For homeless men, ballet becomes a dance to embrace life
‘Participants get the feeling someone is cheering for them, which can be a huge driving force for pressing on with life.’
Elegant piano tunes echo through a ballet studio in Gwacheon, a southern Seoul suburb, on a Sunday afternoon. Besides the pitter-patter of raindrops that occasionally beats through the classical piece, the air is still, the atmosphere almost solemn.
Fourteen white ballet flats bend and flex as a group of male ballet dancers warm up beside wooden bars. What catches the eye is the seven dancers’ attire. Their loose cargo shorts, striped socks and red T-shirts emblazoned with “The Big Issue” stand in stark contrast to the studio’s dull gray floor and wooden walls.
The men are vendors of The Big Issue, a magazine that was launched in 1991 in Britain to offer homeless people an opportunity to earn a legitimate income. The Seoul edition of the biweekly, which costs 3,000 won ($2.80) per issue, kicked off last year as part of efforts to help the country’s 5,000 homeless people become financially independent.
Vendors of The Big Issue can take home 1,600 won for every issue they sell. If they abide by the rules, such as no drinking and no fighting while selling, the publisher provides them seed money to move into rented apartments or rooms, a stepping stone to ending life on the street.
By selling the entertainment and news magazine, vendors pocket 800,000 won ($740) per month on average, with some raking in as much as 2 million won. Subsidiaries and profit from online sales are used to fund vendors’ relocation to more stable residences.
During its first year in Korea, the magazine saw its sales networks expand rapidly. The number of vendors has grown more than five-fold and each issue sells around 7,000 to 9,000 copies.
The Big Issue Korea puts equal focus on helping vendors build confidence. In a bid to heal the battered bodies and minds of the homeless and help them step out into the world, the company runs weekly ballet classes in collaboration with the Seoul Ballet Theater.
“En bas, en avant, en haut, a la seconde,” ballet tutor Kim Ji-yeon shouts in French as she demonstrates basic arm positions.
The seven men, in their 40s and 50s, slowly repeat after Kim. Their silhouettes aren’t as graceful as Kim’s. Their spines are bent and their shoulders are hunched. Nonetheless, their eyes are glued to the full-length mirror ahead of them as they concentrate on emulating her movements.
Kim proceeds with other steps, making sure that nobody is left behind. She also tries to break the ice by joking between positions and chatting with the students.
In response, they beam and smile, regardless of the few missing teeth some have lost due to malnutrition and bad hygiene. Some even cheer for fellow vendors, who are huffing after the exercise.
Kim Su-won, 51, is one of the students. Since becoming a vendor of The Big Issue last year, he has enjoyed online fame as “the male ballet dancer of Sinchon,” a western city center that is home to a handful of universities.
Local media have widely featured photos of Kim Su-won bowing gracefully in ballet style to his customers. Stricken with polio in childhood, he says he found pride through ballet.
“Ballet felt so distant at first. Not a lot of Korean men learn it. It’s also not easy to come here every Sunday,” he says. “It’s challenging, but I feel so proud of myself.”
SBT officials say that dancing has helped the homeless regain self-confidence.
“When I first met them, they avoided direct eye contact and were quite huddled up. But ballet has helped them perceive how different parts of their bodies move and how they can find balance,” says SBT artistic director James Jeon, refusing to call the vendors homeless people. “This has led them to value themselves more.”
Officials from The Big Issue say the sessions have also helped the homeless come out of their shells.
“Being homeless is not simply a matter of living on the street. A substantial number of homeless are completely isolated. They are deprived of both a habitat and a chance to form relationships with other people,” says Ahn Byung-hun, a sales team manager for The Big Issue Korea. “Ballet offers them an opportunity to change that.”