For the third consecutive year, the Korean Cultural Centre in Abu Dhabi is hosting its K-pop Academy. Structured by professor Park Ji-heon, a member of South Korean vocal group VOS, and professor Hong Young-ju, a K-pop choreographer, this year's course focuses exclusively on dance.
The capital isn't the only place hosting the workshop. The genre is such a global phenomenon, that Korean cultural centres around the world – from Nigeria to India and Australia – host courses where K-pop's hardcore fans can learn how to be a Korean idol.
I'm now halfway through my six-week course – which meets twice a week for 90 minutes – and I've been learning moves made popular by K-pop stars, with the help of dance teachers Geum-soon Lee and Soojin Lee, who have come from South Korea for the occasion.
They have both worked as dance team members for various K-pop artists, and Geum-soon also teaches at a university.
Getting to know my classmates
When I arrive at the first class, unsurprisingly, I find that I am the oldest person there. My other classmates are all female, and between 14 to 25 years old.
There are 15 of us in total, and most of my classmates are from the UAE, but there are some enthusiasts from India, the Philippines and Malaysia. We all have one thing in common: we love K-pop. One of my classmates, a 19-year-old Emirati, has attended all three Abu Dhabi K-pop academies, and even spent a year learning Korean. Her language skills come in handy as the dance classes are actually taught in Korean. People like me have to just use gestures and visual cues to keep up with the moves.
It's fascinating to see how excited the K-pop pupils get when it comes to talking about their beloved bands (whether it's Exo or BTS). They know all the members, and the dance moves for their favourite songs. Their fan fever leaves me nostalgic for my boy band days, when the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC were all the rage in the United States. I miss the feeling of caring about something quite this much.
What it takes to be a K-pop star
My first session looks at the art of applying make-up like a K-pop star. I didn't realise this was such a particular skill, but it involves a lot of eyeliner (which I am good at) and a lot of glitter (which I'm not so good at).
I learn that with bold enough eyeshadow, a flick of the wrist upwards and a soft touch of glitter around the eyes I've got the look nailed. This is actually how I already style my everyday make-up (minus the glitter, of course), but I keep that quiet to stop from sounding like a K-pop know-it-all before I've even begun.
In the second class, we start dancing. The first dance we learn is to a song called Bboom Bboom by girl group Momoland. I've never heard of the song, but the other girls get so excited it's clear this is a hit.
Click to watch the music video for Bboom Bboom:
After four classes, we can do the entire dance: while I feel like a superstar in the moment with every hip swirl, shoulder roll and dab (yes there’s an actual dab in the routine), I do find it hard to keep up. The song helps though, it’s catchy, has a strong beat and has the typical English mixed in with a lot of Korean – the go-to formula for a successful K-pop hit.
A sense of unity
The fifth class was a bit of a game-changer, with the instructors deciding to mix things up: we were lined up in rows and all the choreography we learnt got shaken up so that, depending on which spot we were standing in, we’d have to change the direction of our moves. For example, what was once a left turn and a hip swivel became a right one so that there was some contrast in the large group’s movements. Basically, we were learning how to work as an ensemble: and really, that’s what K-pop is all about.
This new twist messed with my method of just following whoever stood in front of me, however. It’s clear from early on that my course mates are a step ahead of me. Many of them even knew the dance moves before the programme started.
Maybe it's my old age or my newness to this all, but I also have trouble remembering the moves. Even if we practise them over and over again, it feels as though my arms and feet don't want to co-operate with each other. This K-pop business is hard: I can only imagine how much work it is for aspiring artists to perfect so many different routines.
The rest of the class offer me words of encouragement, some even offer to practise with me before class while others share their tips (including listening to the song out of class to get used to the beat). I’m twice as old as the youngest girls, but I find their words uplifting. Perhaps one of the nicest things about the K-pop Academy is the sense of unity that comes from spending so much time together.
There are three weeks before presentation time, when we will perform the dance in front of friends and family members. Next up? We will learn the moves for a whole new song – even though I’m still focused on memorising the first.