I remember taking my first class on ethnomusicology, expecting it to be focused on traditional world music—just music. What I didn’t quite expect, however, was just how much I would be learning about dance. As I continued my studies in the field, it became clear that dance was essential to music—so essential, in fact, that dance and music were not separate entities, but just two halves of the same sphere of performance. One could not exist without the other.
I used to believe that popular music was an exception to this ideology, as very few pop artists actually focused on dancing during their performances. Often times, pop music performances include some choreography, but this dancing is in place just to support the music, to make the performance more visually pleasing. BTS, however, have re-introduced dance as a direct component of music—not just a supplement to music. BTS’ choreography often outlines a story and develops the content of their songs and music videos. Their dance is critical to the actual delivery of the song, and it directly relates to how their music is created. BTS’ title tracks are all “danceable” which emphasizes the importance of the song’s performative qualities in addition to its sound.
Many might argue that writing a song for the purpose of performance takes away from how the music sounds; however, in many parts of the world, dance is part of the song. Music without dance is seen as incomplete and one-dimensional, as the dance itself contributes to the overall feeling and essence of the track. And this does not take away from the sonic appeal of the track either, as one can simply listen to a BTS song for pleasure and find that it is just as appealing on its own. However, the dance adds a performative aspect that directly affects the meaning and emotional quality of the song. Therefore, seeing a performance of a BTS song can affect how one might hear it later on.
In the West, this is often frowned upon. Artists such as BTS are often considered to be great dancers and performers, but Western audiences continue to rank this ability as less-significant than vocal (singing) abilities. This is largely because today’s Western popular music is almost entirely based on sound alone, and much of this is due to technology. Our ways of consuming music are all sonic—you download a song from a digital media source or visit a streaming platform, plug in your headphones, and play the song you wish to hear. There’s no need to rely on other forms of performance when the entire system in place is based on simply listening. As a result, Western performance has changed significantly. The emphasis is no longer on choreography, dancing, and performance ability, but generally on singing. While this is not applied to all Western artists, it is true for most, and it certainly shows that the expectations for Western performances are all based on vocal capabilities.
This, however, isn’t the case in Asia. Popular music throughout many Asian countries including Korea, Japan, and India–three of the largest music industries in Asia–relies heavily on dance. In these countries, dance is not just a supplement to the music, but it is a critical element of the music itself that contributes to the development of the actual music. Dancers, choreographers, and songwriters all work together to create a song, as the true feeling of the song cannot be communicated through only one medium.
Therefore, dancers are themselves musicians and should be treated as such. The skill required to interpret and translate sound into something physical is exceptionally difficult to master. It takes years to develop control over the human body, and many more years to understand what sounds correlate with what types of movement. As dancers, BTS display incredible understanding of music—their dancing sets them apart from most Western-pop acts as they embody music and understand that the choreography is not just an addition to the visual side of the performance, but it is part of the actual framework of the song. Without proper dancing, the song’s full potential will not be conveyed.
The theme of music and dance being interdependent is found across the world; ultimately, it relates to improvisation. In India, one cannot learn any form of Indian Classical Dance without understanding the basis of Indian Classical Music. Indian performance is full of improvisation—therefore, if a dancer improvises, the musician needs to know how to respond accordingly. If the musicians improvise, the dancer needs to react. A constant back-and-forth, call-and-response is required between the two groups, and one cannot exist without the other. In Ireland, Irish music is a powerful social medium in which community members develop strong relationships with each other through the interactions of dancers and musicians. Musicians will play folk tunes and improvise for hours, and dancers gather to interact with the musicians in a festive, energetic environment. And in South Africa, drummers will form complex, interlocking rhythmic patterns that dancers are able to interpret through physical movements—that too, on the spot.
But a dancer’s job is not just to respond to music, it is also to contribute to music. Indian Classical Dancers wear bells around their feet so that the sounds of the bells match the beats of the drums. Irish tap-dancers also use footwork to add sound to the music they are dancing to. And a particular style of dance in South Africa, gumboot, requires rubber boots that produce sounds through stomping, and dancers make complex rhythmic sequences by stomping, clapping, and occasionally singing as they dance.
This significant aspect of dance is not entirely absent from Western culture. Traditional old-time music, Appalachian music, and Country music also follow these global patterns—dance is critical to these genres as they are also social forms of music, music that is meant to be played and enjoyed in collaboration with others. Hip-hop is another Western genre where dance is central to the performative aspect of the music. But shifting further towards the European system, we see that this is no longer the case. Ballet, Contemporary, Modern, Jazz are all styles of dance that depend on music, but they do not require direct interaction with musicians. They are (mostly) strictly choreographed forms of dance with little improvisation. They are taught as separate entities—even in Western college campuses, Dance and Music departments are separate from each other; in most other countries, their own forms of music and dance fall under the umbrella of “performing arts” and all exist in one space.
BTS’ meaningful choreography and striking dance abilities are a reflection of this side of the performing arts. Dancers should be treated as integral parts of musical production, just as guitarists and keyboardists in bands are. However, in the West, instrumentalists are applauded for their musical talent and intellect while dancers are considered to be simple enhancements for visual performance that are ultimately unnecessary. Despite this, much of the rest of the world does treat dancers as instrumentalists, and the ability to dance is just as significant as playing a guitar or piano on stage. Therefore, dance should not be spoken of as a supplement to performance, rather it should be treated as a critical component of music, something that music and sound both depend greatly on.