Guise and dolls: Unmasking a national treasure

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Guise and dolls: Unmasking a national treasure

Cell phones, Internet avatars, digital cameras - sometimes it seems like the whole peninsula is caught up in the latest technological fads. But not Song Yong-tae. At 50, Mr. Song is a mask dancer and an official Korean intangible cultural asset.

Mr. Song was named as a Korean intangible cultural asset by the Cultural Properties Administration in January. It is a recognition of his long and important work promoting traditional culture, but Mr. Song has ambivalent feelings about it.

"I feel burdened and awkward to receive this unexpected gift," he told the JoongAng Ilbo during an interview in a special hall for intangible cultural properties in Samseong-dong. "I have been dancing for more than 30 years only because I love mask dancing." Mr. Song is currently performing as General Hong-yu in the television drama "King Wanggeon," but as I interviewed him, I found it difficult to make out the general's dauntless features so prominent in the television program.

Mr. Song studied drama at Anyang High School for the Arts and started to dance when he was 17 years old. As the "Little Theater Movement" gained popularity in Korea after 1960, he gradually started to become more interested in the Korean traditional cultural arts. Ever since, he has been obsessed about learning the Korean spirit and motion, and so commuted to Incheon on a daily basis to study with the best Korean mask dancers of his day.

"I was scolded by many people for studying traditional dancing because at that time most people thought that mask dancing was performed by the lower classes. Whenever I brought dolls home, my parents threw them away thinking that the dolls would bring misfortune to the family." But despite whatever discouragement he received, he liked to work on the words and songs for the dances more than anything else. Moreover, he developed a strong passion for reviving the Gangnyeong Mask Dance, which used to be generally considered less popular than the Bongsan Mask Dance.

Among the seven acts of the Gangnyeong Mask Dance, Mr. Song is renowned for his skill on the Chwibali dance, which appears in Act 6. Chwibali, a middle class character who appears in the dance and fights with an old priest to capture the heart of a woman, has more songs and dances to perform than any other character. For this reason, the play is regarded to be a challenging task and Mr. Song was able to become an expert in it only at great difficulty.

"After reaching 50 years of age, I now know the pleasure of dancing. When I was young, although I was a novice, I danced with all my strength. Now I dance with dignity and experienced technique," he said with boisterous laughter.

Mr. Song is also zealous in recording the songs and words, traditionally only passed down by word of mouth, related to the Gangnyeong Mask Dance. In March, he is planning to produce a documentary film in the Korean Folk Village.

Mr. Song guided the reporters to the theater stage so they could take pictures of him. He turned on the Chwibali song and started to dance on the spot with his doll that he made with his own hands.

"I want to dance to my heart's content in Gangnyeong before I die," he said.

by Park Jee-young

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