K-pop at SDSU
K-pop at San Diego State University. Courtesy of the university

As a classically trained former professional ballet dancer, I am aware of the prejudice that values Western concert dance as the “canon.” K-pop has unfortunately been marginalized in academia as an Asian and popular dance.

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But K-pop has been a refuge for many students, and, in fact, these same students have been a refuge to me. Their enthusiastic eyes, passion and curiosity have given me the courage to continue studying and advancing the field of K-pop dance studies.

In the U.S., K-pop, in many ways, connects reality and fantasy. Students see K-pop idols’ videos all the time on social media, but barely get a chance to attend concerts or meet the idols in reality. The K-pop industry is firmly built on prodigy education in Korea, so there isn’t much chance for university students in the U.S. to end up working in the K-pop industry. But that is changing. 

I wrote my dissertation on K-pop dance in 2015, but it was not until 2017 that I started combining my research with creative performance. As a visiting assistant professor at Hamilton College in New York, I got a chance to work with teenage refugee K-pop dancers from Thailand. Their stories of survival and resilience through K-pop dance deeply moved me, so much so that, in 2017, I presented a choreography with them, titled “Love Means Love.” 

Today, as an associate professor of dance at San Diego State University, I study how K-pop serves the diverse youth community and opens a channel to share their alternative voice. While K-pop is an outcome of prodigy education from the highly advanced performing arts and entertainment industry in Korea, it is a symbol of youth activism often associated with the LGBTQ, Asian Pacific Islander and Desi American communities. 

Throughout my years of research, I have worked with about 50 K-pop dancers across New York, California and Korea. My research and applied practice led me to write K-pop Dance: Fandoming Yourself on Social Media, which was published last year. And, based on my research and earlier work, I offered the first K-pop theory course in the U.S. this fall — which would not have been possible without SDSU’s support of student diversity. The 80 available seats were quickly filled, and there was a waiting list given the popularity of the course.

Then came another opportunity for me and my students this fall. I asked them if they wanted to dance and nearly 30 students volunteered. Soon thereafter, the San Diego Padres assigned me as a performance director, and a group of students in my class were invited to dance at the Padres’ pre-game show on Sept. 13, as part of the team’s Korean Heritage Night.

Reflecting on the evening, my biggest happiness came from seeing my students’ proud smiles. Consisting of largely non-dance majors, this group had not yet had a chance to perform onstage. Until that point, most had only danced in places like parking lots. Afterward, they celebrated with their families, and friends, sharing photos and thank you notes with me and each other.  

Students have shared how exciting it is to take a course that they have been interested in since childhood but not available anywhere. I am happy to open a room for academic and creative exploration where students discover their voice, learn teamwork, and broaden their perspectives about global pop culture and performing arts.

K-pop dance is like cooking — you don’t know how to make a particular dish until you try it, no matter how many cooking videos you watch. This style of dance introduces a variety of cultural codes and social norms, stage etiquettes, the dance education system, and different cultural and aesthetic expectations. I do not want my teaching to be limited to textbooks. I will keep reflecting on students’ living experiences more than the “canon” and learning from them. 

K-pop may be perceived as a fleeting moment in popular culture to many, but I believe that this ephemeral encounter in college, albeit appearing frivolous, can carry a much longer and sustainable impact on each student’s life. Our students are going through the most precious time in their life — a time when the uncertainty of their futures allow them to open their minds to all possibilities and differences in the world. 

Chuyun Oh is an associate professor of dance at San Diego State University.