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Healing old hurts through rhythm and dance.

Korean activist attempts to break down historical animosity one relationship and one dance step at a time

Gongs thunder. Cymbals crash. Drums and double drums boom. Jericho must have sounded like this when the walls tumbled down. The walls that fall here, however, are not stone and block but prejudice and mistrust.

Here, rams' horns are not the instruments of liberation; the sounds boom from gkweng gari (cymbals), buk (bass drums), jang go (a spindle-shaped drum that is played on both ends) and jing (large gongs).

Meanwhile, snaking through the bystanders, a line of dancers circles in an ever-widening spiral to open a performance space in the crowd. The measured tempo and the volume increase until all is a frenzied swirl of ribbons and arms, kicks and leaps and a cacophony of clashings and booms and -- then -- applause.

The Korean-Japanese Culture Exchange Workshop is performing. Korea and Japan have a violent mutual history, but this annual exchange of Japanese and Korean youth, founded seven years ago by Korean Catholic activist Kim Hyun Soon, attempts to break down historical animosity one relationship and one dance step at a time.

The workshop is an eight-day event that brings together 15 Japanese and 15 Korean young people ranging in age from late teens to mid-20s. In the course of the workshop, they learn about traditional Korean and Japanese dance and the musical instruments that drive the dancing.

As they learn the traditions, they also write and choreograph a performance based on what Kim calls "the most representative of Korean minjung [people's] culture, the madang guk [open or street theater]."

Though tradition-based, their madang guk explores contemporary ideas and concerns. (See accompanying story.)

Kim, 37, founded the dance workshop to use movement and music as tools to break down prejudices and to build new relationships.

She knew it would be difficult. She knew that many in her parents' generation were still traumatized by the brutality of Japan's colonization of Korea. She sensed the best hope for change was with the younger generation. She also knew that young people valued action over talk. Her challenge was to attract the youth and hold them.

She turned to traditional dance because she had found her own liberation in rhythm and movement.

A veteran activist and organizer among workers and the urban poor, Kim said she was feeling worn out and that her life lacked something. Then she discovered traditional Korean dance and learned that what was missing was a sense of community. Dancing in a group immersed in traditional rhythms and movements, she said, "I was renewed, reborn. I began to appreciate the culture of community."

Kim came of age in the political and social turmoil of South Korea in the 1970s and '80s. Just emerging as an economic power, the country was ruled by harsh military dictators. University students were at the forefront of demonstrations agitating for workers' rights and justice for the poor.

But Kim wasn't a part of the student demonstrations. She didn't go to the university. Her last year in high school, she had to begin work in a candy factory. Her family was poor. They lived in a mun village, one of the shanty towns perched on the hills outside Seoul.

She hated the factory. "Looking around at the other workers, I told myself that I was not like these people. I was different. I told myself I would not end up like they did."

Raised a Catholic and educated in Catholic schools, Kim said she grew up learning Catholic teachings about human values and dignity. "I believed human life was precious." But the life of workers in the factories and in the slums did not fit these teachings. This left her, she said, with many questions to which she could find no answers. She was confused and unhappy.

She knew about the student activists and felt a strong attraction. "I understood their slogans about justice for the poor, because I was poor and a worker. I understood what they were talking about." But she also felt excluded because Korean society sets strict class distinctions. She had little in common with university students and much to keep her separate.

The attraction, however, proved too strong. One day she walked out of the factory, marched into the center of a student encampment and joined them. (At that time in South Korea, students formed semipermanent tent cities in strategic places in Seoul for ongoing protests against government actions and to support various causes.)

The students welcomed her and did their best to include her, "but I still felt alienated," she said. "They were university students. I was not." They also grew impatient with her continued questioning. "I got the reputation of being rebellious in the group," she said. She accused the students of being dogmatic and rigid in their thinking.

With the distance time allows for reflection, Kim said she now understands better the students' attitudes and feelings. And their stubbornness. "Because we were yearning so much for change, we became authoritarian," she said.

Francis Yi Daehoon was the leader of that first student group Kim joined. He told Kim -- years later -- that of all the people in their group, he never thought she would remain active in the people's movements-. But as others lost their ardor, she remained, becoming a community activist and organizer in the slum communities and among workers.

Kim said she was able to remain an activist because she was discovering the traditional dance and music of Korea. She began to study dance. "It was the physical labor in the dancing and singing that transformed me. I found joy in the pain," Kim said. "I didn't approach the dance by the head, but through the heart and emotions."

In dance, she said, she found renewal and a "culture of community."

At the same time, South Korea was changing. Economic prosperity lessened the urgency of the student groups. Activism began to wane. "Strategies had to change," Kim said, and her coterie of now former student leaders needed to find new ways to attract young people into movements to reform society.

That's when she began to adopt the traditions of dance as tools for activism. "We can't force [young people] to join our activities. The best way is to entice them to enter through the heart, meeting them through the body and movement."

More than ever, Kim wanted to share these experiences with young people from her community, not university students, but commercial school students and young workers. From this was born the Japanese-Korean Cultural Exchange Workshop.

The workshop, Kim said, "was a dream and a hope that grew up with me." It is still growing. Kim hopes one day to include students from all across Asia in the workshop. The economic crisis of 1997-'98 has squelched those plans, but she keeps dreaming.

Kim started the workshop, she said, with "big goals. I wanted to transform society." But seven years into the workshop, she said that she has evolved and the workshop has "moved beyond its original goal."

The aim is to create an "open space" for the young people, she said, "an area where they can experience and learn. To taste what is our culture and tradition. The experience will remain with them like a well where they can return to drink from in later years."

By DENNIS CODAY Special to the National Catholic Reporter Seoul
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Title Annotation:dance group brings Koreans and Japanese together
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 12, 1999
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