Meet Mr., and Mrs. Claus
After all, as they say at Everland, “Everyday is a holiday.”
Marian and his wife play Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus in the musical parade “Christmas Holiday Fantasy,” at Everland, a theme park on the outskirts of Seoul. Marian has been working for the park for eight years, Stela for three.
The couple married in February, making it the first year that Mr. and Mrs. Claus are actually a married couple.
Over lunch on a recent Friday afternoon, Marian proudly produced a black and white studio photograph of the couple, taken shortly after their wedding in Romania, Marian’s home county. In the picture, Stela wears a classic white dress with cascading curls. Marian, in a suit, has his hair combed with mousse, neatly pushed back in a ’50s style.
“I look younger than her in the photo, don’t I?” he said in broken Korean. He was bragging: Marian is 9 years older than his bride.
The Bobes met in Korea when Stela, 23, joined the team at Everland in 2002. She was a professional ballroom dancer fresh out of dance school in Moldova, a small landlocked state in southeastern Europe between the Ukraine and Romania. Marian, 32, was a state dancer from Brasov, famous for being the home of Dracula’s Castle.
Before she came to Korea, Stela was a member of a prestigious dance team “Kodrianka” that once toured across Eastern Europe. Kodrianka won world championships in prestigious ballroom dancing competitions in Germany and France. Things went downhill for the team after their victories, but when Stela first arrived at Everland, other European dancers in the crew looked at her as if she were a celebrity.
Marian first caught up with her in the kitchen of a greenroom one night. His pick-up line is not what most men would use: “You look very short without heels.” Stela usually performs on stage in high heels.
After Marian’s comment, Stela gave him a glance and walked out, slamming the door behind her. Stela says she didn’t leave the room in anger.
“I just didn’t know what he wanted from me,” she said. “So I just drank my water, and left the room. That’s all.”
The two became friends, cruising around the streets of Seoul on their days off. Then two years ago, while the couple was traveling in Tunisia during their winter break, Marian proposed to her. He slid a ring into his shirt pocket before hugging her one evening. Stela took out the ring, Marian proposed, and she said yes.
“I like [being married],” she says. “Now, when I have a problem, I know he’s with me.”
Stela and Marian is the only married couple on the dance troupe.
“Normally, the coaches get very annoyed when dancers start dating each other,” said Kim In-cheorl, a PR representative at Everland. “It’s because they’ll take off for days without notice. Some sleep around with different dancers in the team. It really deflates the team’s spirit. It’s rare to see couples like Stela and Marian who are so faithful both to each other and to the team.”
There are currently 170 dancers on the performance team at Everland. A few are Koreans; most are from Eastern Europe. Every year, Korean coaches fly over to Europe and hold auditions to recruit new dancers. In the past, a lot of the dancers were from the Ukraine or Russia. Nowadays, they are mostly students fresh out of an arts college or former dancers from countries like Moldova, Croatia and Bulgaria.
Many come for money, others for work experience.
The average salary for dancers at Everland is about equal to the pay for entry-level office jobs in small to medium-sized companies in Korea, but in many Eastern Europen countries, it equals a doctor’s salary.
Being a dancer can also lead to bigger things. According to Lee Kee-ho, a director at Everland’s performance department, dancers from his team have gone on to be talk-show hosts, TV anchors or lottery announcers after going back to their home countries. A few have also worked as dancers in famous clubs like the Moulin Rouge, Chicago’s dine-and-dance club. Others end up in adult entertainment clubs across Korea.
Still, sometimes neither the money nor the work experience makes up for the dancers’ hard work.
They work six days a week, performing twice a day, each for an half an hour. In some of the hottest days in the summer, there is an ambulance waiting outside the parade gate in case the dancers in full costumes collapse from heat exhaustion after prancing around on floats.
“Most dancers leave after one or two years,” said Lee, a director of the performance team. “The physical labor is more intense than one might imagine. After all, a theme park for most dancers is just a waypoint on the path toward another goal.”
Everland’s “Christmas Holiday Fantasy” is an ambitious parade, featuring characters from children’s tales from all over the world. There are 130 staff members dressed up as everything from ginger-bread men to Santa’s reindeer. During major holidays like Christmas, an average of 40,000 to 50,000 visitors a day come to the park to watch the parade.
When the show begins, the main dancers in the parade get off their floats to shake hands and take photos with the audience. Marian and Stella sit next to each other on a reindeer sleigh. For Stela, this is a good thing, because female dancers in the parade sometimes have to put up with men in the crowd who offer to shake hands and then don’t let go ― the dancers have to call out for help.
The job is tough for everyone involved.
At the end of the parade, dancers rip off their masks as soon as they pass the gate and rest on a ground to take a long breath. Others have to wait at the top of a plastic castle float until a crane arrives to let them down.
“It’s just part of the job,” Marian said, brushing off the soap dust, used as snowflakes in the parade, on his mustache.
He was clad in a full Santa Claus outfit with thick bulbous black boots. A thick pad had been strapped to his belly and the tip of his nose was painted red.
“At first, I was scared to come here,” he said. “I didn’t look at a map of Seoul until one day before I came. I had no idea what it would be like. I was really homesick for the first few months after I got here until I started to get to know people.”
Stela was more adventurous.
“I wasn’t so scared,” she said. “I always wanted to come to Asia. For me, it was a dream comes true.”
Marian and Stella are thinking of moving back to Europe and starting a “big” family after few more years of saving money here. The couple recently bought a house in Brasov and expect that their days of working on Christmas will be over when they have children.
“I could do anything and everything when I go back home,” Marian said. The same goes for Stela.
“We’re together,” he said of his wife. “For now, that’s all it matters.”
by Park Soo-mee