[things i’d like to write about but haven’t]

  • My trip to Budapest and Vienna.
  • My trip to Ann Arbor. And Ypsilanti.
  • All the churches in Brooklyn Heights: visit each, learn about it, attend a service, blog it.
  • My life as a Korean dancer.
  • My theory of Tom Tom Club vs. David Byrne.
  • My trip to Ghana.
  • Being sick abroad.
  • Toilets of the world (this one’s more of a photo essay).
  • My trip to Mexico. (Noting a theme?)
  • My trip to Paris.
  • An open letter to the mayor demanding seasonal weather changes. (This will be funnier when actually written, I hope.)

[so what’s this korean dance you’re learning?]

This is a reasonable question that a number of people have asked me, including my mom. A quick search for Korean dance on YouTube turns up mostly pop, and if you throw in the word “traditional,” you get mostly women. And I had to admit that even I wasn’t very clear on what the dance style I’m learning is supposed to look like when a man does it. (When it comes to men’s dancing, I’m much more familiar with the twirly hat stuff and the 사물노리 (samulnori) farmers’ dance.)

So I went searching, and I’ve turned up a few examples, which I will present for you here without further ado (better to link through where you can see the YouTube videos in a bigger size):
The first one is, I believe, roughly what my teacher has in mind for me. The odds of my dancing that well are not high. My parents told me about a budding jazz singer they knew who started weeping when they played a Sarah Vaughan record for her, and I kind of feel like that watching this video.
All of these dancers are impressive, and having taking a few classes, I have a much clearer idea of just how challenging it is to move gracefully through these poses. It’s a beautiful form of dance, and extraordinarily foreign to me. I remember how startling it was when a crowd of people started up with a folk version of this sort of thing during the halftime of Korea’s quarterfinal game in the 2002 World Cup, dancing in a circle and banging drums and cymbals there in the dirt field of the local middle school.
Bonus: For those who don’t know, Korea has perhaps the world’s most badass b-boy culture. Please to enjoy. 멋있다!

[more dancing with the ajummas]

As my grandfather tells it, he always thought of himself as rather weak and small. He’s short, and as a child he seems to have been somewhat bookish (though his idea of bookishness was to run five miles to the library, get a book, and run five miles back), and as an adult he became a corporate lawyer, not a role that necessarily calls for strapping men.

Then, in his forties, he took up mime. Now, this was before mimes became a horrible punchline, before that awful time in the eighties when mimes, like the homeless, became a constant urban menace. The way her learned mime, it was a serious, strenuous art form. He lost weight, gained strength, and developed a sense of physical presence and spatial awareness that was still serving him well into his eighties, as he would dance about the kitchen, closing cabinet doors behind him with his foot.
I take after my grandfather in a lot of ways, and certainly physically. As a kid, I was small for my age, and I was never much good at sports. Compulsory Israeli folkdance at summer camp was always a horror of ineptitude and humiliation. And you might have noticed that I have certain bookish tendencies.
But in the last couple of years, I’ve started to dance. I was not the quickest student in my swing classes, but I wasn’t consistently the slowest, either. And at this point in my life, I’m willing to learn slowly and awkwardly. It’s really OK. I make a grownup living and can spell and all that, so it’s not really a big deal if my Charleston is a little sloppier than some other people’s.
And now I’ve managed to find my way into Korean dance. Karen, the resident American who’s been studying this stuff for 15 years, insists that I’m learning faster than most students, that I’ve got great lines, that I’m a natural. I kind of think this might be similar to the way Koreans have been telling me my language skills are amazing ever since I learned to say hello, but she might also be being honest. For once, it seems, my odd little duck walk may be paying dividends. I tend to walk back on my heels, with splayed feet, and I’ve been told this is the walk of a yangban, or traditional Korean gentry. And my years of swing dance practice have taught me to keep my knees bent. So maybe I am better at following dance instructions than I used to be. Maybe my physical prowess is greater than it was when I was 12 and practicing layups.

[dancing with the ajummas]

“Body like swan: above the water, everything slow. Down below the water, fast.” “Like cha-cha-cha! Cha-cha-cha!” “Everybody, Fast! In a circle! She is thief, I am police!” With these and other curious exhortations, I was initiated tonight into the world of traditional Korean dance.

I found the class on Craigslist, where people seek to enlist their fellows in all kinds of bizarre behavior. I arrived at Lotus Music and Dance, a world music-oriented dance studio whose entryway resembles a dental clinic for a dangerous clientele — I had to sign in through a metal grate before I was buzzed into the office area, where I filled out forms and signed and insurance waiver. Once that was done, I was waved down the hall to studio A, where I found myself in the company of three middle-aged Korean women, a young American woman, and our teacher, Songhee Lee, standing resplendent in her hanbok and moving with daunting grace.
Korean dance is unlike any dance I’ve done before. For one thing, it’s slow, requiring a smoothness of movement that, shall we say, does not come naturally to me. Second, its rhythms are dauntingly alien to me. And third, it involves keeping your arms in the air for extended periods of time, which is exhausting. (Toward the end of the class, I got to thinking about CIA-administered stress positions, and how they were inspired by North Korean techniques.)
In fact, my first experience of learning Korean dance was a lot like my experience of learning Korean: confusing, difficult, fascinating, and presented with a curious combination of welcome and wariness. Lee Seonsaengnim wanted my phone number and email, and so did the American (a dedicated Korean dancer, it turns out — I’ll have to get her story), and everyone was terribly impressed at my ability to speak Korean. But as is so often the case with Koreans, the question of how I learned Korean shades into the more accusatory question of why I’m interested in Korea. There seems to be a general consensus among Koreans that while foreign fascination with her gigantic neighbor to the west and her rich and sexy neighbor to the east makes perfect sense, there’s something a little weird about being interested in Korea. It’s like finding out your friend is really into polka, or a huge Steve Gutenberg fan.
Nevertheless, the welcome won out, as usual. People are usually flattered when you find them interesting. Lee Seonsaengnim offered to arrange special sessions to teach me “man dance,” and the American woman promised that she would give me free lessons. “Have you been to Korea?” I asked her.
“I go every year.”
“Then can you teach me out to dance like the drunk old men in the park?”
She says she can teach me in an hour. We’ll see.

[korean dance at lincoln center]

On Tuesday, August 8, at 7:30 p.m., the 82-year-old Korean Living National Treasure dancer Kang Sun Young will perform at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, along with her troupe of 60 dancers and a 14-piece Korean traditional orchestra.

It’s extremely rare for a Korean performance to be staged on this scale outside of Korea. From what I know of Korean dance, it should be a moving and powerful experience. You can read the press release for details.

The Korean Mission to the UN is giving out tickets, so if you’ve got any interest in coming with me, please let me know by July 25.