Dancing beyond boundaries

Sohu's Dancing Festival in Beijing brings together K-pop enthusiasts, cover dancers, and idols, creating a vibrant celebration of music, friendship, and self-expression in the global dance culture scene.


The six members of BOY STORY posed together before their performance at Sohu's Dancing Festival in Beijing on Nov 26. PHOTO: CHINA DAILY

December 8, 2023

BEIJING – Sohu’s Dancing Festival in Beijing brings together K-pop enthusiasts, cover dancers, and idols, creating a vibrant celebration of music, friendship, and self-expression in the global dance culture scene, Li Xinran reports.

On Nov 26, Chinese internet company Sohu hosted its inaugural Dancing Festival in Beijing, uniting idols like BOY STORY and Name, along with hundreds of cover dancers and bloggers, under one roof.

Cover dance culture thrives on the global popularity of K-pop, where enthusiasts film and sometimes give live performances of their renditions of idol groups’ choreography.

Participants engage in events like random play dance, where choruses of different K-pop hits are played consecutively, allowing those who know the choreography to showcase their moves. These events, often held in public squares or shopping malls, are promoted on social media platforms and in organizers’ WeChat groups.

Li Zihao, 19, one of the six members of the Chinese hip-hop boy group BOY STORY, highlighted the unique appeal of random play dance: “Compared to performing on stage, it’s an event that people can enjoy together. You could be total strangers and still feel the vibe and energy from each other. That is something valuable.”

And for Lin Mengqi, a K-pop and C-pop enthusiast, the charm of random play dance lies in the fact that “almost every participant knows about the same memes, spontaneously forming formations and singing along”.

Lin, 24, became a K-pop fan in 2010. Her favorite K-pop groups are mostly “second generation” idols (referring to idols who debuted from 2003 to 2011) such as 2PM and T-Ara, and C-pop groups like ONER and BOY STORY.

“I attended my first random play dance in 2018,” Lin said. “Soon after, I started filming dance covers with other K-pop fans and met half of my current friend circle.”

She actively participates in random play dances, filming dance covers and posting them on social media. “It does cost money to purchase clothing and pay my photographer, but like going to concerts, the emotional value that I gain from dancing cannot be measured by money,” she said.

Lin has observed a shift in recent years: it has become harder to find songs by “second generation” idols in the playlists of today’s random play dance events. “Now, it’s mostly songs by K-pop groups that debuted after 2015,” she said. “This is the primary reason why I’m leaning toward filming dance covers rather than participating in them myself.”

Lin has her own sanctuary online. “When I posted dance covers like Jeon Won Diary by T-ara N4 (the unit team of T-ara), they received fewer views than my covers of newer K-pop groups,” she explained. “However, I received numerous supportive and encouraging comments from fellow fans and those who still remember the song, giving me a profound sense of belonging.”

Li Sixian, 25, discovered her love for K-pop during her teenage years. While she enjoys many girl groups, when it comes to boy groups, Seventeen is the only one for her.

Despite being an introvert, she ventured into the world of dance when a childhood friend invited her to random play dance events last year. “Through these events, I’ve been able to meet other CARATs (a nickname for Seventeen fans) and people who enjoy girl group dances,” Li said.

Since then, Li has become an active member of the dance cover community. Even while studying for her postgraduate entrance exam, she managed to find time to take classes at dance studios and record and perform girl group dances.

“Dressing in a similar outfit as the original singer, filming with lights and a camera, dancing with facial expressions, and lip-syncing… All of that makes me feel like I’m a girl group member,” Li said.

Li acknowledged that she used to struggle with her body image. “An idol can truly be a source of strength,” she said. “My favorite member from Seventeen, Xu Minghao, is a person with lots of inner strength. He once said that if he said or did something wrong, he would correct it; if not, he would ignore meaningless comments.”

Cui Yichen, a 21-year-old junior at the Beijing University of Chemical Technology, possesses a strong and fierce mind. In middle school, Cui developed a passion for Red Velvet, which later led him to start dancing. “I’ve always done things at the spur of the moment. However, dancing is a hobby that has stuck with me and I’m going to keep it up,” he said.

Cui covers both boy group and girl group dances, sometimes receiving negative comments for the latter. “I’m dancing because I enjoy it, so I don’t really care about what others say. I think people who leave these types of comments are close-minded and pitiful.”

Wang Ziyi, 22, is not a full-time dance blogger but has over 40,000 followers on Bilibili. What sets her apart from other dancers is that her dance covers are mostly parody versions — sometimes in a mermaid costume or a bird mask, while at other times, they feature entirely new choreography.

“I often come up with these weird and funny ideas, and it’s very fulfilling to turn them into videos,” Wang said. “When I see comments that say my videos made them laugh, I feel like I’ve passed on my energy and happiness to the other side of the screen.”

Even idols create their own dance covers. For example, BOY STORY member Yu Zeyu, 17, mentioned that they often film dance covers to provide more content and showcase different styles for their fans. “It’s also because we have our own choreographers,” he explained. “But we only cover music and choreography that we like, just like everybody else.”

Forging new friendships

Beyond personal growth and positive feedback, many cover dancers have cultivated friendships. For some, these friendships have extended beyond their lives in dancing.

“I met about 70 percent of my friends through dancing,” Lin said. “I’m especially close to one of them. Since she doesn’t know how to cook, I would go to her place sometimes and cook for her. Also, my cat is her cat’s baby. You could say we’re ‘relatives’ in some way.”

Both Li and Cui pointed out that over the past couple of years, more Chinese idols have started participating in random play dance events.

“Chinese idols need more stages to showcase their charisma, singing, and dancing abilities. Random play dance events often include performances. It’s like a new stage for them and also brings them closer to fans,” Cui said.

From an idol’s perspective, random play dance events are enjoyable occasions as well. “When we perform at more formal events like music festivals, we have to be aware of stage control and adjust our performance to the audience’s mood,” said BOY STORY member Gou Mingrui, 17. “At random play dances, however, everyone’s the star. We’re more relaxed and just joining the celebration.”

Cui thought about becoming an idol in the past and even trained for it for a period. In his opinion, idols have to put more effort and time into training and practicing. After their debut, idols always have to be conscious of managing their image.

“I get to experience being an ‘idol’ for three minutes when I’m filming a dance cover or performing the dance, minus the pressure real idols face. I believe I’ve made a good deal for myself.”

This year’s Sohu Dancing Festival included random play dances, K-pop games, a K-pop flea market, an awards ceremony, and performances by previous cover dance contest winners, influential dance bloggers, and idols who also served as award presenters.

Ren Shuyang, a 16-year-old member of BOY STORY, described the night as a learning experience.

“During both the random play dance and the performances, we witnessed so many amazing talents. There were so many skilled dancers that I felt like I should call them my teachers.”

Jia Hanyu, the 19-year-old leader of BOY STORY, also had strong feelings about the event.

“It felt like a celebration, seeing so many dancers passionate about music and dance,” he said. “We’ve been dancing since we were little and have met our fans and many like-minded kindred spirits along the way. I felt everybody’s energy today, and hopefully, we can pass on the same to others.”

For Lin, the most thrilling part of the day was seeing BOY STORY perform live. “I’ve always known they are strong performers, but I was still shocked when their voices remained so steady while the choreography was so intense. The vitality and impact of an idol group’s open-mic performance are irreplaceable.”

Li was also excited to see her favorite idols and dance bloggers in person. But the most touching performance of the night, for her, was by the Wii K-pop Dance Crew from Southwest University in Chongqing.

She singled out one performer who might not be defined as “having a nice body” by some people.

“I was troubled by my own body image, but I have made lots of progress thanks to my dancing. When that girl was performing, she was extremely charismatic and beautiful. Tears burst out at that moment,” Li said.

One of the songs that Wii K-pop Dance Crew performed was Feel Special by Twice. Li said her favorite lyric from the song is “You make me feel special”.

“The ‘you’ in this sentence could be anyone — a friend, a family member, or even kind words and praise from a stranger. Or even dancing itself. At the same time, each one is so ordinary and extraordinary,” Li said.

When it comes to dancing, BOY STORY member He Xinlong, 18, said, “It’s important to truly enjoy dancing itself. When you’re showcasing yourself, you’re the most amazing person there, regardless of the style or skill level. Stay confident and passionate.”

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