Happiness in motionA moment was all it took for Kim Joo-hee to be completely captivated by belly dancing.
Ms. Kim was passing through her living room when her eyes locked onto the television set. There, women were shaking their shoulders, chests and buttocks, wearing unusual attire that exposed much of their bodies. The show’s host was saying, “Can you believe these people dancing work in offices during the day?”
Last October, Ms. Kim was struggling with depression. She had worked for six years at an advertising agency, and was tired of spending her entire day in front of a computer. She had been having pain in her neck and shoulders, and physical therapy made little difference. Single and 29 years old, Ms. Kim was at a critical point in her life.
Belly dancing has brought new meaning to Ms. Kim’s life. “Isn’t it amazing?” she says. “All I had to do was get a glimpse of the television set, and in a moment I absolutely knew I wanted to do it.”
Belly dancing originated in Turkey and spread to Egypt and other regions. It influenced several other forms of dance, including the flamenco, and was first introduced to Western society in the early 20th century. It didn’t reach Korea until the late 1990s.
After she saw the belly dancers on TV, it took Ms. Kim two months to try it herself, since the end of the year was closing in and she was swamped with work.
She was also working up her courage. She finally tried her first belly dance in January.
“Everything changed,” Ms. Kim says, when asked what the best thing about dancing was.
“The pain in my neck and shoulders was gone, and I fall asleep better these days,” she says.
After three months of practicing for an hour a week, Ms. Kim believed that she was becoming more physically fit.
“I was called a ‘chopstick’ because there wasn’t any volume in my body, but today my friends tell me there’s a curve on the chopstick,” she says.
As she changed physically, her attitude changed as well.
In the past, she says, she shied away from revealing clothing, but today she wears such outfits with confidence. Ms. Kim says her whole life these days is filled with confidence.
She says she laughs more, and people at her office frequently ask if something good has happened to her recently. She says her productivity at work has gone up and she’s become more active.
And her friends, having seen the changes in her, are rushing to sign up for belly dancing classes, according to Ms. Kim.
Ms. Kim found an additional charm in dancing when she performed at a department store’s cultural center. “I felt a rush of joy after seeing people awed by the beautiful dance and the sexy outfit,” Ms. Kim says.
After performing on stage, Ms. Kim decided she wanted to dance forever. Because she wanted to share her joy with others, Ms. Kim signed up for a class to become an instructor.
Since April, Ms. Kim has been spending two or three hours belly dancing after work, and six or seven hours on weekends. And for the past couple of months, she has been teaching the art of the dance to beginning students.
“At first, the people I teach wore baggy pants to cover their bodies,” she says. “ But after a couple of classes, a lot of them began wearing shorter tops and tight pants.”
Ms. Kim says she sees dance as a narcissistic art, because as the body and emotion reach their peak, the movement becomes more beautiful.
That’s why people become more and more infatuated with dancing, and come to love their bodies, Ms. Kim says.
“In the case of belly dancing, the outfit exposes parts of the body, and therefore the desire to make one’s body look better becomes stronger,” she says.
Ms. Kim’s family and friends knows she has learned belly dancing, but her co-workers don’t ― yet.
“I think I will start telling my co-workers about belly dancing, since they will eventually know anyway,” Ms. Kim said.
Working on a stage, with their feet in the air
It seemed the spinning would never end as a teenager in a helmet went around and around on the floor, his feet in midair. It was hard to follow the moves 19-year-old Beom Sang-gil was making.
With a swoop, Lee Sang-jin, 19, performed a move called “air-track,” with both feet in the air. Every turn was breathtaking. The two 19 year-olds belong to a B-boy team called Expression, which has 17 members.
“B-boy” is a term for people who do the form of hip-hop dance called “breaking.” Last fall, Expression placed first in a world tournament in Germany called “Battle of the Year.” The team has won five dance competitions, including one in France last April called “Hip-Hop Planet.”
“It’s frustrating how people think hip-hop is a dance that kids do for fun,” says Lee Woo-sung, Expression’s 27-year-old team manager.
For the B-boys, the stage is their workplace. This month alone, Expression has traveled overseas three times. The group has been sought after by major companies for promotions, hip-hop festivals and dance videos. Their fan club numbers 30,000.
The team puts in six hours of practice a day in their studio in Eungam-dong, northwestern Seoul. In the month before the “Battle of the Year” ― a “battle” is what B-boys call a one-on-one dance competition ― they trained for 12 hours a day. Asked how many of them had been injured, everyone raised their hands. One of them, 21 year-old Chu Yeon-gil, had to be hospitalized all summer because of a head injury.
“Celebrities can still earn a living with their names and their faces, but if we lose our moves, that’s it for us,” says Lee Ho-seong,23.
Breaking requires strong muscles, which is why it’s hard to keep going past 20. “You dance with your mind and not your body,” says Shin Dae-gwan, 20, who says he’ll still be a B-boy when he’s in his 60s.
Folk dancing: The fountain of youth, or the next best thing
As an old American pop song played, a couple in their 60s swiftly shuffled their feet on the dance floor. Kim Gwan-hyeong, 63, and his wife Kim Gyeong-ja, 62, changed partners and made a circle.
Though they’d been dancing for 30 minutes, the couple showed no signs of fatigue. Rather, their faces glowed with happiness.
The Kims have not spent their lives together dancing. Indeed, Ms. Kim only set foot on a dance floor three years ago. “Every part of my body ached because of my age,” she says. “It was my sister-in-law who suggested folk dancing.”
Ms. Kim’s sister-in-law, Kim Jee-eun, 72, was also on the dance floor, showing off moves that made onlookers wonder whether she was really in her 70s. She had taken up folk dancing in an attempt to improve her declining health; finding it too good to keep to herself, she decided to spread the word and urge friends and family to join in.
But of the three Kims, Mr. Kim is the most enthusiastic folk-dancing student.
Before taking up dancing, Mr. Kim was an every-weekend golfer. He had stacks of golf instruction videos at home; it was his only joy.
Today, Mr. Kim thinks golf is boring compared to dancing, which makes all his stress disappear. His golfing videos have been replaced with folk-dancing videos. “At my elementary school reunion, I suggested to my friends that we should start a folk-dancing competition,” he says.
The biggest gift the couple has received from folk dancing is the revival of their love. Since they took it up, they’ve rarely been apart, with all the lessons and folk-dancing parties they attend.
“In 30 years of marriage, my husband never helped me clean the house or wash the dishes, but nowadays he even goes to the market for me,” Ms. Kim said with a smile.
by Kim Sun-ha
More in Features
Kakao TV launches this month, takes on Netflix
[TURNING 20] In a sea of hate, change flourishes
Criticism of sex ed books for kids raises more questions than answers
When it comes to sex ed, this Danish author says just talk about it
The traveling grandma who's 'alive and kicking it'