SEOUL -- Tens of thousands of BTS fans were gathering in Seoul on Thursday for the K-pop superstars' first live concert in South Korea since the pandemic began -- although COVID rules will prevent them from dancing or singing along.
The chart-topping septet's series of three concerts -- dubbed "Permission to Dance on Stage - Seoul" -- kicks off at the capital's Olympic Stadium Thursday evening.
Since BTS' last performance for domestic fans in 2019, the band have gone from strength to strength, with three Billboard-topping singles and two Grammy nominations.
Hours before the show, concert-goers -- many clad in purple sweatshirts, the official colour of BTS fandom -- crowded the venue, and filled the streets outside with banners of the band.
"It feels like a dream and I still can't believe that this is my seat whenever I look at my ticket," said Heo Min-hee, a 25-year-old office worker from Seoul.
Han Aeng-hee, a 53-year-old fan from Gyeonggi province, added: "I prayed every morning to secure a ticket and miraculously, I got tickets to the first and last concerts."
"I'm very grateful and I can't wait," she said.
Tickets for the concerts -- 45,000 seats in all -- sold out within minutes, despite stringent social-distancing requirements for the BTS fans, known as ARMY.
Chanting, singing, screaming or even standing up are all banned, as South Korea battles an Omicron spike, with more than 300,000 cases reported Thursday.
"Instead, we ask for warm applause to show support for the artists," Big Hit Music, the group's agency, said on its Weverse social media platform.
Ahead of the concert, BTS members expressed concern over the rules but asked for fans' understanding.
"There is a certain energy that can be felt from a person's voice, and I wonder if clapping can be enough," said J-Hope, whose real name is Jung Ho-seok.
His bandmate Kim Tae-hyung, whose stage name is V, added: "We also want to really hear the voices of our ARMY fans, but we are grateful and thankful for the fact that we can meet and see your faces."
Fans were disappointed about the rules but acknowledged the changes were inevitable.
"Even though it's hard, I think it's a necessary change under the current circumstances," said Lee Chae-rim, a 28-year-old student.
"At least we can see them," added Darina, a 24-year-old student from Russia who lives in South Korea. "We can sing in our hearts."
A handful of social media posts showed some fans were trying to sell their hard-won tickets after testing positive for the virus.
Many concert-goers said they had taken extra precautions, some even placing themselves in self-quarantine after securing a ticket so as not to test positive and risk missing the big event.
"I didn't go outside so I wouldn't catch Covid," said Choi Jung-yoon, 16, who stayed home for around a week.
Her friend Jung Da-yeon added: "I wore double masks when I had to go to crowded places."
The floppy-haired musicians, all in their 20s and often sporting earrings and lipstick, appeal to a generation comfortable with gender fluidity.
They are credited with generating billions for the South Korean economy, and their label enjoyed a surge in profits despite holding fewer concerts during the pandemic.
In 2020, BTS were forced to call off what was supposed to be their largest international tour, with almost 40 gigs, though they held some concerts online.
The group's first in-person show since the pandemic began was at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles in November, with the four-night run grossing $33.3 million, according to Billboard.
The first and last shows of "Permission to Dance" will be streamed live online, while Saturday's concert can be watched in real-time at movie theaters around the world.
© Agence France-Presse