DANCING BEYOND MASCULINITY & FEMININITY
Feature courtesy of @taemin
Dissecting the subversive art of Taemin’s androgynous choreography
Lee Tae-min debuted at just 14 years old. It was 2008, and he was in Shinee, one of the most popular groups in Korea at the time (remember “Ring Ding Dong”? I miss that song). Now, a little over a decade later, he’s not only launched a successful solo career, but is also a part of SM’s new supergroup, SuperM. Despite debuting at such a young age and maintaining extraordinary popularity, Taemin still manages to continue to perform in a way that instantly commands your attention.
Perhaps his lasting power is in part due to his ability to push the boundaries of K-pop as we know it. He is one of the few musicians in K-pop right now who seem to fully embrace androgyny in his performances. Despite working in a heavily gendered industry, Taemin reinterpreted these limitations to revolutionize the creative direction of his choreography.
Aiming for ultimately non-gendered choreography, Taemin frequently uses both female and male dancers in his seductive and sensual performances. In “Move,” Taemin’s second studio album, the titular track does exactly that. Working with Japanese choreographer Koharu Sugawara (whom he also worked with for “Sayonara Hitori” and “Flame of Love”) and a group of female dancers, Taemin incorporated both flowing, gentle movements and jerky, powerful ones into the routine. The latter is usually associated with boy groups: it’s fast, taxing choreography that showcases quick footwork, strength and stamina --whereas softness is typically an element of girl groups. With a stronger emphasis on image, girl groups tend to get overlooked with “easy” choreography that showcases their physiques rather than their dancing abilities.
Reinforcing an artistic dichotomy between masculinity and femininity, the difficulty, strength, and pacing of the choreography often gives way to gendered labels. But Taemin breaks both of these by incorporating the femininity of soft and elegant silhouettes with the precision and speed often associated with more masculine boy groups. In other words, his movements are sleek and polished, but graceful and gentle as well. This all comes at a cost: while his choreography looks smooth and easy on the surface, its execution still relies on a high level of technique and ability.
Movements in “Move” are subtle rather than dramatic, which differs from the exaggerated theatrics we so often see on the K-pop stage. The slow, deliberate actions in “Move” further highlight the sensuality of each slight change in movement: from the way Taemin shifts his shoulders to the way he sways his hips, everything is sharp and intentional. He almost forces you to pay attention to the intricacy of each minute movement, hypnotizing you to stare at every detail. Smooth rather than aggressive, the choreography is a perfect example of the physical strength required for understated precision. The choreography is tighter and meant to be at once emotive and edgy, making it all the more powerful. His all-female dance crew follow the same subtlety and sensuality that Taemin himself exudes, and the performance becomes not just a form of art, but a force of artistry. The juxtaposition between both fast and slow movements evokes a new style of dance that experiments the silhouette of the body, reminiscent of ballet, but the contemporary edges of popping, as well.
Taemin shows that aggression is not the sole qualifier of a strong performance, and that a skillful dancer can convey strength through smaller, graceful movements. “Grace” isn’t a description constantly associated with masculine dancers, but it’s a perfect word for Taemin, who glides into the sharpest and most precise movements with ease.
In “Want,” the titular track of his latest EP, Taemin oozes the same sensual energy as he does in “Move.” If you’ve seen live performances of “Want,” you know that Taemin moves with so much precision that he sometimes resembles a puppet being controlled by strings. Each bend of the knee and lift of the elbow is isolated and precise. The introduction of the song is continually impressive no matter how many times I’ve seen it, as Taemin begins with a slow wave that moves from his right hand to his left, then slowly moves it downwards to his knees and feet. He almost moves like a serpent--smooth and sensual, intentional in every move. He dances with a precision that shows someone with complete control of his body, and the precision to the slow, gliding movements add to seductiveness of the choreography.
While Taemin uses an all female dance crew for “Want” too, he also often performs with an all-male dance team. The interchangeability of the genders, who follow the same choreography, subverts the expectation of the choreography to be gendered. And the choreography itself is fluid for all--both all female and all male crews flow and fit into the movements easily and uplift the performance regardless of their gender.
Taemin is truly one-of-a kind in the current K-pop industry. I can’t really think of anyone else who is doing what he is doing right now or pushing boundaries in the same way. The unique combination of male and female-centric dance moves gives rise to a sensual performance that disregards gender. Rather than sticking to what is and could easily be popular, Taemin chose to forge a new path that is more true to himself and his artistry. Taemin’s desire to create his own identity within the spheres of K-pop only makes him more interesting to follow, and his contribution to the industry ever expanding and influential.
Experimental, edgy, and powerful, Taemin, it seems, can only continue to rise in popularity throughout his already long and impressive career.