Singaporean dancer Ronnie Chen on choreographing for TXT, his career so far, and the future of Singapore's dance scene

Singaporean dancer Ronnie Chen on choreographing for TXT, his career so far, and the future of Singapore's dance scene

Many times the team behind the elaborate and ingenious choreography of artists goes unnoticed by the public. One of them is Ronnie Chen, one of the choreographers behind TXT's 'Blue Hour'. 

Hailing from Singapore, the choreographer was noticed by a member of HYBE's team through one of his videos on YouTube, and the rest was history. From getting an obscure email to taking the chance, and seeing his work on screen, Ronnie took another step in his career before he could even blink. 

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An established dance and choreographer, Ronnie is known in the dance scene  – with his name being easily recognised among dancers.  He currently coaches dance teams in schools, manages his own dance crew, SGD, and teaches freelance at studios.

Eager to pick the brains behind TXT's now-iconic choreography, Bandwagon sat down with Ronnie to talk about his experience choreographing for K-pop for the first time, his dance career, and his insights on the potential of the Singapore dance scene. 

Thanks for sitting down with us for a chat, and a late welcome back to the dance scene and socials! Since returning, you landed quite a big project — choreographing for TXT’s  ‘Blue Hour’. Could you share with us how that project started?

Yeah, thanks for having me. Excited to be here. It started with me receiving an email,  right where COVID was reaching its peak in 2020. I thought it was spam. When I read the email, I wasn't very sure. I was just reading through and then kind of pinching myself. Then this person asked me to [talk on] WhatsApp— this sounds very weird — then I was like, You know what, let me just drop the person a text and see what happens. And it ended up being a real thing!

I was very surprised that this whole thing was kind of just very, 'by the way'. Everything kind of just fell into place. They actually found me on YouTube - based on a dance video I've done 10 years ago.  When I saw the reference that they had —  they wanted me to build from [the] outside.

"That was 10 years ago. So let me try to figure out that's like that again." That's kind of how the whole thing started. Then we had a little bit more of a back and forth to kind of really understand how the project was supposed to be. Then there’s that!

What video was it? 

It's very embarrassing to put this on blast, but it's actually one of the first dance videos that I've done in my life is this is to a song called 'Showgirl' by Blue Robinson. This was in 2011, 2012. Back then in Singapore, nobody really does a lot of dance videos. I heard the song and it felt right. I was just back from America. Everything was in my head. I wanted to externalize it, and that was the first dance video that I did.

10 years later it's still getting me a job. So it's a little bit insane. I was very shocked. I don't know, if you could tell if there's an age difference in the video [version of me] and me now. So I was like, Alright, okay, take a leap of faith. 

Could you tell us how you came up with the whole choreography? What was the process like? 

I think what really helped was that they were very clear in terms of what they wanted the choreography to look like. So it really helped the process a lot. They would send me a draft version of the song, and they would send me the concept of the song.

Because the songs were in Korean, the draft that they would send me is in English. But it wasn't the actual lyrics. It was like a placeholder kind of lyrics – just to let me have a feel of the songs.

I'm assuming [it was] because the song wasn't fully recorded yet. After they have the finalized song, which would have been in Korean, then they will translate the lyrics for me. Along the way, they will also tell me like the choreography is gonna be along these lines. 

They want to have some concepts about the lyrics that kind of fit with the choreography. There is also a revision process — I would choreograph something, rehearse it with my dancers, then from there, I would send them a draft of what I think the choreography can be. And then they will review it, then they will be like ‘Oh, okay, let's tweak this part. Let's take on this, let's maybe add some things here.’ And then from there, they'll revise it, and then I will send it back to them. That's kind of like the whole process. It's kind of sterile, I guess because we weren’t allowed to travel, so everything was done off-site. 

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It's kind of funny because it's such a huge thing. But it happened at such a small scale for me in terms of—  I was just renting a studio, getting a few dancers in the same room, and telling them, “Hey, guys, we're gonna do this thing. I can tell you what it's for yet, but just know that it's gonna be really fun and cool.” Then we just came in, and then six months later, when we see it, it's really “so like, oh, yeah, this is what we did.”

It's insane. It's kind of cool also because I teach kids. I would ask them, like, "Hey, do you know this group?" Then they'd be like, "Yeah, we love this group; [they are] the next big thing", and then I’m like, “oh I choreographed for them”. Oh, then it's just, insane for them. So it's kind of like when you get to play a superhero. You get to be Ironman for a while. So it is very cool to be that for them. Because I remember when I met the people that that made me want to dance and I found out who's the choreographer and I met that person I was like, "okay, that guy."  So it's like a very big, long full-circle thing. That was very cool for me. 

That was the process. It was not the longest I want to say I think it's about all in maybe three weeks. The turnaround time was really fast. From the day I got the email to the day that we finished. Everything was about two weeks. The song was slated to be released in November. I got the email handle I was in June or July. I think we got the email when we were still in lockdown. It was quite crazy because the moment when everything was was lifted I had to find a studio quick and just go. [I was choreographing] in my pyjamas basically, in my living room. I was pinching myself. A lot of the people in this were gonna see this and I'm making this up in my living room. I don't know how I feel about that. It was quite insane.

So was this through a video exchange? Was it videos sent back and forth, or was there a live zoom call that you have to teach the boys how to dance?

It just exchanges. I assume they would have a team of dancers that would learn what we sent and then translate it to the members because I don't think the singers have the time to just watch a video and learn it right away. So when we sent them the video, they would give us pointers. I'm pretty sure they have a balanced team that takes care of this and translates that to the others and maybe also make some tweaks. It's expected, they would have the most realistic gauge of the standard.

Were there a lot of changes from your final product to what you saw in the video?

I want to say yes, but there are a few factors. From what I understood, for every song that they want to put out with dance, they don't only hire one choreographer. They might get a few to pitch in, then their team organizers mesh everything together. Maybe there were five choreographers for this song, I don't know, but I think the parts that I really wanted — which was the chorus, and also the jacket — those two things were huge for me because I think those are some of my favourite parts of the songs. I think they took those.

Also, some of the formation stuff. Sometimes they will take your formations, but they wouldn't maybe take all the steps. Sometimes they will take all the steps but someone else's formation, right. A good, I want to say, like 20% to 30% of things remain unchanged. Everything else was kind of tweaked. Even just facing a different direction. 

You mentioned on Instagram this was the first time working with the music industry in this capacity. Apart from choreographing for cold cut duo’s MV with your dance crew SGD prior to TXT, could you share how choreographing for TXT was different from your other music industry wors?

It definitely was, to be very honest with you, because this is the first time I've done anything at this scale. I did it the way I the only way I knew how to do it. I did a lot of research on them. When I knew that this was happening, I went to watch all of the music videos and the dance practice videos just to see the level of dancing that I can expect. 

When I had a good gauge, then I was confident where to scale it. Then when I first choreographed it, I already kind of went in with the understanding that they need to sing this. There are parts where maybe as a dancer, I would have wanted it to be a little bit more [intense], but I was like, I didn't need to choreograph this song like that, maybe hold back a little bit. Because at the end of the day, I think I went in pretty clear as a choreographer, my role is to highlight them, versus me trying to challenge them — I'm trying to work with them.

I had to make sure that I kind of always stay focused on that. There are five of them, and when I was writing down formations, I didn't know them individually. So I just gave them numbers and made sure like, okay, 1 to 5, everybody has got to be in the centre at some point, then I wrote down who is at the centre for how many times, [seeing if] that was a good balance. If there wasn't, I might switch the formation around a little bit. Or I will tell them — this formation is like this, but this person is here. So maybe you can do this from here instead of in from the front — just giving them options.

They actually wanted — if you watch the music video — this jacket segment, that they really wanted to be part of the whole routine. That was crazy to work with because they were also considering live shows. All the wearing and all that has to happen on stage because they don't have time to exit the stage and wear it and all that. A good chunk of the time was also making sure that the whole transition of the jacket looks seamless — like the dance that would come in could blend and cover it almost like a magic trick. 

That's the whole situation that we had to figure out which was fun when it worked. Figuring it out, maybe not so fun, but I like the challenge. I think as a dancer like growing up we've been working through things like that. It's just now you have this added layer of is that is for singers and artists, and that's fun, to take on that challenge and see where it goes. 

I actually did a separate tutorial about the jacket switching, because they had to come in one way and be ready to go. They would slot it in, make a turn and just walk to the front line, and the jacket was already on. It was a bit nerve-wracking because we could prep them,  but also we were speaking English. I wasn't sure how it translated to them. Because I don't know [how big the] language barrier was. I went out of my way to make sure that Jacket was done right.

Was the jacket thing your idea? 

It was actually theirs, and then from there, I kind of worked backwards. They wanted a jacket, let's figure it out. Then we had to go into the details.

What kind of jacket — is it a long one? It's a short one. What kind of look? — because different jackets fit differently. I could do something else with a hoodie; a regular jacket. Once we nailed that down, then you kind of get a sense of what kind of look they are going for. Then from there, that kind of influenced the decision I made, like they wanted something a little bit slicker. I added in a little flick. They love it — sort [of thing].

So you mentioned that you did research on all of TXT's past dances. When you came to know of their standard, were you glad to find you had a lot more to work with than expected?

Yes, definitely. I think I've never been one to be very involved in Kpop. I think music is great. It's just something that I don't consume. When I got offered the job it was an opening up. And I'm not gonna lie, there's always this stigma around K-pop cover dancers. It kind of doesn't really put them in a good light.

I don't know anything about the world of idols. I tried not to have any assumptions and just go in to see. They want to try this thing. Let's just go with it.

I actually really like the song. When I heard it, I was like, is it me or is the song is kind of nice? So a lot of the stereotypes kind of faded away for me. Especially when your first experience with K-pop is choreographing for K-pop, it doesn't really get much better. So I stand corrected.

You've choreographed for dance films and competitions as well. What is different about choreographing for K-pop?

I think in my younger days if I were to choreograph for a competition, I would approach it in the way of competitive games— I want to win. I want to know, [for example], what is the judging criteria? That's my piece that's gonna go on stage and check all those boxes. So it's based on what people are looking out for. How are you going to score? It's like acing a test.

Right now, where I'm at, when I decide to join the competition, which has been a while back, I feel like it's become a place for me to just do what I want. What I've come to terms with is: dance is very subjective, and you can win a lot of things, but it may not be the most meaningful. But when you do something that you truly connect to and you like, you will be okay with the results because that was a true representation of yourself on stage.

Sometimes when you do that, you may not get the usual response that you are used to getting; let's say for me, I was competitive in the earlier part of my dance career, and not all meaningful items are winning items.

You took a break from dance and socials, which you shared was partly due to fatigue and FF7R, could you share with our readers about what led up to the break, how you felt during that time, and finally being back?

I did full-time freelancing in 2020. Before, I was always just a dancer. In my first real job in 2011, I was working full-time at full capacity at a studio. Then I took a gap year in 2017. I kind of stopped working, then I came back, and I realised that I wanted a shift in the way I approached my career.

I started teaching schools. It was very rigorous, because it's a co-curricular Activity — it doesn't stop. So you just keep going. On top of that, as a dancer, you have got to  Because if you don't improve, then the things that you want to do also won't improve. You also have to take care of how constant you are in everything else like being a son, being a friend, and everything else.

Maybe sometimes it's about how you put yourself out there, on social media; you can't just discount all that and don't participate in it. I don't think it's very smart to do that as a dancer. However, you also don't want to sell yourself out. Don't just do everything for Instagram. Because there is value in having your own beliefs and standards.

I didn't know how to handle it. Because when I became a coach, it was actually my first time coaching anybody. Before that, I was more of a studio instructor and I was coaching on the side. Now coaching is the main thing, and then everything else is on the side.

How is coaching different from choreography?

So imagine this, I get to see you for four years. Every week, I have a weekly appointment with you every week. Now I have to understand how to guide your progress from year one to four. Then because I'm going to spend so much time with you, I'm going to be invested in you. I want to make sure that if you have any problems, I'm someone that you can talk to.

Nowadays, when you coach people, you can't just teach them the art form, you have to know what's going on in their lives, you have to understand them. If they're going through something, you want to help them out. Because these are the life lessons that you're also they're supposed to teach.

My philosophy in coaching is just that I'm there to make them better as people. Dancing is the vessel to instill those values. If they understand all these values, but they want to be like an astronaut, or whatever, I'm still going to be super happy for them. I'm not only training them to be a dancer, but I think there are certain things in dance, if you understand them, they pretty much can do everything in life — discipline, hard work, all this kind of stuff.

It will be universal, so I think that's difficult as a coach, because of the emotions that you don't know how to regulate. Sometimes, if a kid comes to you, and they have a family problem, or a school problem, or a friend problem, the problem becomes your problem because you're invested in them. You might make them feel better, but when you leave the lesson, if it's something heavy, then it still weighs on your mind. Sometimes you would think — I could have seen this coming and could have caught it earlier. Just so that they don't have to go through that. 

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Or when you join a competition, you hope for them to win, and then they don't win, and they feel so disappointed. As a coach, you want to still teach them stuff — that it's not about only winning and all that, but as a coach, you are kind of the reason why they lost also. It's also not to be too hard on yourself. 

For me, 2019 was a full year — SYF and super24. Everything was cramped into that year. When COVID hit, everything just stopped. When that happened, in the first two weeks, I was very happy. Because nobody has to work, everybody gets to chill. Then, because you have so much time, then you start to let all the thoughts come in. Then you start to do a reflection on how you did it and say: "Actually, I could have done better here", and all these things that come in.

Due to COVID then you see a crazy amount of people putting their stuff online. Every single day. People are just putting stuff online to remind you that they are dancing, reminding you that they're still working. I was not doing that. I didn't do any of that. And it made me feel like I wasn't working. I wasn't working hard enough. When I was driving myself into the ground was every other day. That really messed with my mindset.

My first initial reaction was: I'm just going to sit down and play games for a week — and I got super unhealthy. I slept at 5, 6 AM every day. Then I was like, you know what, I have time now. Let's pick a goal, and commit. The goal was to actually get healthy. I've always wanted to be healthy, but as you know, as a dancer, we are nocturnal, almost.

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It's really hard to make that adjustment. We don't eat the best. We don't exercise the most. We just always dance and when you only dance, there will be a point where you get injured. You can't do it anymore. Thus, being healthy has always been something that's on top of my list.

I decided to use that second month that I got. I was like: I'm going to be healthy. I'm going to read every day, I'm going to work out every day, I'm going to stretch every day, I'm going to make sure that I'm eating correctly — counting my calories and researching on nutrients and all that stuff. I took the whole month who really understand that then when I actually committed to it, I was very, very happy with myself about that.

Then work came back. But now I'm fresh and I'm ready to go. What helped was it came back in a sequential manner. Not everything came back at the same time. For me, it was very easy to handle. First I only got to do one school, then the next two weeks I have to do both schools, then the crew practice came in. Everything was kind of falling into place.

I had time to get accustomed to the things that I'm used to doing all at the same time. But one at a time. In a much better place. I guess I'm thankful for the break. I also am thankful for the fact that I had people that were encouraging me when I was going through this whole thing and committing to being healthy. I had supportive people around me. So that was fun. It's kind of hard to just do it alone. You know, it's really boring, so you need a good village around you to really help you get to the best version of where you want to be.

Since coming back from your break you’ve been pretty busy - doing your current series, ‘connect’ with SGD that took a year to finish! What are your plans next?

I think at the later part of my career, whatever I want to put on stage is something that I feel is a true representation of where I'm at currently in terms of dancing, and that I am agreeing to be judged upon. But I don't let that be all. When I was younger, winning was everything; winning meant that I am the better dancer. But as I mature a little bit more, you understand that it's just preferences.

When I join the competition, it’s just you wanting — for me— to share something. It may not result in a championship or whatever, but it was a platform to connect with people. Just put it out there. Then whoever that gets to see, they can just take it as what it is. I think there's more value then than maybe winning a speaker or something like that.

I think for dance films, it's an entirely different thing. What it used to be was something of a novelty. Not a lot of people were invested in doing it because the money comes out of your own pocket. You pay people, you rent equipment if you want to shoot outdoors, and you need costumes. All this is on your own dime.

Now with COVID, everything is online. This is not like an instant thing. It has been gradual, you know, like because all these videos from the olden times would then influence a new generation, and then they would want to use that medium as their voice to then inspire the next generation. So it had been a slow drip of improvement. When COVID happened, it exploded. Everybody wanted to put something on video, and there were videos coming out almost every day. Not just locally,(but also) internationally. Everybody was on your screen.

I think for me when it comes to producing a dance film, you get a lot of autonomy over it. So it's really just about how you express yourself or your artistic views through dancing. You don't need to care about any sort of judgment or whatever because your relationship with the video is just to create and go through the process. Whoever that's going to watch it, then they can judge it. By that time it is no longer yours anymore, it's kind of like everybodys'. Every single person that watches it will have their own connection with it, and that’s fine. 

When you see something that really inspires you, that you kind of want to put a dance spin on it, and then it would be fun.

Like your current series?

Yes. So we did a dance series called Connect. It's a four-part series. It's on our Instagram now. What actually happened was that project was supposed to be a competition piece, and we were preparing it in late 2019, 2020, just right before COVID, for a competition (World of Dance) in Bali. 

Then COVID came and then the borders got shut down and we have this thing that wasn't completed. We had three-quarters of the piece. During the circuit breaker period, we also had a restructuring of the crew. I felt like the piece was kind of wasted to just leave it aside. It was also kind of inspired by what was happening around us; nobody could touch each other all that stuff, and the series was about Connections. It was about exploring what it takes to say ‘yes’ to connection.

When the circuit breaker ended, I gathered everybody, saying, we have this piece that I feel it's a pity to just let it go and work on something new. Why not Let's blow it up?

Usually, a dance competition is like a six-minute thing, maybe three to five. Let's just expand this. Let every segment take its own spotlight and then let's do it like a series for it. Every segment that occupies a particular space in the storyline now gets to be expanded and you get to really articulate what you're trying to do in that segment.

It would be a challenge because in this day and age, if in the first three seconds if you're not engaged it would be like, ‘swipe’. There is that aspect of challenging the audience: how are you going to stay connected to something? How are you going to invest in something that you don't really know is going to go?

We're very proud of the project. I'm very proud of the team because there were a lot of first times. 

We booked a boat to Lazarus island to shoot the video (Episode 2). So we went through all this and it was just the eight of us and two camera crew just out running. It was really insane. Then we had to put our bags in the corner and hide it from the camera. Then there were like snakes and cockroaches and stuff like that.

With dancing, people sometimes forget we just have a small speaker. There's not a sound system kind of situation. It's like a small speaker. So all the feeling that you see on screen — a lot is self-induced. It's not like the vibe is right. We were working with a forest— There's nothing there. It is this aspect of shooting a dance video that sometimes people forget. 

We also worked with the National Library Board. We rented a space there, and they're very nice to really help coordinate everything because we were using smoke machines. We were trying to rig a camera on top and stuff like that. So far, episode 4 was kind of crazy because we had six different locations for a four-minute video. The shooting schedule started at 1:00 a.m. We shot for four days — four weekends for that one video. For every video, we had to go to a different location. It was insane. We're very proud of it and excited to share this with the world. this is actually our first project as a group £— and it was a four-part dance series. 

We’ve seen the dance scene in Singapore slowly growing and gaining recognition, from battles to more mainstream culture like K-pop, and local dancers and choreographers are becoming more prominent. As one of the pioneer figures in dance, from your Joyce and the Boys days to O School, and now freelancing, what are your thoughts about the dance scene in Singapore now and its direction? 

I think the first thing I will say, is, Singapore is going to be is actually capable of being as good as anywhere. As someone who has started dancing late — I started dancing when I was 18. If someone like me gets to go overseas and perform for people that I look up to — and I'm not the most talented person.

There were so many dancers that when I was growing up, I looked up to them so much, they were so good. Maybe I just wish that they were a little bit more stubborn, and believed a little bit more. I wish that times weren't so hard for them to make that decision. For me, I'm not from a very well-to-do background. Due to that, I am free to make that choice. I just need to make sure that my mom is okay. Then I'm good. Dance allowed me to do that.

I lead a very simple life. I think when it came to all the people that I saw before, they didn't have that for them. They had the family pressure and all that stuff. But I really think Singapore has the talent. If you look at the kids these days, like go look at the 15-16-year-olds, they are ridiculous.

I do think dancers need to learn how to protect themselves. All it takes is a pandemic, or a disease, to wipe out so many jobs. If as dancers, we don't educate ourselves on how to have longevity in a certain career, it will end really fast. Sometimes it's not even within your control. I think that's very sad. We've all seen dance in every outlet — food delivery services will use dance, music videos, or Kryptos and brands.

Everything has dance now and with the addition of social media, it's a very powerful tool to have as a person. If you don't know how to value and protect the whole thing, then people will take advantage of you. In Singapore, there are no dance unions. Nobody's looking out for us, and there's no universal rate to be paid. Everything is on mutual agreements. If we could move towards that a little bit more, I think everybody would be less afraid to have a dance career. And, and the [notion] of having a dance career can be a good one.

I think right now, we are recovering. We don't have live events that are on a big scale for a while now. I think a lot of dancers are itching to get on stage, because that's such a big part of who we are — being able to perform and take the stage. I hope that comes back.

Personally, I would like to explore more creative collaborations, maybe more intersections on different types of creativity. As a person, if you like to dance,  it's not just all that you like; you might like music, like food, or whatever. Sometimes, by allowing those things to stay, then your dance kind of becomes yours more. Now the connections that are formed are also things that you like, then dance becomes more authentic to you.

I'm always in the process of trying to make my dance my own a little bit more. I do that knowing that everything I learned is borrowed. I'm never gonna be standing in front of the camera, saying 'I made this, this is mine' because this is such a crazy thing to say. I know fully that everything that we're learning and doing is from a different culture. We don't really have a Singaporean dance, you know? That's fine, we're still young, we're growing. I know all these routes, and I'm still learning about all these routes. Now, I want to blend them.

I'm just going to take my combination of these things and then grow from there. I hope that anybody that's watching this as a dancer, do that. Trust yourself. Really, we have enough versions of everything else. But we need more people that are willing to be themselves, then there's more variety. Then then I think that's how the seed grows there.

We can't really wait for people to tell us that we are good. We can't wait for the people to want to invest in us. We got to be our own biggest fan first, and also our harshest critics right then from there. Everything else is an add-on.  I think it's so much easier to just run with it. I hope that Singapore dancing gets recognized more on a social level, on an economical level, and definitely, the most important one is on the artistic level; because so many great artists that came from Singapore get swept under the rug, even musicians as well. I want all of us to have a bigger piece of the pie in terms of maybe being in the news. I really think we deserve it. I've seen the work people put it in.