In 1982, when Sue Yeon Park was settling into her new life in the United States, Americans—even in an international metropolis like New York—had little familiarity with or appreciation for Korean culture. Not even Korean BBQ or K-pop, let alone traditional Korean arts.
Park had uprooted from South Korea, where she had received the honorific title of yisuja for achieving the highest level of mastery of the salpuri (Shaman ritual dance). She was also recognized by the government as a jeonsuja, the highest level of accomplishment, for the preservation of seungmu, a ritual dance performed as an offering to the Buddha.
In 2008, Park earned equivalent accolades in her new country, when the National Endowment for the Arts named her a National Heritage Fellow, the United States’ highest honor in folk and traditional arts. She credits this honor with changing her life as a dancer and contributing to the reshaping of her identity as a woman, a Korean American, and an immigrant.
In 2018, I had the opportunity to interview Park when she visited Washington, D.C., for the performance you can see below.
What was it like to continue your career as a Korean traditional dancer in the United States?
I moved to the States wanting to spread and develop Korean cultural traditions. I faced many unexpected challenges. In the 1980s, most Korean Americans were first-generation immigrants. They were trying to make a living to pave a path for their kids, working toward the American Dream, and struggling to adjust to the new land.
My occupation as a traditional dancer was not well received in the Korean American community because not many Koreans at the time had the capacity to focus on things like the arts, traditions, and culture. Without the support from the Korean community, it was even more difficult to get my foot in the door of American mainstream society where Korean culture was not as appreciated as it is now. But these challenges made me hungrier to share our culture in the United States and to focus on what set our traditional dances and songs apart from those of other cultures.
How is the Korean dance different from other cultural dances?
Many dances, especially American and Latin, tend to be physically and visually powerful and dynamic. They are full of kinetic forces that stimulate our eyes and minds—we feel and respond immediately. On the other hand, Korean traditional arts emphasize the static. In our traditional sounds and dances, where there is the big, there is also the small. There is the yin and there is the yang. Just like night and day, man and woman, the moon and the sun. It even differs from other East Asian dances as it places a great emphasis on the stillness and the quiet.
When I performed seungmu at the Smithsonian, all the great noises I made on the buk (barrel drum) and janggoo (hourglass drum) were followed by subtle, quiet noises and even silence, representing the high and the low, the big and the small, the yin and the yang.
It sounds like seungmu is special to you.
It is. I study Buddhism so seungmu definitely is a dance that means a lot to me. In Korea, they call seungmu the queen of all traditional dances. It is the most difficult, thus not everyone can do it. When you observe a seungmu dancer carefully, you will notice there are so many elements in the costume, ranging from the underskirt and underpants to the beoseon (paired socks worn with traditional clothing) and jeogori (traditional jacket). Each of these items consists of different parts that carry different spiritual significance. I take each item and the process of preparing my costume as seriously as the performance itself. In the days leading up to the performance, I carefully iron each item, even the beoseon.
Each beoseon has what we call a beoseon-ko, which is the toe part of the padded sock. Our ancestors compared the beoseon-ko to a cucumber seed, with one round end and the other end pointy as if it has been squeezed together. Unlike the modern shoes, beoseon brings all five toes together very tightly into one, keeping the feet very small.
Every time I put on the beoseon, I put all of my mind into it, bringing the dispersed mind and scattered thoughts together as my toes are brought together into the center of the beoseon-ko. You know how in swimming, you have to keep your fingers together when you paddle your arms, otherwise the water will escape through your fingers? Just like that, I bring my mind into one place and focus entirely on the performance and connecting with my audience. I focus on how I will bring my audience to experience and breathe with me through my performance.
In seungmu, I lie down flat, bringing my forehead, both elbows and both knees to touch the ground. In Buddhism, we call this ochetuji, a full bowing position of penance, and when the five body parts touch the ground, you cannot help but feel very small. I lay myself down. I put myself down lower and lower into the ground then slowly grow upward following the tempo. As the tempo speeds up, I enter into the process of sublimation. When I finally reach the top and spread upward into the sky, I can feel the universe in my bosom. I feel so much happiness. The sublimation ends with the beating of the buk.
These emotions are not for me to feel alone. This is something I know now—but previously in my dancing career, I was always so focused on looking good in front of the audience. My performances were self-focused. After I became an NEA National Heritage Fellow, I had the opportunity to deeply reflect on my attitude and goals. The focus of my performance has entirely changed. I now dance to share. I share my happiness and sadness through my drumming, dancing, and music. I use my body to make movements and sounds, and that is how I share beauty with my audience.
In spite of the lack of support from the Korean American community in the beginning of Park’s career in the United States, she never stopped advocating and promoting Korean traditions and culture through the performing arts. From senior centers to state and national folk festivals, wherever she was invited, she offered her best performance.
During our conversation, she frequently mentioned her passion to spread “what is ours” or “what is Korean.” In 1993, she founded the Korean Traditional Performing Arts Association (renamed in 2010 as New York Center for Korean Performing Arts), to disseminate Korean traditional arts and culture through regular lectures, classes, and special workshops.
Park is also passionate about supporting the efforts of Korean adoptees to discover their Korean identity. Each year since 2006, she has led groups of Korean adoptees and their adoptive parents to South Korea to participate in the traditional music training program organized by the National Center for Korean Namdo Performing Arts. She finds joy helping adoptees to not only engage with Korean culture and arts but also to claim Korean culture as part of their own.
Sue Yeon Park values both her Korean training and her American experiences, remarking that they shaped her path as an artist and teacher. She is honored to continue the traditions and knowledge she learned from her teachers and elders in Korea. And she appreciates how non-Korean audiences in the United States gave her the motivation, reassurance, and courage to keep dancing and pursuing “what is Korean” even when her fellow Korean immigrants did not.
“I am so proud and thankful to be a Korean American dancer.”
Rachel J. Lee is a former Smithsonian intern who now works for the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research.