL incorporated their outfits as a means of communicating messages to the audience through color choices and through graphics printed on the shirts themselves, such as letters that spell out words when the team lines up in particular formations. In their dance, CUPCAKES did not have a uniform or costume; they wore relaxed clothing that allowed freedom of movement. Both crews also take advantage of space, time, and energy in their performances.
The micro feature space plays an important role as both dance groups use a combination of stationary and locomotor movements as they perform combinations of pops and stretches in place as well as hops and quick footwork across the floor. They dance in perfect synchronization at times then vary their movements from dancer to dancer or from small group to small group. In order to make it all flow together, both crews utilize the aspect of design through staged formations. Dancers weave in and out of each other while doing a house step then strut into a V formation, for example.
The dancers also use time to connect with each other and with the audience. The accompaniment in both cases is prerecorded professional musicians. They select music to fit the messages they want to convey as a group. For example, Lock N’ LOL put together a medley of music reminiscent of the 1990s hip-hop scene, so the choreography matched the beats and lyrical flow. CUPCAKES seems to prefer female singers with sultry overtones and slower tempos to match their style of movement.
Lastly, the energy of each group is impacted by all of the factors previously mentioned. K-hop is a result of multiple energy qualities combined into one dance number. Sustained energy and percussive energy are the primary energy categories Lock N’ LOL uses while CUPCAKES focuses on sustained and swinging energy primarily. Many of the trick steps in K-hop fall under the collapse category because of B-boy influences.
The popular dance culture in South Korea is based on movements started as recently as the 1990s with influences from both American hip-hop and K-pop. There is a strong emphasis on K-hop crews learning in studio and performing on stage due to the government’s push for increased exports of popular culture. However, the strength of the ‘underground’ K-hop scene still has a strong influence on Korean youth. Like other dance forms these examples demonstrate that K-hop is performed out of passion for the art. The growth of an authentic dance culture from inauthentic roots, in modern times, is unique to South Korea.
GIRIN Choreography | CUPCAKES | Beyonce ‘Yonce’ YouTube. N.p., 28 Mar. 2014. Web. 12
Jordan, Miriam. “Foreign Dance Crews Break America’s Hip-Hop Hegemony —
Philippines, South Korea ‘Pop’ at World Competition; no Lewd Gestures.” Wall Street Journal, New York, N.Y., 2015. http://login.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1702797789?accountid=4485.
YouTube. N.p., 10 Aug. 2015. Web. 11 Nov. 2016.
Mitchell, Tony. Global Noise: Rap and Hip-hop outside the USA. Middletown, CT:
Wesleyan UP, 2001. Print.
Um, Hae-Kyung. “The poetics of resistance and the crossing of Borders: Korean hip-
hop and ‘cultural reterritorialisation’.” Popular Music 32.Special Issue 01 (2013): 51-64. Cambridge Core. Cambridge University, 06 Feb. 2013. Web. 09 Nov. 2016.
Vissicaro, Pegge. Studying Dance Cultures around the World: An Introduction to
Multicultural Dance Education. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Pub., 2004. Print.