K-Pop & the Collective Body

If I were to pick one thing that makes K-pop stand out over other pop music it would be dancing. Not since the death of the boy and girl group in the 2000s has the West seen much dancing at all in music. Even at the heights of the nineties there was no collective dancing as what we see in K-pop. The effort put into dancing in Korea is unparalleled within pop music history. Each member of a group is required to be at least a great dancer. They must be able to pull off complex movements as an individual and as part of a group. The collective dance is key to K-pop but it is not always pulled off.

The many ways in which the collective bodies of a K-pop group moves can tell us things about a group. For some groups, the dance charts an evolution, for others it is a statement of unity.

Nine Muses’ troubles with members has been well documented yet the effect it has on their dances has not. They have consistently failed to do well on the charts since their debut in 2010, and we can find part of the reason for that in their dance. No Playboy is a complete mess. The production is cheap and it seemingly wants to play to the weaknesses of the group’s vocals.

The dance at first glance is what you would expect from the first ever supermodel-dols. Each members struts her stuff across the stage as if it were a runway. After this intro though, they delve into a cavalcade of awkward, erratic movements. The model like movements could have been something interesting to take away from an otherwise failure of a debut. But their long, skinny bodies end up hurting them when coupled with a dance like this. They are all protruding elbows and knees. What should have been elegant looks awkward as a result.

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Cut to their next single Figaro, which is in general a vast improvement, but brings up problems that would last a lot longer for Nine Muses than bad production. First of all, my least favorite thing in group dancing, the walk around. This is when the member who was last singing has to get back into formation by walking all the way around the group to the back. It is distracting to watch as usually not a lot is happening elsewhere and shows a lack of thought being put into the overall machinations of the dance. In nearly every case, it is clear that it could have been avoided. It ruins what it is otherwise a great mix of perfectly synchronised model and disco movements in this song.

It wasn’t until they were back to having nine members after a series of line-up changes that the dance come together. They returned with Dolls and continued refining their dance until their best yet, Glue. The shame of this is that it was also their last song with this particular group. The changes they went through prevented their dance from finding its footing for so long. It took four songs into their second run as nine to come back with something that really worked. Everything from No Playboy to Gun was mediocre at best.

Glue shows a group who are finally moving as one. They move from formation to formation swiftly and gracefully. A lot of the time they are split in two which is an efficient and satisfying way to control a large group. They even managed to use the walk around yet not let it distract due to these dual formations which can act like a kind of wall to those walking around.

Larger groups will always have this problem so I’m not singling out Nine Muses. One group has shown that coherence and quality can go together when it comes to big groups though. This may be due to their split nature, but EXO have consistently delivered when it comes to choreography and delivery. Their concept of a Korean half and a Chinese half becoming carries over into their dance. This plays out by first having one half performing the first part then being replaced by the other half. For the climax all of the members are on stage performing together. This has been their style for every single when all 12 members were performing. How they perform this is also interesting.

The changing of members here also poses some problems for EXO, but we’ll come back to that later. What’s really interesting is EXO’s manipulation of the stage and their bodies around it. Coming off the back of the ‘Growl’ music video, they began to interact directly with the camera. It would sweep in and out of their formations, giving us insights into places we hadn’t seen before. It adds a layer of participation that works so well with EXO’s fangirls.

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EXO also handle the shifting of groups within the one performance well. In ‘Wolf,’ they dramatically ran off stage while the rest run back on stage. It works to transition not only the dance but the song too. In ‘Growl,’ they used both sides of the stage as opposing groups. When the song changed, the camera just has to turn around and the switch is made instantly. ‘Overdose’ uses the same technique as ‘Wolf’ but also adds some new elements. The opening is especially great where the camera flows all over the stage to give time to each member. Each performance showcases great form and structure while sticking to the 50/50 theme. They contain some of the most complex moves in K-pop yet never let one move dominate a dance.

The problem of losing members has caused EXO to adapt their style to something functional but lacking for their latest single, ‘Call Me Baby’. Instead of 12, there was 10 (and now maybe 9, oh no wait 8). They kept the idea of not having all members on stage at once but this time it didn’t have to be half and half. Any amount of them can be on stage from 1 to 10 and every time it works. It helps build a more seamless dance as they are not slaves to a formula anymore. What they make up for in structure they lose in theme.

To find a group with a real unity in performance we can look to EXO’s labelmates, SHINee. In particular their most recent singles ‘Sherlock’ and ‘Everybody’ have shown an attention to detail that exemplifies their work. In both, they exhibit a manic kinetic energy between each of them. Seemingly every move they make is connected or passed between them. Even when one member is on his own, the others soon mimic a move he did. These songs are the best examples of a group as one. Each member is only part of a larger performance and each is integral to it working.

It is the ultimate advantage of a smaller group. Bodies move gracefully and collide on a K-pop stage in all manner of ways. When stripped down to five or six they do this with great beauty. SHINee’s ability and clarity of movement is the best example of this. They use their bodies in increasingly interesting and amazing ways to attach greater meaning to their work.

Nine Muses could certainly learn a lot from both of these groups of boys.

This is only a tiny window into what K-pop bodies can achieve. There are so many different takes on the type of dances I just talked about and then there are some that approach it completely differently. VIXX’s themes, miss A’s simplicity, Infinite’s synchronicity, and 2pm’s acrobatics are only some examples of the wide possibilities used by K-pop acts. Each one is as interesting as the last and they all offer new spins on old ideas, something so intrinsic to what K-pop is.

What do you think of these groups’ dances? What are some of your favorites we didn’t mention? Share your thoughts in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.