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Dancing a Traditional Story

BY SARAH CHO



As a Korean Traditional Dancer, I’ve performed at many venues and festivals in the past. Some were small county folk fairs, and others were big international cultural events. All these events hold a special place in my heart, for they shaped me into the dancer that I am today. However, one specific event/performance was one that helped me realize that traditional dance is beyond just a performance.


It was the summer of 2018, and I had just heard back from my dance teacher that I would have the opportunity to perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. for a cultural harmony event. I was elated to have such an honorable opportunity to perform. I immediately prepared numerous dance numbers such as the Talchum (mask dance 탈춤), Buchaechum (fan dance 부채춤), Ggotdongsan (flower dance 꽃동산), and more. This would be one of the biggest events of my dance career, and all I could focus on was the technicality of the dance. Representing Korean culture and performing at an event that promoted cultural harmony didn’t matter to me at all when preparing for the event. All I cared about was making sure everything was perfect and that I wouldn’t mess up on stage. As a proud self-perfectionist, I was so focused on making sure my feet were angled perfectly, my fans were raised above my head, and my turns were clean. Through the heavy preparation for the event, I had forgotten the real meaning of being a Korean traditional dancer.


Late August had finally crept around the corner, and it was finally time to perform my dances that I had worked hard to prepare all summer. I got through all the routines without obvious errors. I was a little upset because I had made small mistakes, but overall, it was a fairly satisfactory routine. I returned to the waiting room and was eating some rice cakes, when I realized that something was missing. I didn’t feel the surge of excitement that I usually felt at performances. I wasn’t enjoying the moment. I was only thinking about my routine and what people would think of it. I realized I hadn’t thought of the cultural significance of the routines. I wasn’t thinking about the beautiful fan dances that represented the bridge between modern beauty and Joseon dynasty royal courts, or the exciting dynamics of the mask dance that represented the traditional dramas of the ancient Hwanghae province. I had been swept into the abyss of a perfect routine, and had forgotten the reason why I was here. I was here to promote cultural harmony and cultural importance among minorities and immigrants in America. However, I had been selfish and had taken advantage of this opportunity to create a stage portraying me, myself, and I.


After the performance, I ran into a group of Indian Classical Dancers who had performed at the same event as me. I smiled and waved, and they immediately responded. They gushed about how beautiful the Korean culture was and how moved they were to experience the traditional stories portrayed in the dances. I graciously thanked them and assured them that they had done amazing, too. I didn’t think much of it at first, but after the encounter, I realized how meaningful that encounter was. Being able to interact with other dancers from different countries, here in America, was such a golden opportunity. We are all Americans with different cultural backgrounds. As a proud Korean American, I realized that with each cultural performance I gave, I was representing the rich Korean culture. I was telling the story of my heritage to people of other nationalities and cultures. Korean dance was more than just a performance. It was the story of my people. The story of my heritage. The story of my ancestors. It was at this moment that I realized the importance of a cultural background. I was so blessed to be able to represent such a beautiful and rich culture. Whether it was the battle of the kings in the Shilla Dynasty, or the story of King Sejong--inventor of the Korean language--I was relaying the story of the Korean people here in America. To this day, before I step out on the stage, I remember to tell myself that the performance I’m about to give is more than just a dance. As a proud Korean American, I’m proud to say I’m telling the cultural story of the Ancient Korean Dynasties and bridge into modern Korean culture through my dances.

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