Kpop choreographers and girl groups blackpink and newjeans
Sorah Yang (left) photographed by Saadat Maksat. Taryn Cheng (right) photographed by Ahn Hongje. Blackpink and NewJeans photos courtesy of Getty Images

K-Pop Opened Doors for AAPI Dancers Abroad. At Home, They Remain Closed

Sorah Yang views the mainstreaming of K-pop as “a win for the Asian community…not necessarily for Asian Americans.”

Taryn Cheng was watching professional K-pop choreographers direct a team of dancers when she thought to herself, “I could do this too.” She had already been dancing with a professional hip hop company since high school, and as she prepared to graduate college, was working with American choreographers to develop material for South Korean entertainment companies. Cheng says she considered her post-college prospects and realized, “I’m now a dancer in this space, but I could be the choreographer.” 

Cheng started moving towards her goal by dancing with her friends and posting videos on Instagram to show her ability to choreograph for a group. She built followings on YouTube and Instagram and sent sample choreography videos to YG Entertainment. Then in the fall of 2021, she says, “the first call came.”

The K-pop group TREASURE wanted her to choreograph their music video for “JIKJIN,” and YG wanted to sign her to their dance agency. By early 2022 Cheng was on a plane to Seoul, where she would choreograph the "Pink Venom" music video for BLACKPINK’s second studio album, choreograph for the Born Pink world tour, and direct Taeyang’s dance performances with Jimin of BTS and Lisa of BLACKPINK. “Things just kind of snowballed,” Cheng says.

Taryn ChengPhoto by Ahn Hongje

Cheng relocated from the United States to South Korea at a fraught moment, welcomed abroad as people who looked like her were being targeted at home. In early 2020 Donald Trump and members of his administration had described the COVID-19 pandemic in explicitly racial terms — the “Chinese virus,” the “kung flu” — inaugurating a new era of anti-Asian xenophobia. Hate crimes against Asian Americans surged by 339% in the following year. When Cheng reflects on the excitement of her early professional breakthroughs, she also remembers the concurrent fears that burdened her when she thought of her family’s vulnerability. “I was worrying about my parents or my grandparents more than myself,” she says, “[thinking] that my friends or loved ones would experience something drastic.” 

K-pop seemed to explode in America just as life for Asian Americans was becoming measurably harder. Reports of anti-Asian violence emerged alongside headlines announcing BTS’s Grammy nomination, BLACKPINK’s chart-topping album debut, and TWICE’s history-making entrance to the US market. For choreographer Sorah Yang, it was unclear whether the expansion of K-pop, and the international opportunities it provided to artists like Cheng and herself, would advance equity for Asian Americans in their own country. Now, she says, she views the mainstreaming of K-pop as “a win for the Asian community…not necessarily for Asian Americans.” 

Yang, who coaches and choreographs for artists like NewJeans, TREASURE, and Monsta X, initially pursued work as a dancer in Los Angeles after college. “I quickly learned that it wasn’t for me,” she says. “In terms of Asian roles and representation…it was very limited.” 

Sorah YangPhoto by Bong Buno

Yang says she often arrived at music video castings to discover that she, a Korean American woman, was competing with Asian American dancers of varying backgrounds for a single, generically “Asian” role. When prospective dancers were separated into audition groups, she recalls “it would be just me versus Asian girls so that they could find that one, you know, Asian dancer who would be on the squad.” She began working independently to build a creative portfolio on Instagram and YouTube, and in 2017, launched herself as a full-time dance educator and choreographer. 

It is precisely because of her success in K-pop that Yang has a specific and personal critique of the American entertainment industry. She has developed material for world-class South Korean artists. She has partnered with brands like Clif Bar and Nike. Yet these accomplishments have not led to jobs with American entertainers, bringing her to question why she is “validated as a choreographer — which is a position of leadership and creative authority — in Asia, but not trusted with that here.” 

Sorah Yang leads a dance class.Photo by T WATCHAROTHON

“This is a vulnerable, honest moment,” says Yang, prefacing her next statement. “I’ve been signed as a dancer for a long time, but every time I reach out to agencies [in the U.S.] to be signed as a choreographer, then nobody wants to sign me.” She continues, “I do go back to thinking, ‘Is this happening because of what I look like? Is it because of my name?’”  

Dr. Chuyun Oh, whose research at San Diego State University focuses on activism and identity in dance, says that while K-pop opens doors for Asian American artists to succeed on an international stage, it cannot prevent them from being excluded at home. “We still have a lot of barriers [in the US], especially for Asian American and AAPI artists,” she says. Having interviewed and observed K-pop trainees in New York, California, and Seoul for her most recent book, Oh believes Asians in America are frequently denied “credibility and agency” as artists. 

“The most common stereotype is that they are mechanical, or good at technique and lack creativity,” she says. “Western artists, mostly white artists, have had the privilege of claiming their authenticity and creativity. But on the other hand, Asian dancers in particular have been degraded as nothing but [performers of] techniques.” 

Even as the United States reckons with its history of anti-Asian prejudice, Oh says it is difficult to separate these entrenched racial attitudes from our perceptions of Asian American artists. This is especially true when it comes to dance, she argues, because we cannot avoid looking at the bodies and physical features that mark a person as non-white: “We are not actually seeing the movement when we make a contract with a choreographer. We actually see the person, so even if the movement is excellent, the fact that they are Asian visibly has to affect certain ways [we perceive them].”

BLACKPINK perform at Coachella in April 2023.Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Cheng is aware that there is a discrepancy between what she can expect as a choreographer working in South Korea and what she can expect if she works in the United States. Even after collaborating with globally recognized entertainers and being named to Forbes 30 under 30 as a young creative to watch, she says that if she returned to the States, “I wouldn’t anticipate necessarily booking Top 40 American artists. If anything, I would imagine that my work would look similar to what I was exploring [after college].”

Even so, Cheng has made her peace with these realities. After grappling with the last few years of increased anti-Asian violence and the nuances that come with living as an American abroad, she has concluded, “I still very much identify as Asian American. I think home will always be the States.” She anchors herself within “a very AAPI heavy community” of friends and mentors within the dance industry, and while she will continue her career within K-pop, she intends to eventually move back to Los Angeles, the city where she was raised. 

Taryn ChengPhoto by Ahn Hongje

Yang is also thinking about her future, and the future of dance, in the United States. With regards to the coexistence of K-pop dominance and continued anti-Asian racism, Yang says it’s “cool to see more Asian people at the forefront of entertainment and the music industry,” but she wants to see equity for Asian American artists advance on multiple fronts. If Oh is correct in saying that Western culture is unused to seeing Asians as real people, capable of creating real art, Yang wants to counteract this by “creating programming that I feel is inclusive,” diversifying the kinds of bodies the West associates with expressiveness and creativity.

Coming to terms with the inequities that still exist for artists like her has required Yang to undergo a personal reckoning. “I kind of looked around and realized, I am now a leader in this Asian American dance community,” she says. “So with that comes this responsibility – If I don’t feel like inclusive spaces exist, I guess I’ll create them.”  

Yang currently teaches an online course for aspiring dancers and choreographers that she describes as “the resource I wish I had earlier in my journey,” and lectures at the Johns Hopkins University Peabody Institute, with an emphasis on cultivating BIPOC and female artists who might otherwise be excluded from their fields. This is not because she thinks there is something innately preferable to working in the United States as opposed to in South Korea. Yang says that her desire to see more diversity in the artists who succeed in the United States “represents something pretty simple — it would mean that there’s space for me and people who look like me here in America.”