“I think Kpop is kind of like a black hole. Once you dip your foot into it, you’ll just get sucked in to all that’s out there,” said Haewon Jun, a University of Minnesota grad student who performs with and sits on the board of Minnesota Kpop Dance Crew (MKDC), Minnesota’s lone entrant into the Asian worldwide phenomenon known as Kpop.
Kpop is known for its hyper-optimistic outlook, rigorous dance choreography and infectious beats. Its biggest stars — SET, Blackpink, BTS, EXO, Seventeen, Red Velvet, Twice, Momoland — are hardly household names. But to a growing group of Kpop lovers in Minnesota, the music, videos and dances provide big fun and connection to community.
“I was doing Kpop covers before I even founded this team in 2013,” said MKDC leader Volcano Kim, as she and Jun welcomed registrants to the Kpop dance workshop they organized, held Saturday in a dance studio at the U’s bustling rec center.
“When I was living in Korea, Korea has a huge community doing covers already. It’s very common, because it’s our own Kpop and we’re doing what we like. But then I moved to America and I was a little bit bored; there was nothing to do.
“I was in my undergrad year in Massachusetts, and I founded a group there called DBJ dance crew, a five-college crew that [draws from] University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Smith College, Amherst College, and Mount Holyoke College. I graduated and moved to Minnesota to do my master’s and Ph.D., and I needed a hobby.”
And how: Since its inception, MKDC has traveled the country and to South Korea, performing its tightly honed choreography and cover songs, and won competitions along the way. In 2018 and 2019, MKDC took first place in dance competitions in Los Angeles, New York City, and Seoul, South Korea, and put on a successful Kpop festival on the campus of the University of Minnesota.
They also regularly put on successful workshops. “I’m from White Bear, and we come to the workshops a lot for the dancing,” said Cassidy Lee, standing in the registrants line with her friends and fellow dancers Emily Vang, Adeline Leung, and Hallie Xiong. “The dances are fun, and the Kpop music is fun. My favorite Kpop group? I really like this group called NCT. They’re pretty popular in the U.S.”
“It’s not just for fun, it’s more like semi-professional now,” said Kim. “We get paid to travel the States now, so it’s not entirely a hobby anymore.”
Is MKDC the only Kpop game in town? A quick scan of the club scene here suggests that not even a regular Kpop night is scheduled anywhere anytime soon, although Saturday’s workshop suggests any such endeavor would be a wildly welcome addition to the dance club scene.
“I don’t see much in Minnesota, because it’s cold,” said Kim. “A lot of Kpop festivals and events are held outside. We’re about it. That’s why people are always sending us requests, like, ‘Can you host this event?’”
The main draw to Kpop is that it’s super-manufactured modern electropop — optimistic, exuberant, fun, sexy, escapist, smart, meaningful, funny, and impossible to not try to dance like your Kpop heroes — all of which transcends language and culture.
“In Korea, it’s like cosplaying,” said Kim. “You’re dressing up like that person, you’re doing the hair and gestures exactly like they are. You have to have stage presence, you have to lip-synch to the music, and you’re doing all the gestures that they’re doing. So you’re covering, but you’re also cosplaying the artist.
“The major thing that I’m seeing is that the older generation likes listening to the music more. Our generation, we need the visual stuff. We’re watching YouTube all the time; it’s not just listening to music. And I think Kpop has that aspect of like, it’s not just the music. It’s a visual overall performance of it, so you’re looking into the dances, you’re looking into outfits, and hairstyles.”
“There’s a Kpop group for everyone’s preference; there’s so many different songs and different types of visuals,” said Jun.
MinnPost took in the MKDC workshop, in photos and interviews:
Haewon Jun: “I’m from Busan, South Korea. I started my undergrad at the U in 2013 and I’m in my graduate program in integrated behavioral health. I joined MKDC year two, and I’m one of the board members. We started as a student group, just because we were interested in Kpop and we wanted to get people together and practice and put performances on.
“The very first performance that MKDC held I actually attended. I thought they were fascinating and so different from other Kpop cover groups that are out there, and they were promoting their auditions and that’s how I joined the group.
“There’s a cultural difference, but when we travel to different states, we see how Kpop is bringing in the whole community, and there is a huge community in the U.S. now, and it’s crazy how exponentially it has grown. In our third year, we held a Kpop festival in Minnesota for the people in the Midwest who are Kpop fans. Back then, Kpop groups wouldn’t really come to Minnesota because it wasn’t that popular a state for Kpop concerts, so we held our own festival at Northrop, and 1,500 people came out.
“We didn’t really expect a turnout like that, but that really made us realize that there are a lot of Kpop fans out there, and when we come together it’s a space where they can all be passionate about what they really like and what they spend their leisure time doing. It’s been really cool.”
Hieu Tram, Minneapolis, and Pasha Yang, St. Paul: “I first discovered Kpop with my aunts, who are into the old-school Kpop,” said Yang. “I got into it through them, just because the dancing was so cool. And the videos were more high-scale than a lot of the American music videos, so it’s just very interesting to see the difference between the two. I like Kpop because of the community surrounding it. Like, with our workshop today, we’ve brought in so many other Kpop fans who love Kpop. Some of them might not even dance, but because their love for Kpop is so big, then they decide to show up and show support for us and their love for Kpop. It’s a lot different from the American pop community; I think our community is special.”
“I went to a private school, St. Rose of Lima in Roseville, during middle school, and I was a minority, so I wanted to see what other cultures are out there,” said Tram. “Somehow I geared towards Kpop as an entryway, because I’m Vietnamese-American and I wanted to do something different from what the culture was at my school at the time. As a general personality issue, I don’t like to go with the general [mainstream]; I like to stray off and see what other things there are to look at.”
Zian Gao: “I’m originally from China. I’m a group member of MKDC. Kpop is a big culture in Asian countries already, and the idols, we look up to them as role models. Some of the younger generation, they even wanted to become like them, so they work hard and go to dance practice. They also put that focus into their daily lives, into their studies and work life. The choreography is hard and [disciplined], and it’s almost like a boot camp when they’re learning to dance like the idols. We’re trying to imitate their dances and cover their dances, and we put a crazy amount of time practicing so we can be perfectly in sync. People are connected by the Kpop groups they like, and by their fandom.”