by Michelle Bui
The buzzing of voices and laughter rose up into the cool night air from behind brick walls. Approaching the Social Sciences Gateway building, I could see dozens of UCI students gathered in an open area in anticipation of the first Konnect K-Pop Aspiring Performers (KKAP) workshop.
KKAP began in April of 2011 when members of Konnect — a Korean cultural awareness club — decided to create a team to participate in UCI’s Korean Culture Night, where they received first place in the dance competition. The founders began hosting free weekly workshops for members of their club the following fall. Since then, KKAP has done numerous performances, both at UCI events and throughout the community, while continuing to teach their members dances from popular Korean pop groups.
I gravitated towards the front, where a large, snaking line led towards a sign in table. Standing next to a laptop was a boy wearing shorts and a black jacket, quietly showing someone how to sign in her name.
He was the KKAP captain, Lee Suan. A sophomore, he only started dancing his freshman year of college when he joined KKAP with his friend.
Eager to get to know someone in the club, I decided to introduce myself to him. Within a couple of minutes of talking, I not only felt welcomed but relaxed. We were interrupted when the other board members announced we would start the workshop, but I now felt more comfortable and included.
This week’s first dance was “No More Dream” by BTS, a 7-man group known for its edgy, bad boy, R&B style. Two members of KKAP, Smirna Alegria and Rosemarie Pagunsan, stood at the front and demonstrated a section of the dance we would be learning. They moved in unison, their jumps, kicks, and fist pumps bursting with energy and precision, earning shouts and cat calls. After finishing the dance, Alegria instructed, “Everyone, get a partner!”
Alegria has been involved with KKAP for three years now, and has grown as both a leader and a dancer from being in the group. “It has given me the chance to do something that I love,” she said. “It allows me to have fun and dance with friends and helps me have a good balance with school.”
I didn’t know anyone there, but I noticed a girl had come in a group of three and was awkwardly trying to figure out who would be her partner. I walked over and introduced myself. She asked me if I had any dance experience, acknowledging with embarrassment that she had never danced before this workshop. Although I had taken a hip hop class at the ARC the previous year, I also had little experience.
Not surprisingly, the first couple of moves were awkward for both of us, requiring more attitude and confidence than either of us could muster. We leaned to the right, our arms held firmly in front of us, as if defending against an aggressor, and then quickly shifted to the left to mirror the movement. My poor muscle memory tried to smoothly connect the sequence, but forgot it as soon as we moved onto the next one. Katie, my partner, seemed to be having a much easier time despite her inexperience.
After practicing the first half of the dance multiple times, everyone asked to try the moves with the music. I was hesitant, afraid that I would forget everything on the first beat, but I figured I would follow what the instructors were doing. The speakers blasted with the deep, raspy voices of BTS, and I began tapping my feet to relieve my anxiety. I executed the first few moves correctly, but got lost as we got further into the dance. Nevertheless, I kept up with the tempo, following the instructors and the members around me.
Throughout the dance, I couldn’t help but feel a certain charm when I saw everyone dancing together. Since I was moving, it was hard to tell if everyone was dancing in unison like Smirna and Pagunsan were, but it didn’t matter. We were an eclectic group of people, some of us in colorful dresses and others in loose-fitted shorts and a t-shirt, but we were all having fun dancing to our favorite K-Pop music.
Once we finished, everyone burst out in laughter and excited shouts, feeling accomplished for completing their first K-Pop dance, even if it was a little rocky. Katie and I exchanged nods and giggles, as if acknowledging some kind of inside joke between old friends.
The next dance was “Russian Roulette” by Red Velvet, a more feminine dance to a bubbly tune. It was Lee’s turn to demonstrate the dance, and despite my initial impression of his shy persona, he was quite the opposite, channeling a sassy, spunky part of himself that matched the beat of the song. He spoke with clarity and certainty, and we finished learning the dance in half the time it took us to learn the first one.
Lee still remembers his first performance for Homecoming 2016 and how nervous he was. “It was something that I never imagined myself doing.” However, he recounts that by the end, he felt “very satisfied,” realizing that he loved dancing and performing. “Even though I would feel very nervous before a performance, I would always end up just having fun and doing my best.”
I suppose that’s how we all felt that night when we ran through the dances. Although none of us were positive that we had fully grasped the moves, we went for it once the music played, and enjoyed ourselves through the whole experience. Like Lee, we tried our best and had fun.
Now, as captain of KKAP, he looks forward to coming out every Friday to teach. “You really find a permanent friend group here,” he said. “As a first year, I was definitely worried about not having friends. Being a shy person made it especially difficult, but being in KKAP changed that for me. I found a group of people whom I could call a family away from home and friends whom I can see myself maintaining for a very long time. Because of my life-changing experience with KKAP, I have truly enjoyed being a performer as well as a student.”
After only one workshop, I can see what he means. Although the prospect of dancing like a K-Pop star sounded intimidating and out of my skill range, it became easier when I was surrounded by such open people. The board members would go around asking us if we needed help, but this wasn’t necessary. People were already helping each other, stopping to repeat a move with their partners if they were having trouble. Others simply practiced with a couple of friends, laughing when they messed up and giving each other high-fives when they finally got it down. By the end, everyone, including myself, walked away with a friend, new or old, along with a new dance to practice the next time we heard one of our favorite K-Pop songs.