Downtown Palo Alto's Lytton Plaza is known as a venue for free speech and eclectic public performances. In recent years, Stanford University's K-pop dance group XTRM (pronounced "extreme") has been catching the attention of passersby at the plaza as they perform dance covers of upbeat K-pop songs while dressed in coordinated outfits.
K-pop, a genre of popular music that originated in Korea in the 1990s, incorporates other genres such as electronic, hip-hop and rhythm and blues, and has been gaining momentum in the U.S. in the past decade. XTRM was founded in 2013 by a small group of K-pop-loving Stanford students, according to senior dance captain So Young Lee. The team, which attracts roughly 30 to 40 students, is inclusive and does not hold auditions. Members can choose to dance in performances on campus, covers or both.
"Every quarter, the whole dance community gets together to host a show on campus, and those are the big performances during the year," Lee said. "We are also invited to various events on campus to perform. Covers are more sporadic; sometimes we'll be working on multiple covers simultaneously and put them out in a short span of a week or two. Other times, depending on our members' availabilities, we may release one cover in a month." (The team films their cover performances and posts them on YouTube.)
According to Lee, the choreography for performances on campus is simpler and easier to learn compared to the routines they perform in cover videos, which typically feature only five to six members. She added that covers give experienced dancers an opportunity to perform more difficult songs.
XTRM also occasionally participates in competitions. The group took second place at both the 2015 and 2016 San Francisco K-pop World Festival competition and advanced to the finals at the 2017 KCON LA ANX K-pop Battles.
"The competition aspect is something we still do, but it's very irregular and more of a side thing," sophomore co-president Katherine Zhang said. "While we don't have any recent titles, our team's primary focus is the performances on campus and filming covers."
According to Zhang, rather than creating original choreography, K-pop dance teams generally replicate the official choreography released by a K-pop band. At competitions, dancers are judged by how well they are able to execute and match the original group's choreography. As such, a team's creativity is expressed through its artistic choices, such as set design and outfits.
"For live performances and competitions, we don't have the exact number of people from the actual group," Zhang said. "We have 15 to 20 people doing the dance so we have to be very creative and meticulous about the formations."
A trend that has become popular in the industry is "K-pop in public," in which dancers give impromptu performances in public places to capture reactions from crowds. According to Zhang, the team started doing "K-pop in public" in 2016, filming cover videos around the Stanford campus, Lytton Plaza, around the Peninsula and occasionally in San Francisco.
"These videos generally get more views than covers filmed in a private setting because it's more entertaining to see how the public reacts to K-pop dance," Zhang said. "Most of the time, the crowd isn't familiar with K-pop so it's more interesting to see their reactions to it."
K-pop in public is also presented as a "challenge" because it is more intimidating to perform in front of a live audience and to disturb the public peace, according to Zhang. However, she noted that people are always respectful and applaud after the performance.
"Sometimes we have people from the public try to interact with us or talk to us after we perform," Zhang said. "Other times, people just walk or bike in front of the camera while we're filming. We've been recognized while doing public covers before, so that's an upside to filming covers in public."
In addition to performances, XTRM provides a sense of community and support for dancers of all levels.
"After the first performance in the beginning of fall quarter, many of the people who perform there are newly recruited to the various dance teams on campus," Zhang said. "Not having much experience is daunting at first, but I still remember all the older members were so supportive and made me feel really comfortable."
Daniel Li is a former intern for the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online.