What about the choreographer of Gangnam Style?

February 6, 2014

Creator of Psy’s ‘horse-riding’ dance promotes copyright of choreographers

Lee Ju-sun, far left, dances with Psy in this photo captured from the singer’s “Gentleman” music video. The creator of the “Gangnam Style” horse-riding dance said many choreographers in Korea are wrestling economic trouble.

Lee Ju-sun, far left, dances with Psy in this photo captured from the singer’s “Gentleman” music video. The creator of the “Gangnam Style” horse-riding dance said many choreographers in Korea are wrestling economic trouble.

Lee Ju-sun

Lee Ju-sun

By Park Si-soo

K-pop juggernaut Psy might not have been able to reach the status he enjoys without Lee Ju-sun. Lee, a prominent choreographer, created the famous horse-riding dance of “Gangnam Style,” which played a crucial role in throwing the chubby musician into the global spotlight in 2012.

Psy has raked in massive wealth estimated at 100 billion won ($92.46 million) with the song, and will earn more for several decades because he owns the song’s copyright as songwriter.

In contrast, Lee was paid a “minuscule” percentage of the money in a lump sum by Psy when the former started teaching the latter the hilarious dance. And that’s all he could claim.

The huge income gap between the two despite their similar level of contribution to the song’s global success can be blamed on the absence of an organization protecting the copyrights of choreographers. The country’s intellectual property law recognizes copyrights for choreographic works, as it does for music, literature and other forms of artistic products.

“Nevertheless, I’m happy because Psy paid me a hefty bonus following the song’s smash hit,” Lee said in a recent interview with The Korea Times at a coffee shop in Gangnam, southern Seoul. “Psy told me that he would buy me a nice car. But I said I want a cash bonus.” He didn’t elaborate. Lee went on, “I would have made really big money if I was compensated properly for creating the horse-riding dance.”

Lee Ju-sun, left, dances to “Gangnam Style” with Psy during intermission at the TIM Cup final match between AS Roma Vs. SS Lazio at Stadio Olimpico soccer arena in Rome, Italy, in this May 26, 2013 file photo.

Lee Ju-sun, left, dances to “Gangnam Style” with Psy during intermission at the TIM Cup final match between AS Roma Vs. SS Lazio at Stadio Olimpico soccer arena in Rome, Italy, in this May 26, 2013 file photo.

Regulator in the making

This bittersweet experience motivated him to hold hands with six other veteran choreographers, including Park Sang-hyun, Kim Hee-jong and Go Yoon-young, to establish a state-licensed organization that tracks and charges those who make money with copyrighted dances and distributes collected fees to their creators, as the Korean Music Copyright Association does for songwriters.

Park initiated the move after winning a lawsuit he filed against a private dance academy in 2011 for teaching students his copyrighted dance. Park was paid 4 million won in compensation.

The seven reform-minded choreographers recently submitted a written application to establish a regulator, tentatively named the “Korean Choreography Copyright Association” with the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. They are currently awaiting the ministry’s endorsement.

“The project, if it goes smoothly, will help create a better working environment for choreographers and dancers, many of whom are suffering from chronic low income,” he said. “If we get final endorsement (from the ministry), we will hold a press briefing to explain the organization’s business plan in detail.”

There were no statistics on the average income of choreographers, but Lee said a choreographer is normally paid 3-5 million won for creating dance moves for a song.

“There are roughly 200 choreographers in the market,” he said. “They win only a couple of deals a year. It’s really hard to live with the income… Many talented choreographers quit their jobs due to economic hardship. It’s really sad.”

State support needed

Kim Ji-hee, a culture ministry official familiar with the case, said the ministry is reviewing the application, adding the ministry also feels the need to protect the copyrights of dance creators.

“We are on the same page with the choreographers when it comes to copyright issues, which means we feel the need to change the existing system to get them compensated properly,” Kim said. “It will take some time to complete the review. Actually we recently found some technical shortcomings with the application, so we asked them to address them.”

The ministry’s attention to the issue was highlighted by a meeting between Culture Minister Yoo Jin-ryong and 10 choreographers and break dancers, including Lee, on Jan. 21.

“K-pop has showed a rapid outward expansion in recent years. I think the time has come for us to look at whether major contributors to the rise are treated properly,” Minister Yoo said. “I will try hard to improve the ecosystem of the pop culture industry so that artists are better protected and can compete against each other in a fair and sound manner.”

Another culture ministry official Ahn Ji-yoon, who attended the off-the-record Q&A session between the minister and the choreographers, said the conversation was largely focused on copyright-related issues. At the end of the session, Ahn said, the minister pledged to come up with a breakthrough as early as possible.

‘I’m born to dance’

Lee turned 40 and lives alone ㅡ unmarried ㅡ at a small studio in Gangnam. He is aware that his body is not as quick and nimble as it was during his heyday in his 20s and early 30s. Lee recently hurt his left ankle while practicing. Despite the odds against him, Lee said he cannot stop dancing.

“Dance is my life,” he said. “A long time ago, I once quit the job (due to financial trouble) and started my own business, which was a dress shop. The business went well, but I soon found my heart beating again while watching dancers on TV. So I returned.”

Currently Lee spends most of his time designing another “game-changing” dance for Psy’s new song, which is expected to be unveiled during the first half of the year.

“I feel really burdened by the work because people’s expectation is so high,” he said. “I created the horse-riding dance only in five minutes after I started brainstorming. I think it was a perfect match with Psy and ‘Gangnam Style.’ I bet the dance wouldn’t have made such a big hit if it was employed by another musician or another song.”

Asked to point out a K-pop singer who excels in terms of dancing, he mentioned Rain, or Jung Ji-hoon, without hesitation. “Rain is proven to be a talented singer and dancer in many ways,” he said.

The choreographer is a firm believer of the maxim, “Practice makes perfect.”

“No matter how talented you are at dance, you cannot beat those who practice hard,” he noted. “I think this can be applied to everything in life.”

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