Sarah Alhosani still remembers how impressed she was when she first saw the intricate dance moves of Korean pop artists. “I’ve always been interested in dancing, so as soon as I saw idols so mind-blowingly in sync, I was totally pulled in,” says the 17-year-old.
Sara Rashid Alshekaili, 17, agrees. “At first it was mostly the choreography. I was really interested in dancing and seeing the perfect synchronisation and the perfect timing of each member in each group with the different concepts and stories to tell through dance."
The two Emiratis were participants in this year’s K-pop Dance Academy held by the Korean Cultural Centre in Abu Dhabi. The six-week programme saw 50 girls split between three classes – and all taught K-pop routines by two dance professors from South Korea.
The group met twice a week for 90 minute sessions with the aim to learn dance routines for popular K-pop hit songs Bboom Bboom by Momomland and Shine by Pentagon.
Speaking with other members in the class, it’s clear that the thing that connects them the most is their unwavering love for K-pop – from knowing the names of all of the members and all the choreography to being able to sing their songs in Korean, there's some impressive dedication. The class consists of participants from countries including the UAE, India, Malaysia and the Philippines, with ages ranging from aged 14-30.
25-year-old Ruby Rose Francisco discovered K-pop back in her high school days in the Philippines and joined the class because she wanted to have more time to bond with her friends, as well as enhance her skills as a dancer. “It’s been years since the last time I had to move my body in such a rhythmic manner, and it did teach me to isolate muscles to properly give better dance moves,” she says.
This was the second year for Mehreen Mujib Khan, 20. “I joined it last year, and it was loads of fun. I also learnt about other artists too, plus it is a great way to learn more about the Korean language and culture,” she says.
Finding its way to the UAE
So how did K-pop find its way to the UAE? It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how the craze first arrived in the Emirates. But for many of the girls, their first experience with K-pop came in the form of YouTube.
Shaima Al Ahammadi, 19, remembers being as young as 9 when she first discovered the genre. She’s attended the K-pop Academy every year since it has started, and can also speak Korean thanks to the language classes she’s taken. The Emirati remembers the K-pop bands of the mid-2000s such as Super Junior, Big Bang, 2ne1, SHINee and TVQX making their way to her via the popular video-sharing website.
She believes that this was pivotal in helping K-pop rise in popularity here in the Middle East - the power of people individually discovering something only to find others that felt the same way. “[K-pop’s popularity] came by self-discovery through YouTube and then grew into a bigger audience," she says.
Hajar Aljunaibi also got her first taste of the genre this way, but just four years ago. “I first listened to a K-pop song when I was 12-years-old on YouTube. I clicked a video just randomly and from then on my interest grew. I kept listening to K-pop and learned more about it and become a real K-pop fan,” she says.
Her favourite groups include Exo and SHINee, both of who came to Dubai earlier in the year as part of the SMTown Live concert.
A growing presence
One of the first major K-Pop performances in the UAE came in 2011 when pop star Seo In-young and girl group Nine Muses performed as part of the 2011 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix celebrations. Five years later, there was the game-changing KCON held at du Arena in 2016.
The event brought big names to town, such as BTS (who were less famous then but still a big deal) and solo artists Taeyeon (formerly of Girls Generation) and Kyuhyun (a past member of Super Junior). It was also the same year the the Korean Cultural Centre opened in the capital.
“Back when I was younger, there wasn't anything K-pop related in terms of activities and such in the UAE and even in US,” says Al Ahammadi. “But then as the years passed, people recognised K-pop more and realised the amount of people that loved it was just getting bigger, so activities started to happen like concerts, selling their stuff in stores, doing activities and meetups like K-pop Academy, etc.”
Perhaps one of the biggest signs that K-pop had broken through was this year’s SM Town Live concert. The star-studded gig included so many stars, such as BoA, Girls’ Generation, Super Junior, Red Velvet, TVXQ and more. The 4.5 hour long concert saw fans from all around the region come together and sing in Korean and English as well as dance along to their favourite songs.
“K-pop is beautiful because it’s never boring. There’s always something new and something fun and something great to see," Al Ahamaddai says of her favourite genre.