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.
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.”