Dance Genre Buzz – Korean Dance

Korean traditional dance originated in ancient shamanistic rituals thousands of years ago. By the time of the later Korean kingdoms, Goryeo and Joseon, in the 2nd millennium CE, Korean traditional dance benefited from regular support of the royal court, numerous academies, and even an official ministry of the government.  This beautiful dance form is both ancient and very new.   Like many dance forms its origins begin in pre-agricultural societies on the Korean peninsula.

The difference between Korean dance and other ‘traditional’ or ‘folkloric’ dance forms is  that many of these Korean dance forms were maintained over the millennia in various perspectives of form, movement, rhythm or music.   Korean dance is an 8000 year old dance form that  has been preserved and reconstructed in various contexts and brought to modern times and now… to North America!

Vancouver Korean Dance Society

A number of different dances gained permanent high status, including the Hermit dance, the Ghost dance, Buchae Chum (the fan dance), Seung Mu (the Monk dance), the Oudong (Entertainer) dance and others, despite the fact that many had humble origins.

For example, the Fan dance is believed to have originated with shamans performing nature rites with leaves but evolved into one of the most highly refined Korean dances.

In the Ghost dance, the entertainer has a joyous reunion with a deceased spouse, only to endure the heartbreak of re-separation, and there may few or no props.  On the other hand, the Great Drum dance (one of several forms of drum dances) features a gaudy drum which may be taller than the performer.  The drum tempts a monk until finally he succumbs to it and performs a rolling drum “orgy.”

Due to the cultural suppression by Imperial Japan, arguably considered cultural genocide during the Colonial Korea, most of the dance academies died out and some dances were lost as well as some of dance forms were distorted.

However, few pioneering Korean dancers such as Choi Seung-hee (최승희 崔承喜) created new forms of Korean dances based on the traditional dances and kept many of the traditions alive in secret and abroad, and today Korean traditional dance is enjoying a vibrant resurgence.  Numerous universities in Korea teach Korean traditional dance, and even some universities abroad now provide instruction in the forms.  Top dancers are recognized as “Living National Treasures” and are charged to pass their dances down to their students. The lineages of dance and dancers may be traced back several generations through such connections.

Enjoy this video featuring the Korean Dance Style by Mei-A-Li

Dance Styles

Within Korean dance there are several traditional ‘genres’ (or dance styles) evolving from the graceful to the physically dynamic.   Korean Traditional Dance consists of court dances [Tang Ak and Hyang Ak], ritual dances [Shaman, Buddhist and Confucian] and a variety of folk dances.  While the highly stylized court dances displayed important dimensions of discipline, grandeur, and elegance to create “aestheticism of the inner spirit,” folk dances, especially mask dances, showed spontaneity, humor, freedom and satire.
We now consider ‘Traditional’ dances such as T’ae P’yong mu, Seung mu, Salpuri Ch’um, Sogo Ch’um, Jinju and Hwanghaedo Gummu and many other folkloric and national Korean dance pieces to be rooted in Korea’s history and dance history.  But this is a testament to the fact that Korean dance is a living tradition. It evolves with the social and performance needs of the current society, yet does not budge or change in its form and technique.

Ritual dance

A central element of Korean Buddhist culture, Yeongsanjae is a re-enactment of Buddhas delivery of the Lotus Sutra on the Vulture Peak in India, through which philosophical and spiritual messages of Buddhism are expressed and people in attendance develop self-discipline. Yeongsanjae begins with a ritual reception for all the saints and spirits of heaven and earth and concludes with a farewell ritual representing manners of the otherworldly realm of Buddha, with singing, ceremonial adornment and varied ritual dances such as the cymbal dance, drum dance and ceremonial robe dance.  The ceremony serves as an important space for transmission of values and art forms and for meditation, training and enlightenment.  View the video by by Cultural Heritage Administration to learn more about the Ritual Dance Style.
The core element of Korean dance is that it takes the internal expression each person possesses and transmits this expression via dance.
This is done with movements that begin with the breath [Heou’hoep] and use of vertical movement [Tentien].  This creates a feeling of suspension and the feeling of heaviness.  The use of and curvilinear shapes dominates most of the dance vocabulary.  These fundamental elements are what identifies or defines Korean dance as ‘traditional’.

Korean traditional dance does not necessarily follow the forms of Western dance; however it does share some similarity with a commonly known form of dance also known as contemporary and lyrical.  Moves follow a curvilinear path with little short term repetition.  The dancer’s legs and feet are often entirely concealed by billowing Hanbok.  Emotional attributes of the dances include both somberness and joy.  The dancer must embody the fluid motion that surges through the traditional music that the dancers perform to.  Korean traditional dance is often performed to Korean traditional music, which includes traditional drums, flutes, and more.  The music is what upholds the dance and the dancer is the tool that shows the music in physical form.

Folk Dance

Seungmu is one of the most representative folk dances of Korea, performed by a dancer dressed in a Buddhist monk’s attire. Although commonly referred to as “monk dance,” seungmu is not a dance formally associated with Buddhist rituals or danced by a monk.  This highly-sophisticated dance with a complex rhythmic structure and intricate choreographic designs gives intense expressions to life’s joys and sorrows and depicts the human struggle to transcend and sublimate themselves.  View this traditional movement style in the video “Seungmu : Korean Traditional Buddhist dance”

The term “Korean traditional dance” [Hangook MuYong] is used to define dance in the Korean peninsula by incorporating these fundamental dance movements and including the elements of its historical and cultural heritage in storyline or costume.
The definition of tradition is loosely interchanged with the terms folk dance, national dance and character dance.  The majority of dances presented today in Korea as ‘traditional’ are folkloric in origin as they evolved naturally and spontaneously in conjunction with activities of daily life and experiences; however they have become nationalistic as they have become tools of diplomacy and cultural export.  The reality is that most dances presented are character dances as they were created by fitting the characteristic steps and designs of the folk tradition for the stage and public performance.  They have been reconstructed, shortened  and placed in artificial performance settings such as a stage.

Court dance

Cheoyongmu - A Court dance

Korean court dances is called “jeongjae” (hangul:정재, hanja:呈才) which originally referred to “display of all talent” including not only dance but also other performing arts such as jultagi (줄타기 tightrope walking), gong deonjigi (공던지기), and mokmatagi (목마타기) but gradually only denoted “court dance”. The term has been used since the early period of Joseon dynasty.


Jeongjae were used to perform for the royal family, court officials, and foreign envoys or for festive occasions sponsored by the state. Jeongjae is divided into the two categories, “Dangak jeongjae” (당악정재) and “Hyangak jeongjae” (향악정재). Dangak jeongjae are dances derived from court dances of Tang China during the Goryeo dynasty, whereas the other consist of newer court dances originated in Korea.

View this VIDEO to see the Korean Court Dance Style

See Korean Dance Performances at Dance Parade’s Upcoming Events

Many of the dance pieces presented as ‘Korean’ since Dance Parades inception have included dances that are identified as ‘traditional’.  Each year we have seen folkloric, traditional [character] dance and neo-traditional dance pieces [pieces using traditional musical instruments, traditional musical scores and traditional dance movements created since 1953 to present times].  Dance Parade celebrates Korean Dance annually at its International Dance Day event, Dance Parade and Festival.
Join us on Saturday, April 29th to celebrate International Dance Day with Dance Parade.  See Karen Kriegel of the World Dance Initiative perform traditional style fan dances.  Dance Parade will include KTMDI, the Korean Traditional Music And Dance Institute performing a folk dance and music form called PoongMool Nori and next to KTMDI at Dance Parade will be the World Dance Initiative performing another folk mask dance called Bong San Tal Chum.  At this year’s Dance Festival in Tompkins Square Park attend performances by KTMDI presenting Jindo Puck Chum a drum and dance piece originating in region of Jindo in South Korea.

Genre Buzz: Dance Education Series

Genre Buzz Source: Excerpts from Wikipedia

More about Dance Genre Buzz:

Each month, a new dance style is celebrated. View videos and learn about the heritage and history of different dance styles. Discover innovators of the dance, trends, variations, and current events for each dance genre featured. Watch artistic videodances featuring dance styles, and learn more about Dance made for the Camera.  View more Dance Films on Video Dance TV

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Help Dance Parade New York and Video Dance TV support the dance community. Share information on each dance style we feature, including dance classes, events, competitions, and other productions, such as film and video productions. Teachers, participants, and enthusiasts are welcome to share their network and experience with our audience to support dance education, online and on the dance floor!

By Dawn Paap, Editor for Dance Genre Buzz Series

Karen Kriegel in Taepyong mu - The Great Peace Dance

Special thanks to Karen Kriegel, Artistic Director World Dance Initiative for her contributions to this article.