The green room at Seattle Central College’s auditorium feels like eight different music videos came to life and met up in one spot. On one side of the room is a group of dancers with dark makeup, clad in all black and combat boots, next to them is a boy with round glasses softly strumming a guitar. In the hallway there’s a group of teen girls perfecting the sync of their dance moves. It’s a K-Pop fantasy come to life.

While Korean pop music — also known as K-Pop — has emerged as a global phenomenon over the last decade, it’s still trying to find its footing in the Pacific Northwest. Korea is attempting to slowly remedy that, with the K-Pop World Festival.

The K-Pop World Festival is an annual worldwide music and dance competition organized by South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Korean Broadcasting System. The event was developed as a way to unite K-Pop fans and increase Hallyu, or “Korean Wave,” which is the spreading of Korean culture across the globe. For this reason, even though performances must be to songs in Korean, competitors or their parents cannot be Korean citizens, as the goal of the competition is to spread Korean culture.

The festival holds preliminary auditions in almost 100 cities worldwide, including eight in the U.S. In the Pacific Northwest this year, the Seattle Korean Consulate partnered with the Korean Student Organization (KSO) at Seattle Central College (SCC) to reach out to younger K-Pop fans in Seattle. Out of 25 applications, the KSO chose eight to perform at preliminary auditions in Seattle, which were held at the Broadway Performance Hall at SCC on Friday.

Corynn Smith and Miku Hanatate, with EmeRain, rehearse in the dressing room of the Broadway Performance Hall at Seattle Central College before the K-Pop auditions Friday. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Corynn Smith and Miku Hanatate, with EmeRain, rehearse in the dressing room of the Broadway Performance Hall at Seattle Central College before the K-Pop auditions Friday. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Many K-Pop groups met each other through a Facebook group called “Seattle asian pop dance.” The group has over 500 members who post about different K-Pop dance workshops, competitions and events. But what may be a tight-knit community seems smaller in numbers compared to those in other cities.

“In Washington, I don’t think there’s a huge K-Pop scene. I feel like people are afraid to admit that they like K-Pop.” said Manuel Flores of B2E.

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Despite the mainstream success of groups like BTS, BLACKPINK and even Washington native Jay Park, many still feel that there’s a stigma because K-Pop songs are not in English and are seen as being “foreign.”

“It’s frustrating because ‘Despacito’ [a 2017 song by Luis Fonsi] was so popular, and that song isn’t in English,” said 16-year-old K-Pop fan Cassia Sandiskey. “At my school people think it’s weird to like K-Pop, anime and those things that still seem different.”

The competition drew a diverse swath of competitors with ages ranging from 14-years-old to others in their late-20s, coming from cities all over Washington, including Tacoma, Kent, Lynnwood and Puyallup. Most performers also spoke little to no Korean.

“I think it’s almost better to not understand the words of the songs I’m listening to,” said Dannis Thompson, one half of singing/dancing duo House of Boba. “When I listen to K-Pop songs, I feel like I’m really, really listening to the music, and not just focusing on the lyrics.”

Phillip Lao and other members of B2E wait in the green room of the Broadway Performance Hall before their audition. He says, “the most fun I have ever had is performing with this group.” (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Phillip Lao and other members of B2E wait in the green room of the Broadway Performance Hall before their audition. He says, “the most fun I have ever had is performing with this group.” (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

In the green room before the auditions, the nervousness in the air was palpable as performers did vocal warmups, practiced their choreography and added last-minute touches to their costumes.

“This is my first big competition and I was hoping to just get out of my comfort zone,” said 18-year-old singer Max Loy. Loy has his sights set on starting school at Shoreline Community College and becoming an architect.

Dance trio PONx3 practices weekly, putting together spreadsheets critiquing and refining each other’s performances, all while holding day jobs in software engineering and research science.

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K-Pop is a side hobby for most of the performers — albeit a time-consuming one — but they enjoy it, and it’s something they would never give up.

“The most fun I have ever had is performing with this group,” said Phillip Lao of group B2E. “You don’t get this feeling anywhere else.”

Despite their nervousness during warmups, the competitors seemed completely different onstage. Perhaps due to the overflowing energy of K-Pop, or the enthusiastic support that the competitors gave to each other, performers brought their A-game. Sharp dance moves and booming vocals impressed the audience and judges alike.

The winner was chosen by a panel of four judges, which included the consulate general of the Korean consulate in Seattle, the KSO president, an instructor from SCC and a local Korean dance team choreographer.

Powerhouse group B2E took home the title for best performance, and solo singer Loy won for best vocals. The winners were given $1,000, and a chance to make it to the final competition held in Changwon, South Korea, after the Korean Broadcasting System reviews the performances.

Max Loy, center with glasses, and other performers wait behind the stage curtain for the announcement of the winners. Loy won best vocals and received a $1,000 check. He says, “I’m giving it to my mom.” (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Max Loy, center with glasses, and other performers wait behind the stage curtain for the announcement of the winners. Loy won best vocals and received a $1,000 check. He says, “I’m giving it to my mom.” (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

This was the first big competition win for both performers. B2E plans to use the group’s winnings to start a YouTube channel and build the group brand; they said being chosen to perform in Korea would be a dream come true for them. Loy was shocked, but ecstatic to hear that he’d won. He’s not sure what his next move is, but when asked what he was going to do with his $1,000 check, he quickly replied, “I’m giving it to my mom.”

No one from Seattle has ever made it to the final competition held in Changwon. But KSO president Joonhong Park is hopeful this year.

“I had seen their video auditions before this, but seeing the competitors in real life was even better than expected,” Park said.