The Popularization of K-pop Random Play Dance

From the streets along Hongdae to shopping malls in China, from New York Times Square to Chicago's Chinatown, K-pop dances are more frequently seen in public around the world. In these places, amateur K-pop dancers form a circle, jump to the center to dance choreographies they know, cheer for individual dancers, and can themselves become the audience when the crowd begins to participate, making the boundary between audiences and performers blurry and variable. Known as Random Play Dance (랜덤플레이댄스, hereafter RPD), this dance challenge game invites global K-pop fans to communicate with each other via body language and a shared musical love. Covering songs by numerous groups in an hour, RPD not only helps promote K-pop but also serves as a representative case to investigate the kinesthetic significance of social dancing and participatory fan culture.

RPD first appeared as a game in Weekly Idol (주간아이돌), a long-running variety show beginning in 2011 that featured K-pop idols as guests broadcasted via MBC M. Snippets of several K-pop songs are shuffled during the game and idol groups must react immediately and execute the choreography while the hosts scrutinize the dances' accuracy. In idol variety shows, RPD gives K-pop idols a chance to showcase their dancing techniques, group coordination skills, and familiarity with K-pop repertoires. Audiences can appreciate idols' proficiency in dancing while, at the same time, mistakes and confusions bring hilarity to the performance. Assembling a series of songs in a short game, RPD winkingly participates in the  K-pop industry's reputation as a "factory-like" system that not only meticulously trains idols' dancing but also mass-produces song-specific choreography. Groups including BTS, Gfriend, and Infinite have gained fame through their marvelous performances during RPD in their early years.

Physical gestures, communicative of a funness that transcends linguistic barriers, create an especially important participatory repertoire for international K-pop fans. Recordings show that large-scale and fan-held K-pop RPD events first emerged internationally at conventions celebrating K-pop and Asian subcultures, such as Taiyou Con1 and KCON Miami2, in 2015. These K-pop games presented chorus-only snippets of K-pop playlists and encouraged fans who knew the choreography to come to the center and dance, setting a template for subsequent K-pop RPD events. While the snippet selection is restrictive to the chorus, collective dances by K-pop fans appeared to be more "random" as amateur dancers occasionally moved in opposite directions, failed to follow the rhythm, and improvised when they forgot the choreography. They also danced on the same floor in random and colorful costumes, creating a dazzling scene that impeded any harsh measurement of the synchronicity of their movements. Nevertheless, participants enjoyed themselves since these games celebrated spontaneous amateur creativity and active fan participation more than rehearsed unity and synchronization, although tedious dance practices were often a prerequisite for participation (especially if one wanted to impress).

While amateur RPD initially appeared as a fandom practice, I feel treating it as a mere product of fandom culture may simplify the heterogeneous intentions behind it. Even within the terrain of fandom culture, RPD manifests fans' more diverse ways of embodiment and affective engagements with K-pop that studies of online fan practices or concert-goings may neglect. This new energy emerged when, in recent years, RPD began to occur beyond conventions in places like public plazas. Nowadays, Korean and foreign commercial K-pop dance studios and university dance clubs that thrive alongside the global popularization of K-pop take over most of the organization of these events, turning RPD into frequent local dancing activities. These local K-pop RPD events serve a multifold function as face-to-face fan gatherings, occasions for social dancing, and a voluntary channel to promote the Korean Wave, or Hallyu. Meanwhile, these events also carve out a realm for individual amateur dancers to explore their subjecthood in relation to others, connect with local dancing communities, and intervene in local politics under the rubric of K-pop choreographies. Highlighting K-pop as "kinesthetic pop," my  (auto-)ethnographic analysis demonstrates how K-pop RPD embodies the dialectic mediation between proficiency and amateurishness, discipline and joy, individuality and communality, as well as the local and the global, especially as K-pop continues to gain popularity in a neoliberal and globalizing epoch. 

Dancing as the Fandom Practice: Multidirectional Affective Bonds

Whenever I watch the aforementioned K-pop RPD video in KCON Miami, I marvel at the number of choreographies that some amateur dancers could remember and appreciate how proficiently they could dance. In the video, several dancers did choreography for choruses of 21 K-pop songs by various boy and girl groups, from the most popular to the less well-known. The precision and beauty in their moves require enormous effort and self-discipline, honed through tedious dance practices that incarnate the affective labor they have devoted to K-pop. Several dancers who attend the PL4Y K-pop Dance Group at Washington University claim that learning the choreographies they frequently watch their favorite groups perform makes them feel a stronger connection to their idols. Fans strengthen their affective ties with K-pop artists by acting out "kinesthetic sympathy" the assertion of a fundamental connection between movement, emotion, and viewers' subliminal replication of dancers' muscular sensations.3 To learn choreographies, K-pop enthusiasts replay their idols' performances and memorize physical sequences, grasping physicalized empathy by following idols' moves. Meanwhile, RPD allows fans to bring empathetic messages behind gestural moves into a different spectrum of social interactions and stimulate intersubjective connections among local fans through collective dancing. The feelings of copresence and liveness generate multidirectional affective bonds in this face-to-face practice, since fans are simultaneously audiences and performers. Moreover, K-pop idols emerge as absent presences through choreographies in dancers' minds and emulated performances.

In his interview with an Indonesian K-pop dance crew, Gotoe, a YouTuber who has organized numerous RPD events around the world, recalled the RPD challenge he held in Jakarta as follows: "I think it was really successful. I didn't expect people (to be) so crowded. It was controlled, and most K-pop fans are passionate everywhere."4Many first impressions of K-pop RPD echo Gotoe's assessment: cheerful but organized. Thus, the image of K-pop fans in RPD contrasts with the stereotype of fanatical teenage Koreaboos. Besides a shared passion for K-pop, the tactful implementation of rules in K-pop concerts, to which many K-pop fans have been accustomed, partly contributes to this "disciplined exhibition of enthusiasm." For instance, K-pop Random Dance Game in China (随唱谁跳)5 prohibits participants from holding banners but allows the waving of official light sticks, making the fans' dancing site almost a lite KCON without idols' physical presence. Even when members of NCT suddenly appeared at an RPD event at Washington Square Park in New York, the crowd didn't lose control. Fans screamed for a second and then kept dancing, with NCT members joining them occasionally.

Fig. 1: NCT members dance with fans at K-pop RPD in New York6

Interestingly, when NCT accidentally encountered the RPD held in New York, the vibrant local dancing scene also unsettled the dichotomy between viewer and performer and the conceptualization of K-pop idols as objects of consumption. Standing at one corner of the circle, they appeared first as random passerby watching and cheering for fans' performances. As they led the dance to their song "Cherry Bomb" later, while their stylings and mastery of dance kept them identifiable in the crowd, their physical presence unavoidably intermingled with a local,  racially diverse group. K-pop fans appreciated NCT members' "humbleness and kindness" at this event, cherishing a rare chance to interact with their idols closely and dance with them. However, besides being K-pop idols, they are also "foreign tourists" exploring an American metropolitan city. The cheerful crowd dancing to non-western pop music in America allows NCT to express a self-recognition of the Korean national cultural industry's successful global venture, while also evoking a sense of otherness due to the uncanny familiarity evident in the group's interaction with the RPD crowd. NCT's presence as the audience-performer in the vertiginously diverse RPD crowd thus lets us inquire if RPD practices may also extract K-pop choreographies from its racial embodiment on stage, thus reducing the prominence of Asian bodies in Korean cultural production. The twofold nature of the event a fandom practice and a transcultural encounter in a non-domestic setting brings attention to K-pop's kinesthetic mediation of transcultural hierarchies that constantly overshadows many amicable fan-idol interactions as it expands its global reach.

Nevertheless, amicable fan interactions and multidirectional affective bonds in RPD contain the possibility, through collective ecstasy in dancing, of undermining any antagonism that emerges from linguistic and cultural barriers in ethnically and racially diverse K-pop fandoms. Paradoxically, this ecstasy may be a characteristic of the fanaticism prevailing but frequently criticized in fandom cultures.. Indeed, sizes of the dancing crowd change as songs switch in RPD, which seems a direct embodied competition for idols' popularity. Some fans boast about their idols' fame based on the number of people knowing the group's choreography while watching online recordings. However, unlike the "dark side of the collective behavior of K-pop fans who assert their identity on the basis of tribal rivalry and exclusion" that Suk-young Kim finds the most in South Korean fandom, the subtle rivalry rarely triggers exclusionary acts or conflicts between fandoms during RPD.7 On the one hand, the "gaming" nature dilutes the seriousness of the fandom rivalry that may lead to fan wars. More importantly, the sense of "group ecstasy" that Barbara Ehrenreich traces in ritual dances permeates in face-to-face physical interactions and collective dancing in K-pop RPD.8 Synchronous body motions induce passion and cement the social bond among dancers who may be fans of rivaling idol groups when participants dance to the same rhythm throughout the event and collaborate with adjacent dancers to simulate blockings in original choreographies here and there. For instance, imitating the original choreography, when Twice's "Knock Knock" is played, two dancers near each other may spontaneously hold hands up high to form "a door," and a dancer standing behind can strike a pose through this door. Dancing bodies interact and share emotions via rhythmic moves, physical touch, and shared knowledge of choreography. While not denying the exclusion and confrontations among global K-pop fandoms, I nonetheless find in RPD a more sanguine if not entirely optimistic negotiation of tribalism via collective dancing. By dancing multiple snippets together, a more inclusive tribe of "K-pop dance enthusiasts" that emphasizes collective joy temporarily eclipses "media tribes" that compete for the honor of certain idols while allowing room for heterogeneous interests within the tribe. 

 Fig. 2: Dancers on the left hold hands in Twice's "Knock Knock"9

Even though I value multidirectional affective bonds in RPD's empathetic fandom practice, I do not dismiss the exploitative nature of affective labor in the K-pop industry that confine both fans and singers in the neoliberal market logic.10 China's first K-pop Random Dance Game organizer writes in the official account introduction that "we are a group of people with pure passion who operate out of love."11 "To operate out of love" is a Chinese slang that literally means "to use love (without a profit motive) to generate electricity," a distinction that accurately captures the exploitative characteristic of affective labor. But love never automatically causes plants to fruit. To successfully hold RPD events, some organizers have received sponsorship from clothing brands or shopping malls. The recently announced JYP RPD World Tour a collaboration between the conglomerate and YouTuber Gotoe to promote J.Y. Park's new release "Groove Back" also shows how the entertainment industry utilizes affective fandom practices for publicity. The neoliberal logic of both the K-pop industry and the local market has thus imbricated the multidirectional affective bonds in K-pop RPD events, and individual dancing bodies continue to negotiate with it beyond the realm of fandom practice.

K-pop RPD as Social Dance: Choreographing and Improvising the Discipline

While K-pop dance today is choreographed with stage performances in mind, RPD recontextualizes K-pop in vibrant and diverse social contexts. Despite the fact that dance studies scholars have long struggled with inaccuracy and overlaps in classifications of social/popular/vernacular dances, I consider the term "social dance" most helpful in examining amateur K-pop dance in public. Bearing in mind Barbara Cohen-Stratyner's reminder to pay attention to the context and recontextualization in defining "social dance," I regard amateur K-pop dance in public as a social dance practice that highlights participatory and ceremonial natures specific to RPD events.12 As a descriptive heuristic, social dance emphasizes RPD's potential to establish new communal bonds through collective dancing, resonating with how Julie Malnig differentiates social dance from "folk dance": "In social dancing, a sense of community often derives less from preexisting groups brought together by shared social and cultural interests than from a community created as a result of dancing."13 RPD helps establish new communal ties among K-pop fans and amateur dance enthusiasts. Intervening in local politics by transcending and destabilizing existing divisions of social groups based on gender, class, race, and ethnicity, RPD may also liberate the study of K-pop dance from a narrow focus on production processes by evaluating its societal (and participatory) vigor in a porous social and media environment.

Highly intertextual,  current studio-based K-pop choreography absorbs and alludes visually to many  pop music social dance icons. J.Y. Park's When We Disco (2020), which he claims is inspired by Modern Talking's 1980s Euro-disco hit Brother Louie, offers a representative case of K-pop's intertextuality.14 The finger disco gesture popularized by the film Saturday Night Fever makes its way into J.Y. Park's choreography, which features himself and Sunmi as a dance duet a common ballroom dance format that also appears in RPD socials. The music video (as a whole inspired by Saturday Night Fever) sets the story in the disco dance hall, and the lyrics are reminiscent of sweet memories of dancing disco together. Many K-pop songs have taken collective dancing as a trope to uplift the listening public.

J.Y. Park's song/dance-production process unveils a history of cross-cultural socialization and interactions via dance that shapes the early stage of K-pop dance's development. The U.S. military presence and cultural imperialism introduced western social dance to South Korea in the 1970s and 1980s, and since then has conditioned some of the mediations between Korean and Western culture. Noticing the entanglement between Korean cultural tradition and (re)appropriation of American culture in K-pop contents, Kyŏng-hyŏn Kim has framed K-pop as a form of "hegemonic mimicry," through which the proto-ethnic Korean identity is rendered postmodern with blurring boundaries between the original and the copy.15 That K-pop choreographies currently incorporate movements from various generic and cultural sources, including western social dances that may have their distinctive racial and ethnic traces, shows how this body of work occurs through kinesthetic hybridization besides appropriation and mimicry. Importantly, this kinesthetic hybridization embodies memories of a half-a-century long cross-cultural and hierarchical socials in the amalgamation of dance moves.

In this age of pervasive social media influence and TikTok dance challenges, the potential for collective dancing also becomes a crucial concern in K-pop choreographies. BTS members purposefully created an easier choreography for "Permission to Dance" so fans could emulate and dance along joyfully without "asking anyone for permission."16 Like many K-pop dances today, "Permission to Dance" trends on social media with a short snippet of what Chuyun Oh calls "gestural point choreography" a short sequence of "graphic, accentuated, pictorial, front-driven, and densely-synchronized" upper-body movements mostly appearing in the chorus part of a K-pop song and the key feature of contemporary K-pop choreography.17 The chorus-only K-pop RDP template centralizes gestural point choreography, highlighting memorable parts of music video choreography and shortening the length of dance time that needs to be memorized. Contrasting idols' dance practice videos or amateurs' dance covers that celebrate dance mastery, K-pop RPD lowers the level of "permission." By mashing-up multiple "gestural point choreographies" and presenting them with amateur dancers of all levels simultaneously, RPD makes the choreography more accessible to inexperienced dancers.

RPD's simultaneity of participation makes K-pop choreography more accessible by reducing the emphasis on the "knife-like" synchronicity that idol groups assiduously practice. A dancer who participated in K-pop RPD in Atlanta and Dallas also tells me that she would jump into the dance "when lots of people are dancing," even if she is not 100% sure of the choreography. This invitational and improvisational kinesthetic structuring brings joy during RPD because it incarnates a shared knowledge across different body types, establishing intersubjective connections that allows multiple moments of different proficiencies as the dancers variously emulate an idol's on-stage performance. Therefore, K-pop RPD simultaneously replicates and subverts the aesthetics in formulaic K-pop choreographies.

For scholars criticizing the logic of the neoliberal market subtending the K-pop industry, the meticulously constructed and regulated mode of idol performance is a vivid product of the training system that cruelly mass-produced idols like the assembly line.18 However, the fact that amateur K-pop enthusiasts find pleasure in improvisational discipline manifests RPD as a fruiting of cultivating neoliberal selfhood through the threefold mechanism of "creative," "habitual," and "transformative."19 Many participants frequently dance in studios and workshops or follow tutorials online to familiarize themselves with K-pop repertoires, investing their off-work time and money. Some of my friends who have attended multiple RPD events are more "K-pop DANCE enthusiasts" than K-pop fans because they have never been engaged in fandom practices such as buying albums or joining fan clubs. For them, RPD is mainly a ground to display their dancing techniques, and any recordings posted online serve as mirrors for self-examination and dancing improvements. Quite a few dancers point out their appearances in RPD recordings by referring to their outfits in the comments on Bilibili, directing interested users to their pages to see their full dance covers. They can even apply for chances to "showcase" a whole choreography before or after the RPD game. Resorting to the publicity of K-pop and RPD, some outstanding amateur dancers receive invitations to perform on occasions such as wedding banquets, and their investment in dancing may ultimately be rewarded.

Amateur dancing bodies can react spontaneously to the diverse K-pop repertoire, showing a high level of physical flexibility. Dance scholar Anusha Kedhar recognizes the bodily flexibility of dancers in stretching, bending, and twisting as corporeal maneuvers "to manage the demand of neoliberalism for flexible, agile, and versatile bodies."20 Following the beat, RPD participants swiftly twist their hands and bend their knees, enacting a self-cultivation of "flexible" neoliberal selfhood by adeptly emulating idols' versatile techniques. Moreover, by maneuvering a culturally hybrid K-pop dance repertoire, RPD participants (especially non-Korean dancers) also develop a repertoire of material capital that helps them roam flexibly in the multicultural world. An Indian girl tells me that she blends her habitual physical expression in Indian dance with K-pop choreographies that may have appropriated Afro-Latin moves, regarding dancing K-pop as "embodying a dialect of popular dances around the world." Her summary of corporeal experience shows an ethnic body's negotiation with a racially and kinesthetically diverse form of cultural embodiment, taking "Koreanness" as a performative rather than essentialist token.

RPD also brings K-pop dances out of broadcasting stations and studios to the streets, stimulating interactions between a popular dance genre, amateur dancing bodies, and varied local landscapes. Sherril Dodds has suggested that "popular dance both shapes and is shaped by specific geographical, regional and architectural contexts," inviting scholars to locate popular dance practices in the politics of space.21 Central business districts, shopping malls, and public squares have become preferred locales for K-pop RPD events probably due to their capacity to contain large crowds. But the high-angle shot that applies to nearly all official recordings of these activities indexes the dancers' collective moves as urban spectacles. While K-pop fans who dance in public crave attention and visibility, their bodies are also prone to becoming ornaments of urban spectacles, in danger of being overwhelmed by bustling commercial scenes. Images of urban space and amateur K-pop dancers' bodies paradoxically reinforce each other and intensify an aesthetic of neoliberal cities.

Fig. 3: Still image: wide shot from the K-pop RPD Recording, posted by K-pop Random Dance Game's official account.

RPD in public spaces also intrudes into the quotidian life of a local landscape, and the body-environment interplay codes K-pop choreography with social messages beyond its aesthetic features. K-pop gestural choreographies shape individual bodies and inculcate a physiological "habitus," which Pierre Bourdieu has defined as "a subjective but not individual system of internalized structures, schemes of perception, conception, and action common to all members of the same group" that preconditions a shared "apperception" of the worldview.22 RPD in public makes a transnational, dispersed, yet connected physical habitus visible in locales around the world as dancers utilize the tension between K-pop and other more dominant local pop cultures to intervene in politics from what is often a minoritized position. A male dancer who frequently participates in RPD events in different cities across China readily takes "Queen" (女王) as his nickname. This playful nickname recognizes his mastery of girl groups' dances. He is an expert in chest-rolling and hip-swaying, which appears more in girl groups' choreographies to exaggerate the curves of female bodies. Like "Queen," many young amateur dancers are willing to dance choreographies of the "opposite sex" and seldomly consider the gendered feature of some K-pop choreography as physical confinement. I have encountered a few cisgender female dancers in college who expressed that they enjoyed less-sexualized boy groups' choreographies, while the fascination with girl groups' dances is a salient part of queer life. Queen is also homosexual slang, and by using the slang, the amateur Chinese performer implicitly associates cross-gender K-pop dances with gender performativity to indicate a fluid gender identification. Audiences amiably mention him by this nickname during the event or in recordings' comments, regardless of China's homophobic social environment and pressures of censorship. The mixed-gender crowds dancing to songs by groups with a single-sex composition thus not only transcends the gender binary set in the K-pop production but also shows potential to intervene in the dominant gender discourse in local politics, although the subversive intention paradoxically lies in and escapes censorship due to the ephemerality and excessiveness of the "K-pop game/performance."


As a dance-centric genre, K-pop enables RPD events to dynamically (re)configure K-pop music as multiply "embodied, situated" activities that are "actively constructed by the listener, rather than passively transferred from performer to listener."23 As K-pop music circulates among global fans with different backgrounds and K-pop enthusiasts physically join the "embodying" process by attending events like RPD, the randomness that conjoins heterogeneity and synchronicity in amateur social dancing energizes the interplay between different cultural and social contexts. This not only lies in cross-cultural consumption but also shapes K-pop into a representation of cultural diversity and transnational, cross-racial interactions in the age of globalization. By demonstrating diverse meanings of this amateur (re)embodiment of K-pop choreography, I find that K-pop fandom practices are both constrained and transformative, negotiating the histories and realities of neoliberalism and global cultural hierarchies while simultaneously striving for kinesthetic collaboration and visibility through active participation. The increasing popularity of fan-held K-pop RPD activities is just one step toward a more thorough understanding of the communal and communicative potentials of embodying K-pop in public.

Zihan Feng (@ZihanFeng15) is a doctoral student of Chinese Literature in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research interests span modern Chinese literature, East Asian popular culture, amateur performance, body theory, media waste, and global capitalism, aiming to configure forms of refractive global modernity in contemporary China and East Asia.


  1. Taiyou Con is an American Anime convention. See the recording: "[Taiyou Con '15] 33 K-Pop Dances in 21 Minutes (K-Pop Game!)":  []
  2. KCON (which is not itself an acronym) is an annual convention held by CJ E&M to celebrate K-pop culture worldwide. See the recording of the RPD event in KCON Miami 2015.[]
  3. Susan Leigh Foster, Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance (Routledge, 2010), 65.[]
  5. It claims to be the first organization holding K-pop RPD activities in China. []
  6. Screenshotted from the video: "During the GoToe's RPD in New York, NCT 127 actually appeared...!! Am I dreaming???"[]
  7. Suk-young Kim, K-Pop Live: Fans, Idols, and Multimedia Performance (Stanford University Press, 2018), 38. []
  8. Barabara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy (Macmillan, 2007), 20.[]
  9. Screenshot from video:[]
  10. Kim, K-Pop Live, 185,[]
  11. "我们是一群纯爱好,为爱发电的人," quoted from their Bilibili page: []
  12. Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, "Social Dance: Contexts and Definitions," Dance Research Journal 33, no. 2 (2001): 121-124.[]
  13. Julie Malnig ed. Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader (University of Illinois Press, 2009), 14. []
  14. See "박진영X선미, 오늘(11일) 'When We Disco' MV 선공개..여름 더위 날릴 디스코[공식]"  []
  15. Kyŏng-hyŏn Kim, Hegemonic Mimicry Korean Popular Culture of the Twenty-First Century (Duke University Press, 2021), 14.[]
  16. See the Interview with BTS: BTS on What Inspired Their 'Permission to Dance' Challenge: 'We Knew This Song Will Uplift Everyone.' []
  17. Chuyun Oh, K-Pop Dance: Fandoming Yourself on Social Media (Routledge, 2022), 34.[]
  18. Suk-Young Kim, "Disastrously Creative: K-pop, Virtual Nation, and the Rebirth of Culture Technology," TDR/The Drama Review 64, no. 1 (2020): 25-27.[]
  19. I summarize this threefold mechanism of improvisation from George Lewis and Benjamin Piekut, eds."Introduction: On Critical Improvisation Studies." The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies (Oxford University Press, 2016): 1-38.[]
  20. Anusha Kedhar, Flexible Bodies (Oxford University Press, 2020), 18. []
  21. Sherril Dodds, "Slamdancing with the Boundaries of Theory and Practice: The Legitimization of Popular Dance," The Routledge Dance Studies Reader, Giersdorf, Jens Richard, and Yutian Wong, eds. Routledge (2010), 362.[]
  22. Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge University Press, 1997), 86. []
  23. Vijay Iyer, "Improvisation, Action Understanding, and Music Cognition with and without Bodies," The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, G. E. Lewis, and B. Piekut, eds. 1 (2016): 85.[]