[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.