At shortly past 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 1, L.A.-based dancer-choreographer Aimee Lee Lucas greets the large crowd inside a Los Angeles Convention Center meeting hall. KCON, the annual convention dedication to Korean pop culture, is in full effect and the crowd is ready to dance. Some have been in this room nearly all day, running on and off of the dance-floor area as a string of Korean pop songs play. Others have arrived just in time to see Lucas bust out a few flirtatious moves to “Shake It,” a recent hit for all-female group Sistar.
As Lucas dances, others in the crowd join her. The audience knows this dance quite well, so Lucas spends the next hour teaching them what is essentially a remix routine, intertwined with her own moves.
This group is so large that, at one point, Lucas asks the first few rows of people to sit so that the students in the back can watch and learn the steps. They range in age from small children to grownups, but teenagers rule the room. They are all more than excited to shake their hips and toss their hair in proper music video fashion. At KCON, Lucas and her Music Video Party (MVP) are a hit.
“Classes are intimidating,” says Lucas in an interview earlier in the day. “I feel like if I call it a party, which it is, people will come and have fun.”
About three years ago, Lucas started MVP Elite, a company that provides large K-pop dance classes in various locations. At one point, she held classes weekly in Koreatown. These days, she and two other instructors, Michael Avelino and Danielle Day, bring the workshops to conventions and special events that coincide with concerts. At KCON, Lucas and her team ran two days of programming, the “Dance All Day” room, which includes six classes, two competitions and sessions with special guests.
Lucas estimates that the majority of her students in the ethnically diverse K-pop fandom are not Korean. Neither is she. Lucas is of Filipino heritage and she grew up outside of San Francisco. When she went to work in Seoul, she did it without knowing the language or Korean customs and business practices. Plus, she had no idea that K-pop was becoming a massive, global phenomenon. “K-pop kind of fell in my lap,” she says.
Before getting into K-pop, Lucas worked in L.A. as an assistant to choreographer Shaun Evaristo. They uploaded videos of concept choreography to YouTube, where the work was discovered by industry folks in Korea. Ultimately, Lucas made the move to Seoul to work as a dancer and “video vixen” before taking on choreography work. During this period, she was part of the YG Entertainment team and had the chance to work with famed group Big Bang, solo artist Se7en and others.
After returning to Los Angeles, Lucas found work in talent management. Meanwhile, she decided to try teaching dance with a one-off, free class in North Hollywood to celebrate K-pop band Big Bang's first concert in L.A. It was an immediate success, and Lucas found her calling as a dance teacher. Now, MVP Elite is her full-time gig.
K-pop's moves aren't terribly different from what you would see in U.S. pop music — watch enough K-pop videos and you'll see the nods to Michael Jackson and late-'70s and early-'80s street dancers frequently.
But there are some unique elements. When Lucas worked for YG Entertainment, she learned that the choreography was intended to work in a club setting, adding that the crowds in Korean nightclubs are “packed like sardines.” So you won't see a lot of high kicks or grands jetés in the videos. You will see a lot of tight, sharp movements. When a group member moves forward for a solo, it might look like a strut through a packed club.
K-pop often incorporates elements of hip-hop and various genres of dance music, and its popularity has spread with the help of music videos, so the choreography is closely connected to the song itself. To illustrate this point, Lucas moves her wrist in a circle “Gangnam Style.” These days, lasso-miming and galloping are linked with Psy's mega-hit. The K-pop fans, she says, can easily match up a dance move with the video in which it appeared.
Because of that connection between music and choreography, K-pop “cover dances,” where dancers upload videos of themselves performing routines associated with big songs, are part of the fan culture. Of course, learning the moves from a music video is nothing new. If you grew up in the late 1980s, you might recall trying to teach yourself Janet Jackson's dance from “Rhythm Nation.” When Lucas was a kid, she honed her own skills by mimicking 'N Sync's routine from “Bye Bye Bye.”
But the K-pop industry has helped pushed this connection between the song and the dance to the next level by releasing “dance practice” videos, helping fans learn the dances at home. Starship Entertainment, the company behind Sistar, released one such video for “Shake It” in late June. The cover dances have become so popular that people are hosting dedicated competitions. MVP Elite planned its own such contest at KCON.
In between classes and events, MVP Elite hosts what's called “open floor,” where anyone can dance and many of the people in the room do. This is when the current passion for K-pop is most obvious. Throughout the day, fans can tweet their requests at MVP Elite, but they won't know when a song will played. When the first note of a song drops, you can see people from all corners of the room stop, identify it and run to the center of the floor.
For the biggest hits of the weekend, the crowd sometimes features more than 15 kids all dancing in sync. The dancers may not know one another, but they know every move to the song. One or two will emerge as the soloists, and there never seems to be any fighting over who gets that job. Lucas calls it a “dance language,” where the kids immediately understand what to do without saying a word.
Inside MVP Elite's “Dance All Day” room, Lucas gets to see a side of young people that others in their lives might not notice. She mentions that a lot of the kids in the room are normally introverted and may not be able to find anyone at home who shares their interests. Here, in this big room where a ton of teens are showing off their love of K-pop, they can be a little more free. “They think they're shy, but they're actually not,” she says. “You see it on the floor.”
She adds, “It's like karaoke — you give them one song and they can't let go of the mic.”