“Dance is the Most Essential Part of K-pop” – In Conversation with Sea Ni, a South Korean Choreographer and Dancer
“I started [my dancing career] as a backup dancer for K-pop idols”, says Sea Ni while sipping his drink in one of the restaurants in Tower Bridge, London. Despite the fact that it wasn’t the exact kick-start he wished for, this first opportunity marked the beginning of his career and helped him to become a prestigious choreographer. Although the work of a backup dancer was very demanding and Sae Ni was faced with various hurdles, he pushed forward to achieve his dream.
Prior to becoming a choreographer, Sea Ni was studying dance in South Korea. While studying, he met a professor who encouraged and guided him towards his desired path. It has been five years since Sea Ni first became a professional dancer and two years since he became a choreographer for SM Entertainment, working with NCT Dream as well as NCT 127.
Choreography has many faces and styles, and the choreography that is often performed by K-pop groups takes much inspiration from street dance. Mastering a K-pop dance routine is not only a rewarding experience but also a serious cardio workout. Sea Ni’s movements are sophisticated – accented beats and syncopated rhythms are paired with strong, sharp motions which involve the entire body. And whenever Sae Ni teaches his choreography, you know you will enjoy it thoroughly, even if you have to sweat like there is no tomorrow.
Sea Ni has choreographed various routines for NCT Dream and co-choreographed for NCT 127, on top of that, he is also a part of a dance crew, Unequalled Style. Sometimes, remembering choreography can be a challenge. Ultimately, there is no denial that some people simply have more experience in the field of dance than others. Their knowledge gives them a firm ground for comparison based on similar dance moves and faster recognition of the movements involved.
“For me, the most important part while choreographing the song is the chorus, so I always try to come up with something memorable and catchy”, says Sea Ni, then continues: “So, for NCT Dream’s Glitch Mode, the signature move was a move that looks like an angular, repeating slash – it visually creates the feeling of something being broken”.
“We came up with four or five different choreographies and altered them many times. However, when we came up with the routine [that you see in the MV], the producer of SM Entertainment, Lee Soo-man, said ‘oh, that’s the one’ and he changed the name from Glitch Mode to Buffering. I think Glitch Mode is the title that is more popular outside of Korea”, adds Sea Ni.
While sitting comfortably in the restaurant with Sea Ni, Kim Minkyoung (a translator by day and a DJ by night), and Kayleigh Allen (the CEO of 1on1 Events), I truly enjoyed having lunch and chatting about the dancer’s professional work. In all honesty, I thought I would have issues talking to him as it’s rare for us to speak to choreographers who work with K-pop idols on a daily basis. However, his charm and bright personality (must be that Jeju Island charisma, yes, Se Ni was born and raised on Jeju Island) turned the interview into an interesting experience. Considering that he finished three intensive dance classes before eating his meal, and still had two more evening classes to go to afterwards, I must admit that he was a joy and a pleasure to be around. One thing is for sure: Sea Ni is a very humble young man.
We talked extensively about how he choreographs his routines for NCT, but what really interested me was how Sae Ni manages to remember his own choreography.
“How I remember my movements? I always record my dancing, then I come up with a rough draft of the choreography. Thanks to technology, I can record everything”, he answers with a chuckle.
For Sea Ni, being in London was a real treat, not only because he could wander around the city, but because he could also share his passion for dancing with young people. Brought to the capital by 1on1 Events, around 100 people participated in his dance classes at BASE studios in Vauxhall.
Watching the classes and seeing Sea Ni giving his all, I thought to myself, where on earth does he get all that energy from? How does he maintain his stamina and strength?
“My body is not so good”, Sea Ni laughs, then carries on: “I do work out regularly, but it is still quite difficult to get my stamina and strength going, especially when I have a busy schedule.”
“I remember when I was touring with one particular K-pop idol group – I had an infection in my spine, and there was another time when I strained my neck muscles. Although I had those injuries, I was still required to perform”, admits Sea Ni. “There was also a time when I went to a doctor who said that the joints in my knees were not good”, says Sea Ni while laughing.
Although being a very active choreographer requires draconian training, practicing, and travelling, Sea Ni is not giving up. He has been working hard to achieve his goal of becoming the best of the best, and he dreams of doing choreography for Justin Bieber and SHINee one day.
Sea Ni is a great dancer in his own right, and he has been intrigued by Rino Nakasone, a Japanese dancer, choreographer, and artistic director. Rino Nakasone is responsible for the choreography behind some of the biggest South Korean groups such as Girls’ Generation, SHINee, and Red Velvet, just to name a few.
“When I met her during one of NCT 127’s concerts last year, we had a conversation during which she explained how to choreograph a routine that makes the dancers and idols look good and have strong stage presence. That conversation really inspired me [as a choreographer and a dancer]”.
Being a backup dancer has never been an easy task, and the same goes for being a choreographer. Both jobs face their own difficulties, and it’s hard to “digest” them at times. However, Sea Ni always puts on a brave face and doesn’t allow himself to be affected by it. He does find his work very demanding, but he doesn’t shy away from telling me about his favourite moments as a dancer.
“Ah, being a backup dancer for Jay Park on his US tour was great”, exclaims Sea Ni, then adds: “I was able to wear whatever I wanted, I was allowed to interact with fans, and I could also freestyle”, Sea Ni’s face really lightens up when he talks about his time with Jay Park in the US.
It is no secret that whenever working with idols, everything has to be top-notch and planned very well in advance. As Jay Park is regarded as a Korean hip-hop artist, adhering to the plan might have been more relaxed at that time.
Sea Ni also hopes that one day he will be able to direct and organise a dance routine as big as the one performed by Justin Timberlake at the Super Bowl Half Time show back in 2018. We can only keep our fingers crossed for him.
Dance is Sea Ni’s passion, and one of the most important things for him while creating choreography are lyrics.
“I get inspired by lyrics. I try to express the lyrics through dance”, Sea Ni admits honestly.
Intense choreography is central to K-pop, but one question arises: would K-pop exist if there was no dance involved? Probably, but it would be in a different form.
“Dance is the most essential part of K-pop. Other countries’ music never had this kind of choreography. [That being said], there is something that should be changed in this industry. I wish our work was copyrighted and choreographers were treated better, as our work is essential for K-pop to exist. We are not paid royalties as we don’t own the rights to our own movements. We are strictly paid per choreography [not per future usage of the choreography]. I hope I can change this situation at some point [in my career]”, the dancer confesses.
Although his opinion is not there to attack the industry itself, it is just the reality that many choreographers have to face around the world. After those serious few minutes, we moved to a more relaxing subject: Sea Ni’s favourite dance style.
“Rather than hip-hop, my favourite form of dancing is when each move has a meaning. If I have to be more specific, I would say that I like jazz dance, and any dance with unique and meaningful movements. However, NCT’s choreography leans towards hip-hop – that’s what their fans like about them. I always try to research and think more about what kind of movement I could come up with that reflects the hip-hop style [in an authentic way]”, says Sea Ni.
With the hard work that Sea Ni does, one can be sure that he will achieve great things in the future.
“I want to continue my work as a choreographer and, if time allows, as a backup dancer. I want to change the way dancers are treated as well. And if there is an opportunity in the future, I would like to direct a stage performance”, Sea Ni reveals.
Without a doubt, Sea Ni is an ambitious and brave dancer. With his strength, patience, and passion, he will surely reach for the stars.
Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler
Interpreter: Kim Minkyoung
* We would like to thank 1on1Events for their incredible assistance during the interview
View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts, and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, arts and fashion, worldwide.