After Kudos in Argentina, Taekwondo Star Brings The Tango to Homeland
Like many taekwondo masters who emigrated abroad, Gong Myung-gyu sought to spread and develop the Korean martial art. After taking over Argentina's national team in 1980, he emerged as a local celebrity, winning national honors twice for taekwondo, and even had a stint as a professional golfer.
After watching a tango demonstration in 1983, however, he started his transformation from master of martial arts to maestro of the exotic Argentine dance.
Mr. Gong, 43, is one of the few Asian professional tango dancers in Argentina, giving performances at local clubs and parks in the Latin American nation. He is hoping for the same success in Korea, and more important, he hopes to help Koreans understand and appreciate the dance.
"I wanted to teach and show tango to Korea and the world," the founder and president of the Argentine Tango Association of Korea said on why he returned to Seoul after almost two decades in Argentina.
The term "Argentine tango" is a redundancy, since it is the original tango. It has recently gained global popularity through the hit theatrical show "Forever Tango" and popular Hollywood movies such as "Scent of a Woman" and "True Lies."
Tango is characterized by complete focus on one's partner, rotating hips, snapping and interlocking the legs and abrupt shifts of direction. It contains elements from many cultures: the strong rhythm of Africa, the candombe drum beat (known as tango) and the popular milonga music of the grassy plains of the pampas, which combined Indian rhythms with the music of early Spanish colonizers.
With the male as the lead, the dancers touch at the shoulders though body contact is minimal. The eroticism is implicit rather than explicit; body language speaks volumes.
Ironically, Mr. Gong already had dance in his blood; he is the nephew of the Korean traditional dance pioneer Gong Ok-jin. But most of his early years were devoted to the martial arts, as he earned a seventh-degree black belt in taekwondo and became a master of kung fu.
Intrigued by what he saw at the tango demonstration, Mr. Gong began to learn the dance from noted instructors, sometimes in exchange for martial arts lessons. Though he had tried figure skating and aerobics in high school, tango in the beginning was more difficult than he had expected.
"It was hard at first to perform the movements to the music, as many of the moves are sharp and quick," he said.
Determined to master the dance, he devoted himself to arduous practice and strict dieting. So serious was he about the tango that he eliminated spicy Korean food from his diet to prevent bad breath in consideration of his dance partner.
Another early obstacle was insularity. Some women would not dance with him at first because he was Asian. Having proven himself, he said he is now one of the more sought-after partners in Argentina.
Returning to Korea in 1997 to introduce tango, he said his first demonstration met with failure. "The Korean audience neither knew nor understood what tango is at the time," he said.
He saw better success on his second attempt after bringing an Argentine dance troupe and inviting staff from the Argentine embassy in Seoul. Steadily, he started to attract a following.
Among social dances, tango's appeal is that anyone, regardless of age or size, can do it, he said. "All you need are the right clothes, shoes, focus and, most important, a gentleman's attitude."
Music is the key to tango, he said. "Everything starts with the music, then you can start to feel your inner emotion and take it from there."
Mr. Gong teaches classes Friday evenings at the health center Spoworld in Yeoksam-dong, southern Seoul. For information on group or private lessons and performances, call him at 011-286-0454. He speaks Korean, Spanish and basic English.
by D. Peter Kim