1,000 strokes a day, then 2,000

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1,000 strokes a day, then 2,000

Just as soldiers often name their rifles, accomplished sword masters do the same. Yoon Ja-gyeong calls her beloved sword "Ae Cheop" -- "My Favorite Concubine."

The 25-year-old has every reason to call the deadly weapon her concubine because she spends at least 10 hours a day, every day, with it, practicing her moves to perfection.

Her fifth dan, or black belt, in Haidon Geumdo, a Korean style of kendo, firmly denotes that this young practitioner is an expert of the highest order in this ancient martial art form.

But what really sets Ms. Yoon apart from the other sword masters is how she has found a way to elevate her martial art into a form of performance -- sword dancing.

Sword dancing -- called mongjungin in Korean -- links the martial art with dancing techniques such as ballet. The style was first shown to the public in September 1998 when Ms. Yoon was elected as a member of a special geumdo delegation that was touring the United States with the Korean American Cultural Foundation.

Throughout the tour, her choreographed slashing at sheaves of straw and thick bamboo poles with the naked blade received great reviews. And upon returning home, the requests flooded in, asking for her to perform at all manner of events.

From 1998 to 2001, Ms. Yoon's tours took her to 68 cities in the United States, three in Canada and three in the Philippines. Five cities, including Seattle and Kansas City, have given her honorary citizenship.

To turn sword dancing into such an indemand event took years of painstaking effort from Ms. Yoon. Her mother signed her up for kendo classes in middle school because she was one of the smallest kids in her class; Mom decided some exercise would beef her daughter up.

First the little Yoon had to learn the 12 basic techniques of the swordfighting art, including slashing, dashing and footwork. After that she learned the four basic movements that enhance mental prowess and clear the mind of idle thoughts, giving students the necessary power of concentration.

Soon the 36 basic movements of attack and defense followed, and before Ms. Yoon had grown into a teenager she was no longer the smallest in class, but a very healthy girl. When she was a junior in high school, she could do 50 push-ups without breaking a sweat. By then she was already putting in at least five hours a day training.

Her training had to be interrupted for her last year of high school so that she could study enough to pass the university entrance exams. But just one semester into college life, she quit and decided to follow her dream of becoming a kendo master so that she could teach others the beautiful but deadly art.

Fresh out of high school, she already had her second black belt, putting her just one level away from being a true sword master. At lower levels, students mostly use bamboo practice swords, blunt and (relatively) soft. Now it was time for her to pick up the cold steel of a real sword.

Becoming a sword master was grueling, as she had to endure an average of 15 hours a day of hard training. The first month, Ms. Yoon had to practice her slashing strikes 1,000 times a day. The next month, that number went up to 2,000.

That intensity may seem extreme, but when real swords are being used, total control is essential. A person has to be able to control the power of every sword stroke and know exactly how deep each cut would go.

Finally, in 1996, she passed the exam and become an instructor. She opened her own school in Banhak-dong, northeastern Seoul, and soon was teaching about 140 students.

In autumn that year, Ms. Yoon had an opportunity to watch a Japanese sword master, a sixth dan master, performing a sword dance.

She immediately knew that she had found her calling. "I had goose bumps all over," she says. "I was so impressed by the sword dance performed by this master. Every movement was just so charming and I could see and feel the beauty of the sword dance. I said to myself, 'That's what I want to do.'"

After consulting another master who had performed sword dancing in the past, and getting advice on the basic forms of sword dancing, she started to learn both Korean traditional dancing and modern dancing for about a year, all the while thinking of ways of incorporating sword moves into her performance.

So far this year she has performed 15 days in Los Angeles and 10 other places in California, but already the young sword master is making preparations for her next trip.

While her next overseas tours is scheduled for the beginning of 2003, her ultimate goal is to find a way to incorporate the traditional spirit of muyedobotongji, the bible of Korean sword fighting, into her sword dancing.

"I am very proud that I can contribute to promoting our culture through sword dancing," Ms. Yoon says. "I want our traditional martial spirit to be known."

by Lee Man-hoon

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