Standing next to the world’s biggest pop icon was one of dance’s brightest stars
It goes without saying, the release of BTS’ Jung Kook’s debut solo album, “GOLDEN,” was one of the year’s biggest highlights. The 11-track project treated long-standing fans and newcomers alike to chart-toppers such as “Seven,” “3D,” and “Standing Next to You.”
However, if you’ve watched Jung Kook’s latest performance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and at TSX, Times Square, you would notice that he was not the only star on those stages. Joining him on the floor were some of the dance world’s biggest names: Filipino-American Brian Puspos; choreographer and YouTube sensation Ian Eastwood; Kinjaz’s Vinh Nguyen; Big Hit Music collaborator Nick Joseph; and “Street Woman Fighter 2” standout performer Kirsten Dodgen.
But among the big names was another talent who dazzled as he shared the stage with some of the best in the world: Devin Pornel.
In an exclusive interview with LIFESTYLE.INQ, the Filipino-Chinese performer joined us ahead of his workshop with ZERØ Studio to talk about his journey to dance, working with Jung Kook, and the importance of avoiding comparison.
From the halls of San Diego to the world’s biggest stages
Born and raised in New Jersey, his first stab at dance began with performing at family parties. He recalls watching old NSYNC videos and practicing their moves with his cousin. After moving to San Diego, California, he continued, even founding the iLL Habits Junior Dance Team with the support of his father, which he continues to direct to this day.
After entering college, Pornel joined the Choreo Cookies Dance Team for five years. For him, it was also when dance became a way of life rather than a hobby or interest. He shares, “I finished college as a deal with my parents because they were letting me leave the country to teach at all these places. I was missing a ton of classes, but they were supporting me in exchange for me providing them security—that I finished school. So it started there. The more that it came and the more that I kept doing those things, it started taking over.”
Now based in Los Angeles, California, Pornel is also a part of Jam Republic, a talent agency that has signed some of the best in dance. He shares that an encounter with founder Nick SIX in Singapore brought about the signing.
Nevertheless, despite the success he has met thus far in his career, it was not without its fair share of hurdles. Whether in music, dance, or any other field, comes the realization that there are others who are just as, or more capable than you. And for Pornel, that very fact was one he had to come to terms with. He explains, “There are so many talented dancers. A huge obstacle was just trying to figure out where I belonged.”
Aside from that, in an entertainment industry where only the very few ever find great success, the scarcity of opportunity was another barrier that he faced. He further elaborates, “The unknown is the biggest hurdle—not knowing when the next thing is gonna come. You don’t know that, but you have to keep working through it. And hopefully, they just keep coming.”
How do you cope with that? How did you deal with not knowing when the next opportunity would come?
“It’s not worrying too much about other people. In this industry, it’s easy to compare your career with somebody else’s—what they’re doing or what opportunities they get versus what I get. At the end of the day, I just turn to worrying about what’s right in front of me.”
“The unknown is the biggest hurdle—not knowing when the next thing is gonna come. You don’t know that, but you have to keep working through it. And hopefully, they just keep coming.”
Who are the most important figures in your life who have been supporting and inspiring you?
“Definitely my parents. I feel like I would not even be doing this at all without them. My girlfriend, she helps me around and keeps me grounded as well. Dance-wise, Chris Martin is a good friend of mine—he also helped me grow a lot. Brian Puspos too as of recently, we got close within the last two years. Growing up, I’ve always known who he was. So just being with him and dancing next to him.”
Jung Kook and the road to “GOLDEN”
Before “GOLDEN,” Pornel had previously shared the stage with Jung Kook and the rest of BTS. He joined the septet during their Permission to Dance on Stage concert tour in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and at their 2022 Grammy Awards performance. More recently, he also performed alongside SUGA during his D-DAY tour.
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A frequent collaborator now with Big Hit Music, he was first asked to participate in shooting the music video for “3D (feat. Jack Harlow).” Since then, he has taken part in more projects with Jung Kook, from performing “Seven” during the Global Citizen Festival to dancing alongside Usher for the “Standing Next to You” remix.
We’re often told to refrain from meeting our heroes as they rarely are who they seem to be. And yet, for Pornel, the experience was everything he imagined it to be—and not just because of Jung Kook.
“Dancing with Brian (Puspos) and Ian (Eastwood) was up there because I grew up watching them. Brian and Ian are big in a sense in the dance community—a lot of people consider them legends,” he explains.
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Pornel also shares what it was like working with Jungkook, “He’s one of the boys. He made us feel welcome and he talked to us as much as he could. And I think when you’re an artist that big and famous, and him being as cool as he is, it was truly a one-in-a-million experience.”
Do you have a favorite “GOLDEN” track?
“It’s ‘Standing Next to You.’ It’s up there simply because the sound was so different. It felt less pop in terms of being trendy, and it was more like he was trying to break a barrier. It’s very MJ-inspired and the dance was very difficult—it felt like that was the one game-changer in his tracklist.”
Style as an extension of expression
Watching each of Jung Kook’s recent performances made it clear that those who took the stage with him were not your run-off-the-mill backup dancers. Sure, BTS’ “Golden Maknae” was the focus, but those around were not acting like props made to fill the floor. Instead, each performed with a flair and personality that made them stars in their own right. It was as if he were dancing alongside his bandmates once again.
How do you inject your own style when performing a set choreography?
“I think about what I want others to think when they’re looking at me. When they say what I’m doing looks easy, it’s because I’m making it look easy.“
Within the choreography as well, there’s just a way that every dancer executes their movement. Even though we’re training to look the same, we’re all individual dancers. I think all of us just sprinkle little hints—dropping our seasoning at certain parts in the choreography. And when we have freestyle moments, we take advantage of it and showcase our individuality there.”
And that was especially evident during the “Standing Next to You” performance at The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, where you’d see Pornel sliding about as the others did their own thing.
But even for a professional dancer such as himself, his style was not developed overnight—taking years of refining and perfecting. Spending hours upon hours inside the studio was not all that it took either.
Instead, finding his unique flavor took the understanding that inspiration can only take you so far. He explains, “Not worrying about other people is a thing that I keep going back to because it’s so easy to watch someone, love them, and frame your style after them. But, at a certain point, I realized that I wanted my own style that matched how I listen to and ride along the music. What makes my style uniquely mine is how I ride throughout the song and make the vibe come to life.”
“Even though we’re training to look the same, we’re all individual dancers.”
Outside of the performance, Pornel underlines the value of personal style in dance. He shares, “My attitude comes from what I’m wearing. If there’s a certain song, I dress a certain way to match its vibe. It is an extension of your expression. As much as dance is an expression, so is how you dress.”
Pornel is also a stylist alongside his girlfriend as the “Devin & Athena” duo.
“It is an extension of your expression. As much as dance is an expression, so is how you dress.”
While it would take some time before we see Pornel suiting up again with the rest of BTS, he believes that they “left that chapter in a really good place.” Till then, you can catch him teaching around the world and continuing what he loves to do.
For more on Devin Pornel, you can follow him on Instagram @devinpornel.
Photography by JT Fernandez
Creative Direction by Julia Elaine Lim
Video by Mikey Yabut and Samantha Ong
Production Assistance by Colleen Cosme
Produced by Carl Martin Agustin