In the beginning of this , University of Richmond alum Brian Li, ‘17, and his girlfriend and dance partner Ellen Min walked onto the stage amidst the sound of roaring approval from the crowd of approximately 500 people.
Li was dressed in a snazzy black, floral button-up shirt, and Min was sporting a chic pink, satin long-sleeved blouse -- both paired their tops with black skinny jeans and black boots. The smiles they walked out with quickly faded into more serious expressions as they prepared themselves for their nine-minute performance. Li and Min got into position and posed as if they were statues on display.
Ten seconds later, the music began.
When Li began his education at the University of Richmond, he had no idea that he would eventually become one of the most famous internet dancers on Instagram.
“My original plan was just to work full time,” Li, who was a business major and psychology minor, said.
Li’s dancing journey began when he was in the fifth grade and his mother noticed that he had bad posture. At the time, the Shanghai neighborhood he lived in offered a free dance program to members of the compound, so Li’s mother forced him to go because she thought dancing would improve the way he stood and walked.
“I went once a week for many months,” Li said. “But I didn’t really take a liking to it. You know when people send their kids to soccer or football? It was like that for me, but that’s where I learned a lot of fundamentals for hip hop.”
It wasn’t until high school that Li began to actually enjoy dancing as a hobby. When he was in ninth grade, Li saw videos of dancers on YouTube and Youku Tudou, which Li described as the Chinese YouTube, and became obsessed with a style of dancing called “popping.”
Popping -- which was born in Fresno, California, during the 1980s -- focuses on rapid contraction and relaxation of muscles to create quick jerky movements known as “pops” or “hits.” Li was fascinated by YouTubers who would upload videos of themselves dancing, and he soon began to teach himself how to pop, he said.
“I watched a ton of videos online and self-learned from people who I admired,” Li said. “A lot of the pros create their own styles of popping, and I learned from them by watching them battle or practice.”
Li’s love for dance evolved when he joined his high school dance team, where he learned the basics of ballet and contemporary dance. Then, when he entered college, he joined Block Crew, a dance team at UR, and soon became its president. There, Li explored urban hip hop and K-pop dance styles as he taught dancers ranging in skill level.
Li’s leadership role during college helped him grow and succeed professionally following graduation, he said.
“You have to be responsible and you have to put a lot of heart and soul into leading a team and making it look good at the same time," Li said. "Having that kind of discipline really helps in everything that I do."
Senior Angella Lee, a current member of Block Crew, was a first-year when she first met Li after joining the team during her spring semester. Lee remembered how caring and attentive Li was to the team.
"He made sure that everyone was okay and always worked to help each of us become a better dancer," Lee said. "His passion for dance really helped shaped how we are today and I’m so thankful for him."
Li used the discipline and leadership skills he gained from his time in Block Crew to create a massive social media following with Min.
In November 2017, the two created their YouTube channel, Ellen and Brian, and began posting videos of themselves dancing to popular K-pop songs. Today, they have over 500,000 subscribers and over 18.5 million channel views. In addition, they each post videos on their Instagram accounts, where Li has almost 400,000 followers and has viewer counts ranging from 100,000 to well over 1 million.
They found this success all within a year.
This year, the couple received invitations to perform at both KCON NY and KCON LA, two of the largest Korean culture festivals in the world. At KCON LA, Li and Min performed in front of a crowd of 500 people at the event's opening night, Klub KCON. The couple performed with big-name K-pop acts such as Momoland, Dynamic Duo and Crush. Momoland’s song titled “BBoom BBoom” has over 270 million views on YouTube.
Despite all of his success, Li has not allowed himself to get carried away by the fame.
“It’s still really weird to us,” Li said. “We acknowledge that we have numbers, but I don't think it has affected our personalities or the way we act at all. We feel really honored and blessed and very lucky to be invited to events, but it wasn’t like that was the goal.”
To Li, what mattered more were the connections he made with others through his digital content, he said.
“We were at Disneyland and someone DM’d me,” Li said. “It was someone with the same name as me, Brian Li, same spelling, same everything. [He] found us and it was actually a little kid, less than 10 years old. He was like ‘I love your covers, and I love everything that you do. You made me want to start dancing’ and that ...,” Li paused, then laughed nervously as he began to choke up from a sudden surge of emotion.
“... It made everything so worth it.”
Contact senior news writer Joshua Kim at firstname.lastname@example.org.