Myoseon Kim has been the president of the Southern California branch of the Ubong Imakabang Dance Preservation Association, sujuija (or disciple) of the late Maebang Lee, Master Instructor of the classical dance seungmu, and is currently the head priestess of Dainichiji Temple in Tokushima, Japan, a historical and famous pilgrimage site for Buddhists. As the first female foreigner to perform such a role, Myoseon Kim became popular in Japanese media. As a result, her master Maebang Lee praised her, saying “since you have become a priest and are genuinely performing this seungmu, you have exceeded what even I could accomplish [in authenticity]”. She has also taught for the World Music Major at UCLA, amongst several other positions. She actively promotes traditional Korean cultural dance through the dance company Ballim, based in studios across the U.S., Japan, and South Korea. I was able to attend the recital for one such branch of Ballim, themed Richness and Gratitude, at the L.A. Korean Cultural Center, where I experienced a seungmu performance for the first time. There was an unmistakably entrancing level of both precision and subliminal emotion in every step, something truly not easily forgotten for any viewer of the dance, especially when performed by a Master Instructor. It was over dinner at a local Korean restaurant that the dancer was able to interview with me after her long journey from Tokushima, Japan, on the origins and importance of the dance she specializes in – seungmu.
Rachel K: There are many theories surrounding the origins of seungmu, do you have a favorite and why?
Myoseon K: The origin of Seungmu is not clear. However, one thing is certain, that it has its roots in Buddhism. One story is that a gisaeng (courtesan) named Hwang Jin Yi, danced seungmu to seduce a monk named Jijoksunsa by dancing while wearing a white, see-through robe with long sleeves. But, it was not the beginning of seungmu. Although Seung denotes monk, it is not danced by Buddhist monks. During the unified Shilla (an ancient Korean dynasty), Korea was heavily influenced by Buddhism. During that time, dancers at the art school for artisans, or Kwon Bon, performed seungmu. When the music is played for the dance, mok-tak (wooden hand-held drum) plays the lead music. Due to Buddhist influence, the dance was performed initially for religious rituals, but eventually taught and passed down through Kwon-bon to gisaengs, completely unrelated to Buddhism.
Rachel K: How did you first become attracted to and involved in seungmu? What charmed you about seungmu?
Myoseon K: I became interested in Korean traditional dance and music from an early age. My maternal grandfather was Sujingsu, or the Head Gong player. The sujingsu is also the Head of the Farmers Music and Dance (Nongak) team. ‘Su’ denotes the best player, also. Due to my grandfather’s influence, I learned Korean music, instruments and dance. Farmers Music (Nong-ak) is the foundation of Korean traditional music. Sa-mul-no-ri (four instrumental ensemble) provides the basic music in Korean traditional music. I feel that Seungmu deserves to be recognized as a cultural heritage by UNESCO, along with Nong-ak, Arirang, and Pan Sori. That is why I am conducting workshops and trying to spread the word about Seungmu.
Rachel K: How did you become a disciple of Maebang Lee? What did you admire about his seungmu?
Myoseon K: Korean dance can be categorized into Royal Court dance, Traditional dance, Creative dance, Folk dance, and Ritual dance like Buddhist or Shaman dance. I learned Nong-ak, or farmers dance, from my maternal grandfather, I then took lessons from a living treasure, Master teacher Kim Chun Heung (Royal Court dance master). Royal court dance is performed by way of gentle, subtle, movements like breathing, standing on a mat and never stepping out. Master Kim thought that I was better suited to Teacher Lee, Mae Bang style of dance. From our first meeting, teacher Lee had a peculiar way of talking, using a lot of profanity and shouting. I was turned off by his rough manners, but I stuck to it. He became a living treasure for both Seungmu and Sal-puri, and I became his teaching assistant.
Rachel K: I understand that you are a cultural ambassador of Korean culture in Tokushima. How does seungmu continually inspire you to continue this work?
Myoseon K: In 1995, I was invited to participate in Awa Odori in Tokushima. I brought 25 dancers with me and we all stayed in the Dainichi temple. After the festival performance, the High Priest of the temple was deeply moved by Seungmu, and he invited me to hold monthly workshops in Tokushima. He paid me well, around $5000 for three days of lessons for every visit. He recruited students from the temple for me to give lessons. In Japan, Buddhist monks do not perform dances, but rather sing. Currently, I teach Seungmu to Japanese who are part of the Korean culture study group. My students won top prizes at the International Korean Dance Competition in New York. I am very proud of that. In being true to Lee Mae Bang style dance, I do not invent or change Seungmu or Sal-puri, because it must be passed down in the original form.
Rachel K: How has it allowed you to preserve your culture and connect with other non-Koreans as a representative of the Korean wave and culture?
Myoseon K: From early on, Japanese people study and learn Banyashimkyung by heart. I teach seungmu to the rhythm of Banyashimkyung. By dancing seungmu to that rhythm, they feel spiritually connected…I believe seungmu must be taught age-appropriately. Japanese people really love and appreciate Salpuri dance. They share same DNA with Koreans. With the fall of Baekje, one of the Three Kingdoms, royalties fled to Japan and took over the throne. That the beginning of animosity toward Korea because they were chased out. A dancer from Baekje, Mimate, went to China to learn dance, but he could not return to Baekje because the country was no more. Instead, he went to Japan. That’s how the Japanese dance, Noh, was created. Seungmu and Salpuri are the world’s best dance and they should be designated as cultural treasures by UNESCO.
Rachel K: I understand that you believe Seungmu represents Korean culture in the highest order?
Myoseon K: Yes. Seungmu is comprised of all the dance moves that represents Korean dance. Without learning seungmu, one cannot perform a true Korean dance. Korean traditional dance is one continuous and fluid movement. One never stops or breaks abruptly. Even Korean Fan Dance, Janggu dance, and Salpuri dance must be danced with smooth, fluid lines – without stopping. It takes endurance and skill to continue the movement in continuous movement. If one can master Seungmu, all other Korean dances can be easily mastered.
Rachel K: Why is the preservation of culture through dances such as seungmu important to our society today?
Myoseon K: It is very important to preserve Seungmu because it is our heritage and tradition. It is not a relic to be preserved in a museum. Koreans like new things and easily adapt to new way of doing things. However, we did not feel it’s important to preserve our heritage; as a result, many cultural assets and treasures have been lost… A case on point, a long time ago, there was an International Percussion Festival in Canada. Many countries participated with support from their own country, including Japan with their big Taiko drums. Korea was represented by a Samulnori group: Kim Duksu on Janggu, Lee Kwang Su on Gong, Kim Yong Bae on hand-held small gong, and Choi Duk Su on Buk. They won the first prize. They were touted as the “Beatles of Asia” and toured the entire world for six months. When they returned to Korea, many more sal-mul-no-ri groups had sprung up. To be creative with our dance, we must first establish the Korean traditional dance as a serious form of discipline. Currently, there is no real progress happening in Korean traditional dance scene.
Rachel K: How can such work significantly improve our lives?
Myoseon K: For Koreans born in the U.S., it gives them pride and self-esteem. America has a relatively short history of only 200 years. Korea has 5000 years of history. Understanding that Korea has tradition and history that gave birth to Han-ryu and kpop is important and enriches people’s lives. BTS and TVXQ (famously successful K-pop male groups) are famous, and Korean rap also comes from Pan sori – it’s very, very old.
Pan-so-ri is designated as a cultural heritage by UNESCO because one person can sing all parts of the chorus-soprano, also, tenor, and base-in telling a story. That’s the origin of RAP. Traditional Korean art and culture represents what is today’s Hanryu (Korean wave). Even in Brazil, they learn Korean – another country adopting the Korean alphabet as their own. If we understand the Korean tradition well, we improve our own lives. Our tradition and heritage give us pride, self-esteem, and dignity. It is through ambassadors like Myoseon Kim that the Korean arts do not become lost, rather, they are stretching into the next era of Korean dance through work in organizations big and small; whether that means local dance companies like our own, or international coalitions such as UNESCO that work to preserve cultural arts & treasures all over the world – intangible traditions that cannot simply be confined within a glass case in a museum. It is vital we find the pertinence of our traditions to the present, so that we may celebrate our origins and what can be manifested between humans facing the same conditions – culture.
Rachel Kim, Grade 12
Gretchen Whitney High School