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Ballet becomes a dance to embrace life

Elegant piano tunes echo through a ballet studio in Gwacheon, a southern Seoul suburb, on a Sunday afternoon. Besides the pitter-patter of raindrops that occasionally beats through the classical piece, the air is still, the atmosphere almost solemn.

Fourteen white ballet flats bend and flex as a group of male ballet dancers warm up beside wooden bars. What catches the eye is the seven dancers’ attire. Their loose cargo shorts, striped socks and red T-shirts emblazoned with “The Big Issue” stand in stark contrast to the studio’s dull gray floor and wooden walls.
Big Issue vendors practice basic ballet positions with the help of tutor Kim Ji-yeon. (Yonhap News)
Big Issue vendors practice basic ballet positions with the help of tutor Kim Ji-yeon. (Yonhap News)

The male ballet dancers are vendors of The Big Issue, a magazine that was launched in 1991 in Britain to offer homeless people an opportunity to earn a legitimate income. The Seoul edition of the bi-weekly, which costs 3,000 won ($2.8) per issue, kicked off last year as part of efforts to help the country’s 5,000 homeless people become financially independent.

Vendors of The Big Issue can take home 1,600 won per every issue they sell at designated posts across Seoul. If they abide by the rules, such as no drinking and no fighting while selling, the publisher funds them seed money to move into rented apartments or rooms, a stepping stone to ending street life.

By selling the entertainment and news magazine, vendors on average pocket 800,000 won ($740) per month, with some power sellers raking in as much as 2 million won. Subsidiaries and profit from online sales are used to fund vendors’ relocation to more stable residences. During its first year in Korea, the magazine saw its sales networks expand rapidly. The number of vendors has grown more than five-fold and each issue sells around 7,000-9,000 copies.

The Big Issue Korea, however, puts equal focus on helping vendors build up confidence. In a bid to heal the battered bodies and minds of the homeless and help them step out into the world, the company runs weekly ballet classes in collaboration with the Seoul Ballet Theater.

“En bas, en avant, en haut, a la seconde,” ballet tutor Kim Ji-yeon shouts in French as she demonstrates basic arm positions.

The seven men, in their 40s and 50s, slowly repeat after Kim.

Their silhouettes aren’t as graceful as Kim’s. Their spines are bent and their shoulders are hunched. Nonetheless, their eyes are glued to the full-length mirror ahead of them as they concentrate on emulating her movements.

Kim proceeds with other steps, making sure that nobody is left behind. She also tries to break the ice by joking between positions and chatting with the students.

In response, they beam and smile, regardless of the few missing teeth they have lost due to malnutrition and bad hygiene. Some even cheer for fellow vendors, who are huffing after the exercise.

Kim Su-won, 51, is one of the students. Since becoming a vendor of The Big Issue last year, he has enjoyed online fame as “the male ballet dancer of Sinchon,” a western city center that is home to a handful of universities.

Local media have widely featured photos of Kim Su-won bowing gracefully in ballet style to his customers. Stricken with polio in childhood, he says he found pride through ballet.

“Ballet felt so distant at first. Not a lot of Korean men learn it. It’s also not easy to come here every Sunday,” he says. “It’s challenging, but I feel so proud of myself.”

SBT officials say that dancing has helped the homeless regain self-confidence.

“When I first met them, they avoided direct eye contact and were quite huddled up. But ballet has helped them perceive how different parts of their bodies move and how they can find balance,” says SBT artistic director James Jeon, refusing to call the vendors homeless people. “This has led them to value themselves more.”

Officials from The Big Issue say the sessions have also helped the homeless come out of their shells.

“Being homeless is not simply a matter of living on the street.

A substantial number of homeless are completely isolated. They are deprived of both a habitat and a chance to form relationships with other people,” says Ahn Byung-hun, a sales team manager for The Big Issue Korea.

“Ballet offers them an opportunity to change that. By talking with tutors, volunteers and fellow vendors, participants get the feeling someone is out there cheering for them, which can be a huge driving force for pressing on with life,” he says.

The final hour of the three-hour session is saved for walking practice. Participants are asked to say aloud a vocation they would like to have and walk as if they have that job.

The seven men’s faces are flushed from the arduous exercise, but they belt out a slate of jobs, ranging from lawyer to social worker.

“Put your heads up and straighten up your shoulders. Walk with confidence,” Kim Ji-yeon, the tutor, says by way of encouragement.

Some are still a bit shy about walking with such pomp, but their faces all glow with hard-earned satisfaction and hopes for the future.

“I want to own my coffee shop,” says 46-year-old Lim Jin-hee, who chooses to walk like an entrepreneur. “I want to create a place where The Big Issue vendors can come and rest in between their shifts.”

“I’ve lost 14 kilograms since last year and started meeting new people. I’ll learn ballet as long as I can,” he says, vowing to put his painful past behind him.

Lim was one of the many South Korean workers who were laid off in the aftermath of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. He later opened a vegetable stand, but the effort fell through. His wife passed away amid the ups-and-downs that continued to haunt him.

In the meantime, The Big Issue and SBT seek to help more homeless people find purpose in their lives and become financially independent.

So far, all seven of the male ballet dancers have succeeded in getting off the streets and moving into stable dwellings. Two, including Kim Su-won, have even saved up enough money to move into government-leased apartments that require a down payment of 3 million won.

In a bid to keep up the good vibe and encourage the homeless, SBT plans to cast some of the seven male ballet dancers for roles in its new performance, “The Nutcracker,” scheduled for Dec. 29-31.

A donation campaign to raise 10 million won for the project is under way.

Practice for “The Nutcracker” is already in full swing. The budding dancers are learning steps and memorizing lines. The class ends as they recite from the Tchaikovsky piece a few lines that may be indicative of their newfound sentiments toward themselves and the rest of the world.

“I love you. I want to dance with you here. You are beautiful.” 

(Yonhap News)