K-pop contains several elements of musical performance which draws in an audience with a diversity of interests and backgrounds. Whether you’re in it for the dancing, music, idols, or an emotionally complex combination of all the above elements along with many others, you can’t deny that K-pop stands out from other musical forms in its strive for nothing less than human perfection in performing complex choreography to catchy pop tunes.
Seoulbeats’ March Madness Ultimate Idol Showdown has generated many conversations on which idol is better than who in a specific aspect, but none of the discussions have gotten as fiery as the ones debating over who are K-pop’s best dance idols. This roundtable is for all the dance snobs who want to discuss the qualifications (and disqualifications) of K-pop’s best idol dancers, and to come to an “agree to disagree” consensus on who is the ultimate dance idol.
What qualities do you look for in a “good” dancer? Who are K-pop’s best male and female idol dancers?
Camiele: I grew up with the likes of Debby Allen, Alvin Ailey, Fred Astaire, Michael and Janet Jackson, James Brown, and so many b-boys and b-girls it’d be impossible to name them all. The dancers that most impress me are all in that vein — hard-hitting, sharp, and pure organic emotion.
The best dancers are the baddest because, though it’s not outside of their skills, it’s just small aspect of their dancing. I dig BoA, to a point. She is always on point. However, there’s nothing behind her eyes, nothing I feel myself when she moves. I really love Min because she’s sharp, tackles choreography, and emotes like nobody’s business.
A lot of people tell me because someone has a wider dance vocabulary that makes them better, when in fact that has about 10% to do with being a great dancer. Yes, being able to draw from more gives you an advantage, but that doesn’t make you a better dancer in many cases. After all, you can be a master of 10 different styles but be mediocre in all of them. The best dancers take what they know and make it as sharp and fine-tuned as they can. And that’s why I adore Minzy. Both she and Min dance hard, with so much passion and energy it affects me. She doesn’t have the widest musical vocabulary, but every time I see her dance she’s positively on. There’s nothing loose or haphazard about her movement from what I see.
For the lads, if we’re talking about just pure dance, I will always love Yunho. Whenever I see him dance, there’s nothing but passion in the way he interprets choreography. His heart and soul is in every bloody dance move! If we’re talking about what everyone calls “hip-hop” (just b-boying but packaged in a way that’s more digestible for a more mainstream audience), it’s a toss-up between Eunhyuk and Taeyang. Both possess an understanding of how to move that just hypnotizes me. If we’re talking straight-up, South Bronx, cardboard dancefloor b-boying, I’m giving all that glory to Jay Park. Not only does he understand the history, foundation, and art of hip-hop , he knows how to create routines that are solid, strong, powerful, and technically gorgeous. Since I grew up in and around hip-hop and b-boying culture, he just takes me back to what I love. Nothing like some good-old nostalgia to make your bias known.
Leslie: To me, dance comes down to two things primarily: technique and style. I’m really detail oriented when it comes to dance so I notice things like finger movements and head and joint rotations in conjunction with the basic step. It’s the marriage of precision in getting the steps down with how they filter the moves through their own style. And that’s why I find comparisons hard to make.
For instance, as much as I adore Yunho’s dancing, I can’t deny how much Kai hypnotizes me, but their styles are very different. Yunho emphasizes more of a sharpness while Kai goes for fluidity between moves. With many more favorites beyond them, I just can’t pick a favorite male dancer. As far as female dancers go though, there’s not much room for comparison because of their unfortunate lack of choreography beyond hand/arm movements and sassy walking. That’s why I always say BoA is queen. She consistently gets great choreography, proving over and over again her skill as a dancer.
Alolika: I don’t really understand the nitty-gritty; when it comes to dance, I am a rather gullible consumer, way too easily swayed by coordinated and energetic dance sequences. However, if there is one thing that makes a dance performance worth remembering, it has to be expressions. I take it for granted that K-pop idols will be good at dancing. After all, they specialize in that sector but I have seen very few dancers “dance with their face.”
Dance as performative art speaks a language and facial expressions are those figures of speech which accessorize the language. If a dancer’s expression is not in sync with their body movements then there are high chances that their intended message may get diffused, or worse, contorted into something else. “Sexy” girl group dances with vulnerable expressions create an uncomfortable performance while the same with a confident expression can make the performance extremely enjoyable and sexy, without the objectification imperative.
If there is a dancer whose body and expressions are in sync then it has to be Kai. Even if people don’t focus on his steps, his facial expressions in itself turn out to be an enticing performance. I wanted to avoid drawing comparisons, but to assert my point I feel compelled to mention Sehun. While Sehun has fluidity in his moves, his face appears dead, and therefore, fails to grab audience attention. His dance does not speak to me unlike Kai’s whose each move adds to the performer-audience interaction.
Pat: Like Alolika, I am also a gullible consumer. When it comes to those whose roles are dancers, I look at their performance in the given choreography and what they do outside it where they show their personal style. My eyes also tend to stray with hip-hop-based dancers, just a matter of me preferring ballet and contemporary dances. While I initially would also say Kai, I find his freestyle dancing to be repetitive and while I’m not a ballet dancer at all, I do watch alot of ballet and that find his technique can be quite messy. So for males, while he isn’t included in the tournament, I definitely go for Vixx‘s N. His Blindfold Dance is just different from what most idol dancers do and it gets me every time.
Gaya: Unlike the other dancers on the team, by background is in Bharathanatyam. I don’t have a lot of specific technical knowledge of the Western forms from which K-pop draws its inspiration, but I do have fun relating my knowledge of my artform to the dances I see in MVs and music shows.
The three pillars of Bharathanatyam are Nritta (rhythmic movements) Natya (interpretive gestures, poses and actions) and Nritya (the combination of the former two), and I think K-pop choreography really adheres to these pillars. Especially in group performances where the focus is on more than one person, each member can come together to play out a story to the audience, just like Bharathanatyam performances do.
I see all the Kai love here, but I have to confess that my favourite male dancer is actually Eunhyuk. He may have bowed out in the first round of polling, but his dancing has the emotion and expression (or bhava) that captivate me. Kai and Taemin are great too, but the former lacks experience and the latter, inexplicably, has become harder to connect to on stage.
Lindsay: For me, there is no K-pop without dance. Sure, I appreciate a good ballad or a good drama MV but at the end of the day, I’m not satisfied if I don’t get a killer dance version as well. Perhaps this is because dance has always been a huge part of my life, as it has for many of the writers here, and likewise, I associate it with attractiveness and it plays a big part in my appreciation of idols.
I think it is difficult to have one overarching definition of “good” with dance. There are so many aspects — as everyone has been mentioning — but there are so many different types and specializations that it really all comes down to personal preference. Yes, we’d all like to see emotion, precision, and good technique, but enjoying someone’s dancing goes beyond that. Maybe the way a certain idol’s body moves just speaks to you, or maybe the facial expressions allow you to overlook the less than perfect technique. Although I know what it means to be a “good” dancer, I care much more about how much a person’s dancing speaks to me on a personal level.
Instead of bringing up the usual — and worthy — choices that everyone else has mentioned again, I’ll just say that I’ve been keeping my eye on the dance line of Topp Dogg (Hansol, B-Joo, Xero, and Hojoon) because they show great potential in many aspects of dance, especially as a team. As for ladies, I find myself drawn to SPICA and their expression of attitude through dance. If I can’t have a girl group do BoA-level choreography, at least I can have a girl group that dances with some spunk and emotion.
Lo: I know hip-hop and b-boying are hard. Lord knows I can’t do anything in that family. That said, I would chew off my left foot to see k-pop dancers doing anything else, especially jazz, which is my style. Triple pirouettes, axels, calypsos and intricate footwork, baby. Of course, to be decent at those, you need 10 years of practice and serious a ballet foundation. K-pop does not have time for that.
Who my favorite dancers are is heavily influenced by my musical theatre jazz background. The goal is for all the moves to look distinct. I back what Leslie said about Kai, how all his moves flow, but that’s why I don’t like him. According to my training, that’s the ultimate sign of laziness, and sloppiness. Contemporary or lyrical, it’s perfect, but I just can’t get past it. Instead, I prefer Taemin, who has this crispness and sharpness that is right up my alley.
Miyoko: I think what really gets me is when you can tell the idol loves dancing itself. I guess that’s because I like seeing people be really passionate about things, and I figure if an idol’s gonna be labeled the dancer, I’d hope they’d like it. That’s one of the reasons I like B.A.P‘s Jongup. He absolutely lights up when he dances, in addition to his strong style. I also like watching Hyoyeon break it down, and wish she got more of a chance to do so. And I know Taemin’s been mentioned, but he’s always been my personal favorite; he’s got all those elements that make dance look effortless, plus the strong passion.
Dora: I remember seeing Taemin dance on a Taiwanese variety show in 2009, even before I was introduced to Kpop. I was surprised how such a small, skinny boy could move his body like that so I’ve been a fan ever since. His moves are more mechanical than Kai’s, and this is most obviously demonstrated by the difference in style during the same dance both have performed. In contrast to Lo, though, I like how Kai’s dancing tells more of a back story and feels more emotional.
Willis: Before being exposed to K-pop, I was an ardent follower of hip hop dance teams in my community (e.g. Choreo Cookies and Common Ground). These large groups would carry out performances with precision, synchronicity, and elaborate formations. Dance played a huge role in piquing my interest in K-pop groups.
I wish the female idols were given more opportunities to showcase more intricate choreography. Hyoyeon, Min, and Minzy would absolutely shine if given those chances to go all out. BoA has consistently shown she can handle complex choreography. However, you know who was also keeping up with all of BoA’s dance moves since 2004? Kahi. I find Kahi absolutely captivating when she dances. She demonstrates complete control over her movements and is able to establish a connection with the audience right from the start. Kahi demands your attention and has a sensibility for emoting when she performs. Nonetheless, I was a bit disappointed when she got demolished by BoA in the first round of the Ultimate Idol Showdown.
Andy: For me, technique falls second to the emotions and passion put in the dance. You can have the skills of Baryshnikov, but if you are dead in the eyes, then I have no interest in the dance. Dance is performance, and you must captivate. People constantly mention Kai, but in EXO, I think Lay actually has more passion and style. He truly feels the dance. You can see their focus and charisma while dancing.
I wish for more collaborations like Project X. We rarely see dancers just being dancers, outside the scope of random dance practice videos or forced music show collaborations. We need more dancing.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FoyRfM6ARDI]
Lisa: I look for a high energy level and a unique energy in dancers. Even if dancers don’t have too much training or technique, I will generally still notice someone if their flow is stunning. A dancer that stands out for me in terms of flow is Dongwoo from Infinite. His bubbly energy and charisma positively overflow on stage and his body seems to align perfectly with the music. Kai, though he has a very different energy, also immediately caught my attention with his smooth, connected style, though I can take or leave his facial expressions.
For females, I especially enjoy Jia and Min because even when they perform relatively simple dances, I still notice Min’s fierceness and Jia’s awesome attitude. I like watching the moments when great dancers transition from move to move, where they really show off their abilities to maintain consistent energy.
(YouTube, Images via SM Entertainment, Men’s Health, YG Entertainment, Elle Girl, Pledis Entertainment)