Traditional Korean Dance

Prof. Ae Ju Lee

Seoul National University, Korea

Our Korean dance is not just a form of expression. It is a spontaneous performance of body, which expresses the overflow of emotion. It soars up from the inside, like willow branches saturated with water in spring water, which joins from two different valleys. The dance of Korea is not intentional. It configures all kinds of sorrowful feelings such as pain; grief that is deeply scarred into the bottom of your heart, the will of the mind, and the dreams inside our souls. Korean dance is a process of transforming all of these things into a dance externally.

The basic movements of Korean dance represent pulling out (as pulling out an arrow) that got stuck (as an arrow thrust into a target), and unwinding when wound up (as the winding of ropes). Its movements are seemingly scattered, but return to the center; then the center is endlessly expanded. Therefore, the dancer embraces the universe and creates a new universe within his body. Of course, the term ‘universe’ does not mean scientific space, but rather man’s universal hope to be lovely human beings and to create a grand new beautiful world. We can say that the Korean dance is a language, which is expressed by the whole body that can produce labor. It also realizes one’s dream, because our Korean dance is based on our labor and on the aesthetic tools of man’s daily life. We cannot find this kind of dance anywhere else in the world, and it probably lacks typical aesthetics even if we do “Taepyungmu” (a dance of peace), and “Talchum” (a mask dance) and so on, reaching a stage of completing man’s life and aesthetic hopes.

Our dance starts from rhythm. But this does not only mean a musical rhythm. A dancer has to perceive a beat of history in man’s heart (the trembling of nature), and has to harmonize them each with the other. One basic characteristic of our dance is that it is permeated in its movement with the dynamism of life and combativeness that creates a light of history.

These are the fundamentals of Korean dance, bases for my performance. But through out Korean history, Korean dance had been a possession of the ruling classes as a means of amusement. As a result, Korean dance had lost the power (dynamism) and combativeness in its motions. Rather, its formality and tricks had come to be emphasized. However, my dance has bypassed these formalities and tricks.

I retrieved Korean dance from its retrogression by devoting my 50 years of dance life to develop it. And finally I put it on a unique and creative stage. I digested “Salpuri” (Exorcising an evil spirit), “Seungmu” (a Buddhist dance), “Taepyungmu” (a dance of peace), and so on. I was named an intangible human treasure in 1996 for performing it with its functions. Through dance, I attempt to pass over the limit of techniques and formalities. Every movement of gesture is something to restore and create an original dance form, as well as to ask endless questions about life. I have tried to incorporate every gesture of human beings alive, to express through dance the essence of human life.

I have danced for appeasing dead spirits, and my dance implies hope in every historical field of Korean society. For example, I performed “Sungpuri” (calming a vigorous anger) dance, which is the new version of the traditional emancipator dance “Salpuri”, in front of two million people who poured out into the street in order to attend the funeral of the patriot Han Yeol Lee, who resisted the despotism on the 9th of July 1987. Lee Han Yeol was a young man who died from a teargas shell in demonstrations against military despotism. This was the first time that such an outpouring happened, in the history of dance, both in Korea and in the world.

Korean dance is every movement shaping of humans’ wishes as well as the expression of the human body. The characteristics of Korea dance are to soothe a man’s heart that is deeply hurt, and to create distortions of men’s dreams with the body. In the respect of transforming a human life’s hope into a physical motion of a dance, this can be a characteristic of human culture, as well as being a characteristic of Korean dance. Therefore, my dance belongs equally to Korea and to the universe. With this meaning, we hope with overflowing heart, that this dance will be opened to the eyes of the world and will be truly felt by them.