Jules Does

Jules Does K-Pop Academy Homework: Korean Traditional Dance

Posted on: October 15, 2014

There is huge variety within Korean traditional dance, much too much to get into in any depth here (unless you really fancy reading a 15,000 word blogpost). Of the 119 Important Intangible Cultural Properties, 20 are dances or rituals which incorporate dance as an important feature. Dances which were developed in the Three Kingdoms (i.e. in the late 1st Century BC – early first millennium AD), such as the Cheoyongmu (처용무) are still performed today, despite profound religious change and political upheaval during the previous centuries as well as attempted suppression during the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula, an amazing example of cultural endurance in the face of adversity.

The early religions of Korea were based around shamans, who often employed dance performances as part of their rituals, including exorcisms. The Cheoyongmu (seen above) was a part of a highly elaborate ritual performed at the New Year at the royal court, and was intended to cast away evil and welcome in good luck. That’s almost too simple a description, however  – the dance is also a part of a much wider Korean mythology concerning Cheoyong, son of the dragon king, and his own successful attempt to drive the spirit of smallpox away from his wife, so the dance is bound up in many ancient understandings of Korea’s history, traditional dress, the roles of wooden masks, attitudes to medicine, the symbolic properties of colours and flowers, and the important role of the five elements in creating balance, harmony and health. Broadly speaking, Korean dances can be classified under three headings: court dances, folk dances, ritual dances. There are also modern-made traditional dances.

There are so many beautiful and moving dances to discover, but I will limit myself to the discussion of only four: the folk dance Taepyeongmu (태평무, dance of peace), the court dance Seungjeonmu (승전무, dance of victory), the ritual dance Nabichum (나비춤, butterfly dance) and the court dance Geommu (검무, sword dance). I will also be considering how Korean traditional dances differ from the more famous K-Pop dances we know and love.

Taepyeongmu (태평무)

Although Taepyeongmu may (or may not) have its origins in a Buddhist state ritual from the Goryeo period (918-1392 AD), in which a king or his representative would dance as a way of praying for a peaceful reign, the dance as it is performed today owes a great deal to Sung Joon Han, a Korean dancer and choreographer active in the early to mid-20th century, who altered the tempo and as well as some of the steps. Han is known today as the father of Korean folk dance. Taepyeongmu is the 92nd Important Intangible Cultural Property of Korea. Today, Seon Yeong Kang is considered to be the keeper of this artistic tradition.

Korean Traditional Dance - "Taepyungmu"

A dancer performing Taepyeongmu.

As you can see, the dancer wears elaborate traditional dress (hanbok) usually reserved for a queen, including the hair ornaments and hair piece, rich embroidery and fine silk fabrics. This is due to the postulated royal origins of the dance – when the dancer is male, he is dressed in the traditional clothes of a king. The music is quite stately and formal, but the dance is quite joyful in tone and the movements are relatively quick, with lots of spinning and arm waving as well as complicated footwork (which is mostly obscured by the long skirt or chima). Because of the extremely rapid movements, the dance is considered one of the most difficult Korean traditional dances. The rhythm of the dance is based on a shamanistic rhythm structure, called jinswae-jangdan, from the Gyeonggido region around Seoul. Certain gestures have important meanings, such as the positions and height of the right knee and/or the right elbow, and the external beauty of the dance is meant to reflect and confirm the internal beauty of the dancer.

Seungjeonmu (승전무)

Seungjeonmu is the 21st Important Intangible Cultural Property of Korea, designated so in the late 1960s. It is arguably the oldest dance on my very abbreviated list, with evidence of it in wall paintings from tombs of the Goguryeo era (1st Century BC – 7th Century AD). Unfortunately these tombs currently lie within the boundaries of North Korea, so are unavailable to the ordinary visitor.

Korean dance-Mugo-01.jpg

The ‘Gamudo’ panel from the Goguryeo tombs, showing an early Korean dance.

In addition to its age, the Seungjeonmu is also known for its connection to Admiral Yi Sun Shin, an important figure in Korean history, who defeated the Japanese navy during the Imjin War in the 16th Century. At the Battle of Myeongnyang, 25 October 1597, he defeated the Japanese fleet of 133 warships with only 13 ships of his own and with very few casualties to the Korean side. He’s also been portrayed in several K-Dramas and Korean films, most recently in 2014’s The Admiral (명량), currently the most successful Korean film of all time. Admiral Yi used to command his sailors to dance half of the dance before battle to raise their spirits, which apparently worked.

The dance is in two halves: a drum-based dance and a sword-based dance (this is the one that Admiral Yi’s soldiers did). You can see the drum section of the dance here:

Four female dancers in beautiful, brightly-coloured hanbok with long sleeves stand around a drum with a taeguk pattern painted on it. The dancers move elegantly, bobbing up and down, waving their arms and long sleeves. Occasionally they move more quickly and frequently strike the drum in the centre of the formation (although the actual drum noise comes from attendant musicians and not from the dancers, it would seem – but I could be wrong!). The tempo picks up and the dancers ‘strike’ the drum more frequently, emulating the increased heartbeat of the soldier before going to war.

I won’t cover the sword section of the dance in too much detail here, as a lot of it crops up again in Geommu (below). Suffice to say that the sword was used to absorb energy from heaven to purify the ritual and to bring victory to the military. This is the section of the dance that Admiral Yi’s soldiers performed to such great effect.

Nabichum (나비춤)

You might recognise the word ‘nabi’ (나비) from my utterly flawless drawing, which I did as part of homework last week. In case you forgot, ‘nabi’ means butterfly, and this dance is so named because of the traditional costumes worn by the performers, which cause them to resemble butterflies. The costume shown in the video is quite plain, but as you can see below, occasionally performers wear brightly coloured over-garments and hoods, though the sleeves always seem to be white.

Bongwon Temple Monks: (L) perform cymbal dance; (R) perform butterfly dance

Bongwon Temple Monks perform the Butterfly Dance (R). Note – they can also be seen dancing in the video below.

The nabichum is often performed as part of rituals for the dead, or jakbeop, which means ‘dharma making’. It can also feature in the Yeongsanjae, a special ceremony performed annually on June 6 by the Taego Order of Buddhist monks in Korea to commemorate the writing of the Lotus Sutra (a dance resembling the nabichum can be seen in this video at around 6 minutes and 20 seconds). The nabichum consists of a repeated series of movements made by one or more monks, who begin the dance with their arms outstretched and with peonies in their hands. If there are two monks, they dance in pairs. The monks slowly go through the movements, including crossing and uncrossing their arms, kneeling, raising their robes, bending at the knee, flapping their sleeves like a butterfly’s wings, and bowing towards a building containing an image of the Buddha. You can see from the video above that it is a very slow, graceful and meditative dance, as you might expect of a ritual for the dead, and the monks (or another attendant monk) continually chant as they move (that’s the drone you can hear in the video).

A better view of the ornate hoods worn by performers.

Given that the nabichum is a sacred dance, it is not usually performed by people who are not Buddhist monks participating in a ritual. Although Buddhist dance has influenced other traditional dances in Korea, the movements and practices associated with these ritual dances are not easily changed by outside forces.

(Note: this is now the most complete article on the English-speaking web about this dance. You’re welcome.)

Geommu (검무)

Skip to about 10 minutes in for swords.

The Geommu, or sword dance’, is the 12th Important Intangible Cultural Property of Korea, and comes from the area outside of Seoul. Like the Seungjeonmu, it is very old and dates back to the Three Kingdoms Period in roughly 660 AD. The Three Kingdoms in question were called Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje (I promise this is relevant). According to legend, a boy named Hwang Chang Rang, who lived in Silla, was an excellent swordsman and a wonderful sword dancer. His fame spread through the Three Kingdoms, and he was invited to perform before the king of Baekje, although Silla and Baekje were enemies. Hwang Chang performed as requested, but also attacked and murdered the king in front of the court and was later executed. In his honour, the people of Silla danced in imitation of him, even wearing masks that resembled him (masks are so important in traditional dance you guys, I’m sad I don’t have more time to go into it!).

Originally, the dancers were male, but in the 15th Century during the Joseon period, the dance was altered (for example, the mask element was lost) and was performed largely by female courtesans (gisaeng) dressed in military attire such as a belt and military-style hat over hanbok. What a shift! The colours of the costumes vary regionally, but tend to be some variation on blue, red, yellow, green and black. It can be performed in large groups or small groups (two seems to be the minimum).

A 19th Century image of a gisaeng performing Geommu.

Despite these big changes, the sword element of the dance remained, and it’s quite an odd juxtaposition to see beautiful women moving gracefully while twirling big scary swords. As they spin, the swords make a sound which adds to the musical accompaniment, usually played on traditional instruments. Here’s another variation on the dance:

The dance develops over time from being fairly slow and dignified at the beginning to a much faster rhythm and, of course, sword-twirling. It might not be what you expect from a sword dance – initially I was kind of expecting it to be fairly aggressive from the beginning like some Dothraki ritual, but in its current incarnation it’s very cordial. You don’t get the sense that the dancers want to kill each other or fight each other, like in capoeira or other fight-based dances. Geommu was also performed at court without any sort of preamble, speech or song, which may have made it seem quite abrupt in comparison to other dances.
Comparison Between Traditional Dance and K-Pop Dance 

There are some themes that unite these four traditional dances:

  • Beautiful dress, sometimes very colourful or elaborate
  • Grace and precision – especially with quicker dances
  • Performance/group element – many of the dances are performed in groups and/or to large groups
  • Symbolic meaning behind many gestures
  • Use of props e.g. swords or drums

While it may seem like the traditional dances we’ve examined have little to nothing to do with the modern dances of K-Pop idols, when thinking about dance in general terms there certainly seem to be many similarities. True, modern dances may not share the same measured pace employed by a lot of traditional dance forms, and there’s certainly 1000 times more hip action in modern dance, but performances are still precise and require quite a lot of skill, are done by groups to groups, feature beautiful costumes, have lots of symbolism (case in point: any G-Dragon video ever) and occasionally use props. Both forms also use hairpieces! These may seem like fairly superficial similarities, and I definitely don’t want to lump all Korean dance together for the sake of it, no more than I would want Queen lumped in with Morris Dancing. However, both come from the same culture and grow from the same roots and cultural concerns. The importance of symbolism (not only in dance) as well as the emphasis on flawless performance are unifying factors which perhaps spring from Korean culture itself, not just dance. Traditional dance and modern dance certainly aren’t exactly the same, but the share a similar ethos of performance.

I’ll leave you with two videos: one is an absolutely haunting performance of a shamanic dance called Salpuri, and the other is a modern song by Topp Dogg called ‘Arario’, a reference to a Korean folk song, which features many modern re-interpretations of traditional Korean instruments, costumes and dances.

Further Resources

‘The Characteristic Motions of Traditional Korean Folk Dances’ by Ok Soo Cha and Myung Ja Lee

‘The Developmental Process of Taepyeongmu’ by Kyung Ja Han

Korean Dance by Kim Malborg

Korean Dance Studies Society of Canada (website)

‘Origin of Buddhist Dance’ by Jong Hyung Kim

‘Seungjeonmu’ by Arirang TV

‘A Study of Movement Aesthetics in Buddhist Ritualistic Dancing and Injury’ by Wha Im Cheong

‘Study on the Origin of the Dances in Busan and Gyeongnam’ by On Kyung Kim

‘A Study on the Progression of Sword Dance’ by Soo Jeong Lim

‘A Study on the Styles of the Geommu at Court in the Joseon Dynasty’  by Soo Jeong Lim

‘Traditional Korean Dance’ by Heoak Lee


1 Response to "Jules Does K-Pop Academy Homework: Korean Traditional Dance"

[…] also a great showcase for plenty of traditional Korean art, including several dances such as the Seungjonmu, as well as traditional masks, acrobatics, and, of course, fashion (of which more later). The masks […]

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