Pernik on a Sunday at nine in the morning. In front of the Boris Gyuderov sports hall, young people with brightly colored hair and stage clothes gather in groups, practice their moves, put on their makeup and crowd into the hall. Many have just arrived on the night train from different parts of the country to take part in the Elite Dance Championship — a big dance competition that brings together more than 70 K-pop groups and formations from all over Bulgaria.
"Korean culture is very different here because we have a close-knit community of dancers. Our country is small but we have one of the biggest K-pop communities in Europe," say the guys from TOXIC — one of the finalists in the competition and the first, and so far only, all-male K-pop group in Bulgaria.
A week later, we meet again under the TSUM colonnade – where the Sofia K-pop community has been gathering for years because of the open space and mirrored windows – and ask them to tell us more about when and how K-pop culture started to enter Bulgaria.
The guys take us back to 2010. "Back then, K-pop was still unknown to most of the world. But as a result of independent events promoting Asian culture and the competitions and initiatives organized by the Embassy of the Republic of Korea, a close-knit community of avid stage performers was formed in Bulgaria."
The global dominance of K-pop (short for Korean popular music) arrived in several waves. Although its roots date back to the 1990s, the first big wave that carried it across the world was the 2012 global hit by Psy, “Gangnam Style,” whose choreography quickly became a cultural phenomenon.
The second wave arrived in 2016-2017 with the popularity of groups like BTS and Blackpink, the latter of which became the first K-pop group to perform at the Coachella festival in the United States. Blackpink became even more popular after the release of a Netflix documentary about the band, and this March they broke the Guinness World Record for the most streamed female group on Spotify with 8.8 billion streams.
The third wave coincided with the pandemic, when TikTok became the dominant social media platform for the younger generation. "In this country, unlike in some other places, the seeds of our community had already been planted before these waves of popularity began. Indeed, there are distinct generations of K-pop fans and dancers here."
TOXIC was formed back in 2014 when a few close friends got into K-pop and became fans of the K-pop girl groups. "At the time, K-pop was still a very niche subculture, tied to gaming events and events promoting Asian culture. It was through them that we discovered this tiny K-pop community in Bulgaria. Svet wanted to try and get a male K-pop group together, there wasn't one at the time. We performed onstage for the first time at the Aniventure 2016 event," says Dani, one of the members. They were immediately drawn to the music, fashion and dynamic choreographies of K-pop, but what captivated them the most and keeps them going to this day is the feeling of being on stage.
One of their proudest moments came in 2018 when they represented Bulgaria in South Korea. "We had the opportunity to go to Korea after winning the regional round of K-Pop World Festival 2018. It was an extraordinary experience. We met people from all over the world that we still keep in touch with to this day."
What they found most impressive there was the country's technological advancement, and their favorite thing was the food. "We all agree that we would go back just to eat Korean food." It's also one of the things they wish Bulgaria had more of. "There are three Korean restaurants in Sofia, but outside the capital, hardly anyone has tasted this amazing cuisine. Korean music has really become mainstream, but Korean food hasn't reached that level of popularity at all, especially if we compare it to Japanese food."
According to Toxic, K-pop is different from all other types of dancing because it really emphasizes onstage behavior. "It is absolutely imperative to act well on stage and make sure your lipsync is up to par. Unlike hip-hop and street dancing more generally, where individuality and fluidity of movement are more important, for K-pop it’s synchronization, uniformity of movement and the ability to act which are more central to the performance."
Toxic define K-pop culture as being on the cutting edge in terms of fashion and style. "Bright colors and unconventional clothing are among the most important elements for Korean fans. We draw inspiration from their music videos, scenes, and popular fashion more generally. Another key feature is their choreography. It is derived from many different types of street dance – American hip-hop, Japanese styles, and traditional Korean dances are all part of this stylistic fusion."
When they’re not dancing, the Toxic boys like to get together and party at home, where "there's always cool video games and board games being played." It's how they let loose and bond as a band.
What would they tell people who don't know anything about this subculture? "K-pop is extremely diverse nowadays, there are so many bands out there that you're sure to find something you like. K-pop is for everyone!"
Photo: Personal archive
Another band that stands out among the most recent wave of Bulgarian K-pop groups is S.KILLs. Their distinctive presence and original looks make them immediately recognizable on stage.
"Most of the choreographies we perform follow the K-pop group we are copying move for move, but we also like to add intros with choreography that we've designed ourselves. We can make the dances fuller and edgier than those of the original bands because we're not required to sing onstage and we can afford to complicate the moves." They say that their style depends on the song and the concept for the dance. "Sometimes we're these gentle white elves covered in down and wearing winter outfits, and for other performances we look like we just escaped from an action movie."
It's more than just pop
S.KILLs was formed two years ago, had their stage debut at AniFest in 2021, and won five awards in various dance competitions the very next year. "At first, the goal was just to get this going so we could start performing on stage, and then later the group would remain a sort of second unofficial project for each one of us. Eventually we realized that we were doing pretty well and dancing together was super fun. So we decided to become more serious about the image of the band."
Photo: Personal archive
For them, Korean culture offers a little bit of everything. What do they miss in Bulgaria? "New things are still coming in, but it's very rare to find Korean restaurants, for example. There aren't that many events, and it would be cool if there were more opportunities for us to perform."
They also point out that, unlike a decade ago when the dance community was much smaller and everyone knew each other, there are so many new groups now that they haven’t heard of half of them. "But we still support each other everywhere!"
For S.KILLs, the challenge of K-pop dancing lies in the different styles of choreography. Some are more complex and fast-paced than others, and take quite a bit of time to learn, since the band tries to replicate all the moves from the original version. Working on a new routine can take an average of one to three months.
Photo: Personal archive
How to craft an outfit
Their work is by no means limited to dancing, because S.KILLs are one of the groups that design and sew their own costumes for stage events. "When it's time to craft our outfits, we get together at someone’s place or in our rehearsal space, and we start brainstorming ideas, sewing, we order pizza, we eat and dance, we sew some more. And we keep going all night. These midnight rehearsals are a lot of fun."
They all agree that K-Pop can't be defined by a single uniform style. What is the message they most often find in its lyrics? "The topic of self-love – not giving in to stereotypes and the opinions of others, feeling good and comfortable with ourselves and what we do."
Vanya Santeva describes herself as "a person devoted to dance and technology." She has a degree in computer programming, but she has been drawn to dance since her early childhood and she says that music has always been her passion. She practiced hip-hop dance and jazz ballet as a child, and was also part of her school cheerleading squad.
"The truth is, dance lessons were an expensive hobby for me back then and I was not able to stick with anything for too long. Until K-pop!" Everything changed when, in fourth grade, a friend played her a K-pop song, and she fell for the genre, which remains her biggest passion to this day. She started teaching herself the choreography of videos she watched on the internet, filming herself in order to compare her own moves to the original dance.
Today, in addition to performing with various groups such as Y.A.G, Countdown, S.Kills and Empire, we can find her on stage as an individual performer, and she also teaches at the Soﬁa International Music & Dance Academy and sings in the Irina Stiglich Chamber Choir.
Vanya notes with a smile that it will soon be 13 years since she entered the world of K-pop, "more than half my life," and this gives her the confidence to start sharing her knowledge and skills with others. Last year, she received her certification in choreography and began teaching. The most valuable thing she would like to teach her students is that dancing is something that can be learned.
You can learn anything
Vanya often hears the words "but I have two left feet." "A friend of mine who kept saying that when he was starting out was a judge at the last K-pop competition I entered. You. Can. Learn. Anything. Period."
She thinks that beginners shouldn't give up because they feel they're not good enough. "Getting a sense of what your body is doing is not easy, or hearing the rhythm of the music properly, even telling left from right can be difficult at first. Dance has so many advantages – it's a way to learn how to move, it’s a sport, it’s exercise, music, rhythm, and it also challenges you to learn new things, introduces you to new people."
As someone who has been involved in this scene for years, Vanya says that when Korean culture was first entering our country, people perceived it as more generically "Asian.”.
"We had a Facebook group – “'The Rise and Blossoming of Asia in our country,” which people from all over Bulgaria would join. There were probably a hundred members. I would say that the Bulgarian K-pop community got established at the first official K-pop fan meeting in 2011. We stopped being random strangers with similar interests, and became a real active community. The first professional K-pop group to appear in Bulgaria was MOD, and gradually the field became more competitive. Rules were established, there was drama, twists and turns. It was an interesting period."
According to Vanya, the division between professional and amateur groups first appeared in those years, and now there is more balance on the scene. "The environment has become more favorable and welcoming – K-pop communities are founded in new cities in Bulgaria all the time. Bulgarians are winning worldwide K-pop competitions, both online and in person. We keep getting better and better!"
Unlike other dance styles, such as hip-hop, house, vogue, and waacking, there are no basic moves in K-pop dancing, which Vanya says can be a big challenge. "The choreography is designed in order to create something new, original and memorable. K-pop dance combines elements from all kinds of different styles and it is mostly done in groups, so synchronicity is very important. If you're not in Korea, you learn choreographies by watching them on a screen – usually filmed from just one angle." There are also creative challenges: "You have to be able to figure out the exact timing yourself, see all the details, and gauge the energy. It's great that there are K-pop classes now where you can easily learn all of these things from someone, but that is in fact how we, the teachers, learn and prepare."
What she misses most in Bulgaria is Korean hairdressing, clothes and street food. She talks about how in South Korean hair salons, you can select treatments for how your hair is parted, or have your bangs stay in one place as you move, and how the colorists there are on a whole other level.
"The clothes are cut differently from the European style and I think they would suit a lot of people – they create a silhouette that you don’t really see in Bulgaria. Their street food is great and so varied – if we had a street with Korean food stalls here, I'd go every day. What I miss the most, though, is affordable access to everything – there is variety here in Sofia, but in the rest of Bulgaria Korean products and services are still quite expensive and not widely available."
She admires many aspects of Korean culture, but her biggest passion aside from music is the food, which has become an integral part of her home cooking. "I've been eating mostly Korean food at home for a while. The emphasis is on eating a varied diet, having lots of vegetables, banchan (small side dishes that accompany the main dish), using seasonal ingredients. I make my own kimchi (a spicy cabbage preserve). Since I've started cooking Korean food, I've been eating more vegetables, different kinds of pickles, more fish, I eat soups more often, and there's always something to eat at home because everything can be easily combined with the other dishes and ingredients."
She is also particularly impressed by the fact that karaoke is a very popular hobby for young people in Korea, and dreams of one day having karaoke booths here too.
When designing her stage outfits and makeup, Vanya gets most of her inspiration online, and when researching fashion she is increasingly thinking about the importance of having a wardrobe of basics – comfortable clothes in neutral colors that fit well. "That way you can combine them with more colorful and unconventional items later on. Another goal I have is to start growing my dance wardrobe with interesting clothes that can add more fullness to my movements."
Over the years, Korean culture has come to occupy an increasingly central spot in Vanya's life. "K-pop showed me what it's like to be truly committed to something. It is a way of life. I eat Korean food, listen to Korean music all day, I dance, I go to competitions and events. Now it's also a professional responsibility because I teach dance and am in charge of a K-pop dance hall. Some of my closest and wackiest friendships are tied to this community. And it all started with a song..."
Toxic, S.KILLs and Vanya will be at the Sundance Festival in Sandanski in April, the Frezco South Dance Championship on June 3 and 4 in Pazardzhik, AnimeS World Stars on June 10 and 11 in Sofia, and, in July, at the first post-pandemic Aniventure Comic Con – the largest pop culture event in the country, which brings together fans of anime, manga, gaming, cosplay, K-pop and comic books.