Meet Rino Nakasone: The Dance Expert Behind Your Favorite K-pop Moves
K-pop’s biggest and most influential choreographer opens up about her journey, process and devising routines for SM Entertainment artists, and dishes out advice to those dreaming of a career in K-pop
To say that Rino Nakasone is busy would be an understatement. Despite juggling her responsibilities as a mother to two adorable fur babies, Gatchan and Milo, hosting several dance workshops and conceptualizing NCT 127’s Tokyo Dome performances, Nakasone was gracious enough to take some time out for this feature. Her reason? Fans. “I’m getting ready for NCT 127’s concert,” she informs me. At the time of our conversation, she is at her Los Angeles residency, preparing to fly across the world to direct NCT 127’s highly anticipated Dome tour. “But since the fans have been super nice to me all these years, I’ll try my best.”
Choreography is undoubtedly one of the key elements that makes K-pop a global success story. Long gone are the days when a few simple moves would be considered a dance routine. As K-pop became more fierce and experimental with its sound, so did the choreography. In fact, having martial arts included in an already dexterous routine is just another Tuesday for Korean acts. From building human pyramids on stage to performing consecutive back-flips or suspending yourself from a pole– in the world of K-pop choreography, everything is possible; provided you possess an ambitious and audacious attitude, of course.
However, with the advent of social media platforms and short-format content taking the spotlight, the industry has become comfortable with the idea of choreographing easy-to-follow, point-based moves to assist a track to become the next viral sensation on TikTok or Instagram Reels. No K-pop marketing campaign is complete without the addition of a dance challenge. What started with Zico’s #AnyDanceChallenge opened a gateway for future K-pop acts to rustle up a string of catchy viral choreography. From NCT Taeyong, Hendery, Jeno, YangYang and aespa Giselle’s viral hit “Zoo” to (G)I-DLE’s “Tom Boy,” BLACKPINK Lisa’s “Money,” Jeon Somi’s “XOXO,” BTS j-hope and BeckyG’s “Chicken Noodle Soup” and more– the world can’t seem to get enough of cleverly choreographed routines to perform with their favorite dance anthems.
Once the dance challenge goes viral, there’s no looking back. Take for instance Lisa’s “Money.” A B-side track off her self-titled solo singles album, “Money” became synonymous with Netflix’s global hit series Squid Game on TikTok. If you watched an edit of the show during its peak, chances are 80% of them were created using the track. A few weeks later, YG Entertainment releases the performance video, making “Money” unstoppable on charts and social media. By the end of 2021, “Money” had racked up more streams than the official single “Lalisa” on Spotify. NCT and aespa’s “Zoo” experienced a similar fate. Choreographed by NCT’s leader Taeyong and SM’s resident choreographer Bada Lee, “Zoo” is one of the 10 tracks released under SM Entertainment’s ninth winter album SMCU Express. Despite not having an official release or a big marketing budget in place, “Zoo’s” powerful and pointed choreography heavily contributed to the track’s unfathomable success on DSP and social media platforms. With the dance challenge’s official hashtag garnering over 230 million views on TikTok, “Zoo” is the perfect example of how a strategically choreographed routine can determine the fate of a song.
But it’s not always the latest release that makes noise in the digital world. With social media becoming accessible and newer K-pop fans falling head-over-heels with First and Second Generation groups, the industry has started seeing a rise in dance challenges centred around ‘retro’ tracks. Such was the case with Brave Girls’ 2017 release “Rollin.”
If you pride yourself as an old-school K-pop fan, especially of groups originating from SM Entertainment, the name Nakasone will ring all sorts of bells. Think Girls’ Generation’s 2010 and 2011 iconic hits “Genie” and “The Boys” to SHINee’s 2010 smash hit “Lucifer,”(co-created alongside Shim Jae Won) and the timeless 2008 hit “Replay” (aka what K-pop Twittersphere often considers as the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody of K-pop’), and it’s all Nakasone. Her legacy is such that K-pop trainees continue to practice her routines even today. Don’t believe me? Just ask any Third or Fourth Generation SM artist who, at the snap of a finger, can execute SHINee’s “Replay” as if it were their own routine. “I am just so humbled and thankful for every experience I’ve had,” Nakasone expresses. “I am honored and grateful to SM Entertainment for giving me the opportunity to work with such amazing artists.”
She talks a little more about her first stint at SM Entertainment, conveying the gratitude she holds for the South Korean label. “When I first worked for SHINee’s ‘Replay’ back in 2008, I was an unknown choreographer. However, they [SM Entertainment] saw something in me and I got to express my art form; I still continue to work with SM artists. I am so lucky and forever grateful for where this journey has taken me.”
The breakout single was monumental not only for the Japanese choreographer but for SHINee too. Debuting with a classic, breezy early 2000’s R&B vibe, SHINee launched with “Replay,” which solidified their charming boy-next-door personas. Over the years, Onew, Jonghyun, Minho, Key and Taemin would become synonymous with ‘unforgettable stages’ – a term that would stick with them for decades after the success of their viral breakout single “Lucifer,” also co-choreographed by Nakasone. It is no wonder that Nakasone endearingly refers to SHINee as her kids. Like a sapling shooting from the soil, Nakasone saw SHINee fearlessly take creative leaps with their incredible stage presence and desire to execute complex choreographed routines right from their rookie days.
While “Replay” may be Nakasone’s ticket to K-pop fame, the Japanese creative powerhouse shares close ties with the Western pop industry, too. Performing for pop icons such as Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, and her inspiration Janet Jackson – who motivated her to move from Naha to Los Angeles to study dance – Nakasone’s approach blends the best of Western and Korean pop sensibilities to curate some of the most gripping choreographed routines.
“This is hard to say,” she states, before diving deep into the age-old question – is there a difference in the choreographies conceptualized for Western pop and K-pop? “My own perspective on this is that the culture of Western pop is different from K-pop, yet sometimes the same choreographers work with artists on both sides. So, you see some of the similarities, but depending on the concept and each artist’s style, I’m sure each choreographer gets to be creative through music regardless of Western or K-pop,” Nakasone elucidates. As she digs deeper, the creative director makes an important point about working outside the borders. “I usually prefer not to categorize ‘art’ because there’s no limitation in art. You don’t see many idol groups in Western pop culture, so it’s hard to compare the two. However, K-pop really created its own styles and shared it with the world for some years now.”
What Nakasone says next ties in with her introspective take beautifully, illustrating a circle of inspiration. “I got asked to choreograph for artists in Japan and China because of what I did for K-pop, and my inspiration to create art was all inspired by artists like Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, and TLC. So, I would say it’s [because of] a full circle of both sides that somehow we are all inspired by each other.”
After spending decades in the industry, Nakasone makes it a point to impart her learnings to the artists she works with as opposed to merely directing them. Seasoned or rookie, Nakasone believes in helping the artists tap into their potential, unleashing the performer they are destined to be. We get a glimpse of this through NCT 127’s THE LINK LOG – a behind-the-scenes look into how the group prepared for the stages featured in their Neo-City The Link tour.
“Usually, when we prepare for our performances, we focus on details about our dances more than the emotional aspects,” NCT 127’s Japanese member Yuta reveals in the second episode of the series. “But Rino wants us to focus more on our expression. She focuses more on the meaning of every move we make,” he concludes. Attentive, intuitive and creatively driven, she takes on an approach that is fluid and collaborative, ensuring that every aspect of a choreographed routine is fleshed out.
“The more time you put into it, the more you practice, commit to it, study it, and most importantly, enjoy it – these are really important elements,” Nakasone explains about how a dancer can express themselves best. “I mean, everyone works hard, so the result will come without knowing. You also have to trust and believe in yourself. Be free, and connect yourself with your surroundings. The more you give yourself permission to stay true and surprise yourself with the unknown, the more you will be amazed at what the future holds.”
Nakasone’s relationship with the artists she directs goes beyond the cold circle of a strictly professional workspace. She’s kind, warm and, above all, always rooting for her colleagues and peers. Be it her ‘children’ (SHINee) or her ‘grandchildren’ (NCT 127), Nakasone is cognisant of the caliber each artist brings and strives to challenge the performer in them. “I do my best to create movements that make artists look great,” she explains when asked what is of utmost importance when crafting a routine – is it the artist’s current potential and assisting them in leveraging it entirely, or helping them unleash their untapped potential? “I stay true to my own creation, which sometimes challenges the artists. What I love about them is that they work so hard till they get it and they have the skills to imbibe their styles into the choreography.”
In an exclusive interview with Rolling Stone India, Nakasone walks us through her journey, working with some of K-pop’s biggest acts, and what the future holds for K-pop choreography.
What constitutes a great dance routine?
A great chemistry between the music, artists, and choreographers with surprises. When those art forms meet at the highest level, a new door is opened and the sky’s the limit. There are so many great and unique performances these days, but only a few get to be legendary. The magic is born when choreographers put their full artistry into it. Also, I would say that it’s the audience that decides what a great dance routine is!
What are some of the things K-pop labels look for when they reach out to you?
This depends on what the project will be. Sometimes they give me full freedom. I remember after I created “Genie” for Girls’ Generation, they wanted more ‘catchy’ movements.
What is your creative process? How is a K-pop choreography routine born and how long does it take?
First, I listen to the song over and over again, and receive what the music is saying or how my body and mind moves me due to the song. I usually build ideas on the intro, verses, hooks and bridge, and come up with formations. Then I focus on how each member can be captured in their parts. After I have some ideas on these, I usually have the help of dancers who act like each artist [we call them the skeleton dancers’] to help me visualize my choreography. Sometimes, I do that all by myself and tape it. The time to create the choreography also depends on how my creative mind works or the schedules, but usually, it’s about three to five days.
Do your routines majorly draw their inspiration from the lyrics, or the melody and beats? What is the best way to approach a new project?
All of it! Sometimes what I see on the streets, what I’m into at that time and am inspired by – I twist all of it to make it my own and use it. The best way to approach it is still a question for myself [laughs]. However, I always try to do new things and stay true to my instincts.
Say, a performer is struggling with a routine. How do you help them get out of their funk?
Practice, practice, practice! The most talented artists are the ones that practice the most. Encouraging them is also important, letting them know they are doing a great job. Also, changing the choreography is another way because they might perform amazingly in a different direction. Sometimes obstacles lead to another chance.
You’re a seasoned icon with decades of experience under your belt and have seen trends come and go. How would you say K-pop choreography has evolved over the years? Where do you see it going from here?
Trends and style in music always change, and it seems like the levels of dancing have become super high and the choreography has become more intricate [these days]. The influence of Internet era-information is way easier to access and you get to learn from it, which is a huge change. Today, K-pop [dance routines] are made by talented global choreographers. So, seeing how K-pop has evolved really wows me. Creative leaders in K-pop are so great at researching and catching up with what’s hot. So, I see K-pop becoming the trend leader in the future.
You share a super close bond with SHINee, Girls’ Generation and NCT 127 – three outstanding groups with phenomenal stage presence and performances. What has your experience been working alongside them? We’d love to know some of the most cherished memories you’ve shared with them.
I remember that at some point I stopped needing a translator to communicate with the artists. Not only do some of the members speak English or Japanese, but we can also somehow communicate beyond the language barrier.
We just laugh most of the time and when it’s time to work, they are super professional and work hard. When I start directing their concerts, they give me their ideas that are super important to take into consideration, and I love collaborating with them. I truly admire and respect every member and am thankful to them for trusting me to express their talents and bearing with my crazy ideas [laughs].
As a choreographer and creative director, what gives you the ultimate creative satisfaction?
The artists. I mean, they perform, put their souls into it and take it to another level! They always surprise me with the outcome of what I create. Another satisfaction is the reactions of the fans. When they are surprised by it or love it, I feel like my job has been accomplished. Another favorite thing I see is when people are dancing to my choreography – my heart cries with happiness.
Have you ever encountered a creative block? If yes, how do you overcome them?
Ohhhhh yeeees! That’s why I started to collaborate with other choreographers and creators. They have different styles and I love twisting each other’s ideas.
In your professional opinion, who are some of the best dancers in the industry at the moment and why are they currently the face of K-pop choreography?
Rie Hata! She has been killing the game all over the world! Her art speaks for itself. It is jaw-dropping and super inspirational. It has fun elements, rawness, dopeness, originality, and is trendy, emotional and memorable. I have also been a big fan of Tony Testa. He is unreal and a pure genius that this earth has gifted us with.
From conceptualization to execution, which tracks from your career take the crown for the best dance routine?
Collaborating dance performances with stage sets is my favorite [form of] expression and from past concerts that I have directed, “Call my Name” from BoA’s Who’s Back Tour [choreographed by Dazzle]; “Mr Mr” from Girls’ Generation’s Phantasia concert [choreographed by Jillian Meyer, Fuko, Maika Takeda]; and “ABOAB” and “Tell me your name” by SHINee. Also, SHINee World Five [choreographed by Rikimaru]; “Door” by Taemin’s First Stage Nippon Budokan; “Wake up” by NCT127 performed at NEO CITY: THE ORIGIN [choreographed by 50]; “No Manners” from Super M’s We Are The Future concert [choreographed by Mike Song]; and “Love On The Floor” by NCT127 [choreographed by Ill Lee] are the ones I am really proud of as a result of all the teamwork that went into the creation.
What advice would you give to someone aspiring to become a K-pop choreographer?
Go for it! If you have love and passion and truly believe you can do it, nothing can stop you. Stay true to your craft and artistry.
Before we wrap up the interview, I’d love to know how you’ve stayed motivated and driven through these years? What’s the one mantra you abide by?
I show gratitude. Before I start to create, I pray for a great outcome and after it’s done, I say, ‘Thank you’. I just love what I do! I love the people I work with! I am so lucky to have these opportunities. I also believe that through music, we can have world peace. I’ve met so many loving, kind people from all over the world through dance and music, and we all get to connect because of it. Lastly, I just want to thank everyone who’s given me love and appreciation.