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Helping the homeless back on their feet

Ballerino James Jeon teaches dance to help them build confidence


There are many ways to help the homeless get off the streets and onto their feet, but one person has thought of something completely different ― teaching them ballet lessons.

Absurd as the idea may sound, ballerino James Jeon, says that for the homeless, regaining confidence is the fastest way to help them back on their feet.

“For them, regaining confidence is everything for their recovery,” he told The Korea Herald.

While the 52-year-old philanthropist agrees that most of the homeless are prone to the mindset of “receiving short-term support” from society, he said ballet can help them with more than material assistance.

According to him, their dire needs may be best met by “donating” the art of dance.

For the last couple of months, Jeon has been out on the streets, selling “Big Issue” magazines alongside the homeless to encourage them. The magazine is published to help homeless support themselves with the sales proceeds. The homeless take about 1,600 won, little over half of the price of the 3,000 won cover price.

At first, Jeon taught them how to bow in a ballet style. The next day, he formed a ballet program for the homeless. With a firm belief that it would boost their confidence and could shorten their time on the streets.

“One day, an idea struck me, why not teach them ballet to boost their confidence?” he said.

According to Jeon, ballet was one of the military subjects during Louis XIV’s reign.

“Ballet training requires a perfect posture, a good regulation of physical motions, and a right-mind,” he said.
James Jeon, artistic director at the Seoul Ballet Theater, leads his pupils through a ballet movement during a practice in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
James Jeon, artistic director at the Seoul Ballet Theater, leads his pupils through a ballet movement during a practice in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

The dancer said that the idea of nurturing talent should be carried out across a wider range of society. “It is definitely more constructive than merely supporting them financially, because monetary assistance would not be of a long-standing help for them to get out of the situation they are in.”

He also added that artists like him should feel obliged as members of society to donate their talents to the underprivileged.

So far, the homeless have been enthusiastic about his ballet lessons. At times, they come by the theater and watch his rehearsals.

“They really show affection for ballet,” he said. “At first, they were very shy of dancing with our ballerinas. They couldn’t look their partner in the eyes, but after couple of days, they were able to look their partner in the eyes, they have really gained confidence.”

Jeon has one hope. He believes that every human being is born with different innate talents. However, depending on circumstances, some talents do not bloom. Jeon sees that the values engraved in one’s soul should be brought to life through experience and understood by others. He says this is the task our society and government has to deal with to create opportunities for everyone.

“That will make our society rich and abundant,” he said.

Jeon has scheduled a special weekly ballet program starting in March for the homeless, and he plans to take one or two homeless persons onstage in the first scene of the “Nutcracker.” To do so, he will conduct a year-long training program at the Seoul Ballet Theatre.

“Lessons to the homeless so far are also lessons to myself. Every homeless person has his or her own life story, and I learn lessons from their life experiences. Sometimes I think I’m teaching them to teach myself,” he said.

The humble ballerino says he will carry on teaching ballet for the needy in society, not just the homeless.

Jeon wants to be a ballerino father for the children of single foreign mothers. He said he also wanted to establish a dance school for those kids given few opportunities to experience “art.” He wishes to emulate Arthur Mitchell, who founded the Dance Theater of Harlem 30 years ago.

“He opened up the window of tremendous possibilities for children in the Harlem streets, and look, they have become great ballet dancers,” he said.

“I would teach them for free, and who knows? They might become the world’s best ballerinas and ballerinos.”

He started off late as a ballerino at the age of 19, when he left California to follow his dreams as a dancer. “My parents were adamantly opposed to my future career as a male dancer, but I flew off to New York with a suitcase and $2,000 in my pocket.”

He emigrated with his family to the U.S. in 1972 after completing elementary school in Korea, graduated from DeAnza College in 1980, but until then, he had received no professional ballet training.

His life in New York got off to a smooth start. He passed the audition for the Julliard school at his first try, and after graduation, he joined a Florida ballet troupe, and later got an offer from the director of the Universal ballet company to perform in Seoul, where he met his wife and settled in Korea. .

In 1995, he and his ballerina wife founded the Seoul Ballet Theater to take the ballet here “beyond a high level” and has run the troupe for 16 years.

Jeon has choreographed over 60 ballet pieces, and his experiences in both the U.S. and Korea inspired him into creating works which describe the complex inner world of human beings. In 2002, he choreographed a piece called “Inner Moves” at the request of the Nevada Ballet Theatre, and exported it to the Nova Ballet Arizona in 2008.

“I wanted to establish a ballet theater that not only imports works but also creates and exports works.”

So far, Seoul Ballet Theater remains the only privately owned ballet company in Korea to produce its own pieces.

Jeon and his wife believe that philanthropy makes a person see things on a greater scale. With a wide view of the world, people can communicate through trust, he says. As long as he has talent as a dancer, he said that he will continue to share his talent with society. 

By Hwang Jurie (jurie777@heraldcorp.com)
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