Dancing Between 2 Worlds

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Dancing Between 2 Worlds

little less than three months ago, the traditional salpuri dancer Kim Ri-hae politely turned down a request for an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition. Kim's first solo recital was coming in three weeks and her assistant explained that Kim had called off all interviews and was rehearsing every day in a theater.

The dedication to her art is a clue both to Kim's success and to the hurdles that have stood in the way of that success. Salpuri is a one-person dance traditionally performed by female shamans in the Honam region, in southwestern Korea, as an exorcism rite to wash away evil spirits.

Kim is a second generation Korean national who grew up in Japan. Her heritage means she's not always seen as an authentic Korean. To survive in a field that values ethnic legitimacy above all else, Kim has simply had to try harder than most.

After 20 years living in Korea, Kim is better known as "the Korean dancer from Japan," or "the wife of Kim Duk-soo," the founder of a famed traditional Samul nori percussive group, than as a dancer who has done well in her own right. Though the above descriptions are accurate, they also bother her, for they focus on things she deems irrelevant. Kim happened to be born in Tokyo to parents who emigrated to Japan during the colonial period; she married a musician who later became famous.

When told that her story would be published on the anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japanese rule, Kim looked extremely anxious. Sitting in a small book cafe near Sagan-dong, she seemed fearful that she would be quizzed on the Japanese textbook controversy or on diplomatic relations between Korea and Japan.

"I am not sure if I'll be the right person to talk to," she said in a quiet voice that has traces of a Japanese accent. Her spoken Korean is fairly good, though she makes small slips, such as choosing a slightly inappropriate level of formality (using jeodo instead of neodo) or pronouncing seongchui, "accomplishment," as "sangchui."

To bring the focus of the interview back to her work, Kim pulled from a cotton handbag a program from her last recital and turned to the page where Lee Mae-bang, her teacher and a master of traditional Korean dance compliments her artistic absorption despite her unsettling identity.

Kim recalled her first experiences as a student under Lee Mae-bang. "It was nothing like going to piano lessons," she said. "When guests came to my teacher's house, I would prepare a meal. Then he would disappear for few hours without saying a word. I would wait all day, but most of the time he would never refer to it."

Lee's indifferent action was his way of disciplining his pupil.

Kim, 48, said "curiosity" and "ignorance" were the main forces that kept her dancing.

"I am still in the process of learning. I wouldn't have done it if I had known everything I know now at the beginning." She described her relationship with her celebrated husband in similar terms.

Dressed in a plain black dress that reached her ankles, with minimal make-up and her long hair neatly tied back in a ponytail, Kim looks more like a demure ballerina than someone who vigorously swings her arms across the stage to express a deep resentment of the dead.

Kim first visited Korea when she was 20. She came on a group tour hosted by the Korean government for Korean-Japanese students who, like her, were born to Korean parents but had never been to their mother country. But the real purpose of the trip for Kim was to visit her older sister who was married to a man living in Seoul.

"I had no interest in coming to Korea," she said adamantly. "I had some friends of Korean origin in my university who formed an activist group and proclaimed themselves 'Korean nationalists,' but I found a lot of the things they were saying about ethnic identity were just too theoretical for me to understand," she went on.

"The students in the group always used the word 'we.' They hated me because I refused to use that term and always said 'Korea' instead of 'our country.'"

Gently resting her chin on her left hand as she spoke and clearing her throat, she started talking about the morning she arrived in Pusan on a ferry from the port of Simonoseki.

"I think it was just around the time Korea came out with its first jumbo airliner," she said. That would have been 1972, when she was finishing her second year of college in Tokyo. "I ran up to the ship's deck with a bunch of other kids. The tour guide said, 'Oh, look, there is your mother country!' Then I started seeing things that looked strangely familiar to me: the signs in hangeul, the mountains, the old roofs twinkling in the sunrise." "I think I was thirsty for them," she said softly.

Kim majored in literature at Shu-o University in Japan, and went on to study anthropology in Korea. It was only when she came to Korea that she decided to study Korean dance.

"I am more interested in the cultural aspects of dance than the visual or physical aspects of it," she said. "I like to think of dance as a strategy, which I use to find out new things about myself."

by Park Soo-mee

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