Korean dance focuses on the internal expression and metaphysical joy and ecstasy, or mot and heung. The body is usually concealed in voluminous dresses and full sleeves to depict the veneration of flowers and birds with reference to influences from surrounding cultures but modified by sophistication and trend. The turned–up–toed slippers are the embodiment of Korean culture displaying unity, flow and spirit, or hon.
The Korean dancer is never still. Something is always in motion and appears to the audience as graceful and gentle, yet powerful and spirited. The embodiment of Korean dance is the interrelatedness of the whole, where no part is separate and no whole is without the sum of its parts. It is an art that mirrors the Korean yin and yang approach to life.
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Shaman, or mudang, is a self–elected specialist (usually female) with no central authority or doctrine who intercedes with the spirit world on behalf of the earth. The shaman is also viewed as a prophetess, healer, artist and entertainer. Shamans are allowed to adhere to other religions and as a result, shamanism shares strong links to Buddhism. Despite official disapproval under the Yi dynasty (1392–1910), shamanism influenced courtly music and dance, where traditional movements sought to reach a state of trance, such as hopping and stepping, walking back and forth in a circular pattern, and rising on toes.
Traditional shaman dance
The underlying belief behind Buddhist dance is to offer one’s body to Buddha. Chants and instrumental music are essential in setting the tone for Buddhist dance, where a skilful dancer is able to exhibit the power and tension between the inner emotions and with the beat of the drum.
Three types of Buddhist dance include: the butterfly dance, cymbal dance, drum dance and T’aju or eight–fold path dance. Traditionally, the butterfly dance is performed by one or two monks holding lotus flowers in their hands and wearing white costumes with hoods to depict butterflies. Movements include half squats and standing positions, where movements are slow, quiet and meditative in nature generated by serene and tranquil Buddhist chants.
The cymbal dance is performed with dancers carrying large brass cymbals in both hands, which they strike or occasionally lift above their heads. This dance is usually accompanied by loud songs, a conical oboe, gong and drum. In contrast, the drum dance is performed solo by a monk striking a large drum and accompanied by a loud and spirited ensemble. The beating of the drum represents Nirvana, or attaining salvation in Buddhist philosophy.
Court dances, influenced by Confucianism, were traditionally performed at banquets hosted by the royal court for the privileged and take on two varying forms: Hyang–ak and Tang–ak. The first is indigenous Korean dance dating from ancient times where dancers recite an oral preface in the format of a classical song, and the latter differs by having a leader recite an oral preface on the side.
The best known Hyang–ak dances are: Ch’oyongmu dance, Mugo (drum dance), Hwagwanmu (flower crane dance), Keummu (the sword dance), and Chunaengmu (nightingale dance).
Ch’oyongmu is a dance of exorcism where male dancers wear masks and costumes with blue, white, red, black and yellow to symbolize the east, west, south, north and the centre of the universe. Dancers occasionally alter their positions while flapping their sleeves and making full turns.
Mugo is performed by dancers before a large drum. Main dancers use sticks to beat the drum and secondary performers hold lotus flowers. All performers dance around the drum to depict butterflies flying around a central flower.
Hwagwanmu, or flower crane dance, consists of dancers wearing crane masks and costumes while executing movements that mimic a crane. The choreography usually depicts a group of cranes approaching a large lotus flower, and to their surprise, find a little fairy girl inside the flower.
Keummu, or sword dance, is performed by a group of female dancers holding a sword in each hand. The swords’ blades are connected by short wires to the handles, which produce a rattling noise as the dancers brandish them.
Chunaengmu, or nightingale dance, is a solo performed by a female dancer. The dancer is clothed in a brilliant yellow dress with sleeves of multi–coloured stripes and a flower crown adorning her head. She stands on a flower mattress and sings a song, revealing exhilarating elegance and beauty through graceful and gentle movements with her hands and feet while exhibiting her front, side and back.
Tang–ak originates from China, but underwent Koreanization over a long period of time. A popular Tang–ak dance is the Pogurak, or ball throwing dance, where female dancers throw a ball through a hole above a gate. If one misses, her face is painted black while a flower is presented to the one who succeeds.
In contrast to court dance, folk dance expresses the emotions of people and ordinary life. There is a lack of constraint and reveals freedom of improvisation, where folk music and relatively fast tempo beats accompany each dance. Folk dance styles are intermingled with Buddhist and shaman forms – rites and rituals from both practices.
Popular folk dances include: the farmers’ dance, kanggang–suwollae, seungmu (monk’s dance), buchaechum (fan dance), salp’uri, changgochum (hour–glass drum dance), and ogomu (five drum dance).
The farmers’ dance is a unique combination of dance and rural folk band music. Originally, it was used as a form of traditional entertainment for farming folk promoting a rousing effect through complicated rhythms by percussion instruments and a conical oboe. The music encourages a natural, high spirited swinging motion of the body and can take on numerous kinds of choreography. Movements and props include: small hand–drums being rotated and beaten; dancers quickly whirling in an oblique downward–like motion; wild beating of drums with rotating heads that cause dazzling white strips to twirl in the air; etc. – all promoting a jubilant atmosphere.
Kanggang–suwollae is accompanied by the folk song of the same title originating from the southwest part of Korea. Maidens in the village gather in an open field to join hands, sing and dance on the night of the full moon of the first and eighth lunar months. The women wear a blouse and skirt with their long hair tied with ribbons to symbolize womanhood, and move slowly with the accompaniment of a solo call and choral response. As the dance progresses, the pace quickens to a climatic whirl at the end. This dance celebrates the woman’s role in Korean culture and historically reflects on pre–1950 when women were called by the Korean chief of soldiers to protect the country from an invasion by the Japanese.
Seungmu, or monk’s dance, consists of varying kinds and is also categorized within Buddhist dance. Originally adopted from the drum dance, a professional dancer performs in front of a drum accompanied by music similar to Buddhist chants and prayers. The dancer holds drumsticks and is dressed in a long–sleeved robe with a white hood and red kasa (a closely worn cape or mantle worn by Buddhist monks during the ceremony, but can vary in style for professional dancers to promote artistic expression). The dance expresses the rigors of resisting temptation through expressive body movements and climaxes with rapid drumming techniques producing exciting and complicated rhythms.
Bucheachum, or fan dance, is an exuberant and breathtaking display of beautiful large fans forming an assortment of patterns, such as butterflies, a flower in full bloom, and a sea wave. Its origins can be traced back to shaman dance and can be performed in various choreographed forms for different occasions.
Salp’uri is perhaps the most fascinating and complicated of all folk dances and was originally intended to be a dance of exorcism. It is performed solo, usually by the most senior female dancer in a professional group. The dance is characterized by improvised movements and the performer wears a blouse and skirt (usually in the colour of white) and carries a long white, silk handkerchief in her right hand. An accompaniment of improvised ensemble music is used in the Shaman rite while the dancer expresses a widow’s lamentation with climatic whirling patterns that come to an abrupt halt at the end.
Changgochum, or hour–glass drum dance, is usually performed solo with an hour–glass shaped drum, or changgo, either loosely held by a shoulder strap or also fastened around the waist (the latter form known as soljangochum). Soljango beats are adopted for soljangochum, where the dance incorporates a multitude of jumps, skips and turns; thus exhibiting a higher level of difficulty compared with the loosely strapped changgochum.
Ogomu, or five drum dance, consists of dancers simultaneously beating various patterns and rhythms on (usually five) drums in a synchronized fashion. The dance originates from Buddhist and shaman rituals, where the style of playing can vary and the number of drums can be altered to three, five, or even up to seven or nine.
Mask–dance dramas, or talchum, originates from morality plays by Buddhist monks and for exorcism in Korea. Today, they are played throughout different regions in the country as forms of entertainment, gradually losing religious meaning. For instance, contemporary mask–dance dramas may portrayal the foibles and misadventures of a group of apostate Buddhist monks; a foolish aristocrat outsmarted by his servant; and dangerous tigers who gobble up unsuspecting children. These dramas encourage audiences to laugh at themselves through acting while performers rhythmically jump, leap and squat to the sounds of a small percussion group.
The village of Hahoe is most famous for unpainted wooden masks, while groups in Bongsan (North Korea), Yangju (Keongkee province) and songpa sanpaenori in Seoul (capital of South Korea) frequently perform with grotesque and brightly painted papier–mâché masks. Overall, Bongsan mask–dance dramas are known to be more active with larger movements. Popular mask–dance dramas are: old monk’s dance, leper dance, young Buddhist monks’ dance, and the Lion Dance.
The old monk’s dance is performed by a dancer wearing a gray frock and a hat made of moss or fern. A long string of prayer beads dangle from his neck and he holds a large fan in his right hand and long staff in his left. The movements are characterized as slow and gentle.
The leper dance expresses grievances and miseries of the leper. The dancer wears a leper’s mask and reveals his sorrows and struggles through tottering and reeling steps.
The young Buddhist monks’ dance was originally performed by males, but is more commonly performed by females today without masks to freely display beautiful facial features. The performers wear Buddhist costumes with white hoods and the dance is considered the most feminine and delicate of all monks’ dances. The technique is a mixture of charming and quiet movements and is performed with adopted styles for heightened artistic expression.
The lion dance originates from China and involves one lion made up of two persons (one at the front and one at the rear). The lion dances around a large circle. Common actions of the lion include: sitting, walking, or jumping in the centre of the stage while turning its head left to right; swishing its tail; and scratching its body. Some mask dances incorporate two lions that face each other to engage in play with one another.