A group of youthful dancers took the stage on March 16 at Gwanghwamun Square, Seoul, moving and grooving to popular K-pop songs.
While the scene was certainly eye-catching, it was not out of the blue; the square is an easy target for people seeking attention ― protesters and street performers ― as it constantly swarms with tourists, police, young couples, and families on weekends.
This particular group, however, was peculiar in the sense that none of the members looked old enough to be there without a guardian. In fact, all of the dancers were either elementary or middle school students.
The performance was a guerilla dance gig hosted by local Ye-in Dance School, run by dancer Park Min-jun. It mainly attracts schoolchildren worn out by the hectic schedules of attending cram schools.
“We wanted to prepare a stage, a chance for the children to perform. There are a lot of kids who are lacking confidence, and this could boost their self-esteem,” Park said.
Children learning to dance has become a relatively common sight in recent years.
“Dancing is really popular in our school. A lot of girls do it as a party activity on class field trips,” said Gang Ye-rim, a 15-year-old middle school student who participated in the guerilla performance. She said she is looking to become a singer and her friend is preparing to be a dancer.
Dancing to Korean pop songs is a popular trend among schoolgirls. Type in “students” with a name of any popular girl group on YouTube and one can find dozens of videos showing young girls imitating their idols’ performances.
Among pre-teens of today, singer and dancer are among most popular jobs.
A January poll by Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training on 990 elementary school students showed that 1 in 10 answered they wanted to be in show business when they grow up. In the same survey, middle school students picked entertainer as the third-most coveted job, following teacher and doctor.
The situation was a lot different in the 1990s.
In the past, people working in show business had to endure prejudice from the general public. While Korea is still conservative and dominated by Confucian ethics, it was far less liberal prior to 2000.
In the 1990s, singers were not allowed to reveal dyed hair on TV. Singers who dyed their hair were required to wear hats or bandanas.
Moon Hee-jun, a member of popular 1990s boy band H.O.T., revealed on MBC talk show “Come to Play” in 2008 that he had once been banned from TV appearances after violating the regulation.
Many Koreans, especially senior citizens, regarded singers and dangers as delinquents. “Dandara” was a term coined decades ago to depict people in the music business, and it was widely used to belittle entertainers in general.
Such thinking is gradually shifting among relatively younger parents in their 30s and 40s, Park said.
“The parents of teens today have changed a lot. Some parents even bring their children to the dance school when they say they want to be singers,” he said.
A 43-year-old mother, whose daughter is attending one of the local dance schools, said she was not opposed to the idea of her daughter pursing a career in the music business.
“If that’s something she wants to do, I should support her as a mother,” she said. “When my daughter is good at something, I should have faith in her.”
Moon Ji-yun, a 22-year-old dancer, said the situation for dancers has improved significantly from when she was younger.
“Back when I was in middle school, dance studios were mostly underground,” she said. “When children wanted to dance, parents would be like, ‘To heck with dancing, you’re studying.’ Now, parents are encouraging their passion.”
The shift took place around the turn of the century. In 1998, then-President Kim Dae-jung opened the door to Japanese pop culture.
The inflow of Japanese content ― which had been taboo at the time due to the history of bad blood between Korea and Japan ― marked the start of the freedom of expression rush for the conservative, male-dominated country.
In 2000, actor Hong Suk-chun came out of the closet, and transgender actress Ha Ri-soo debuted the next year. They were the first openly gay actor and transsexual entertainer in Korea, respectively.
Hong now regularly appears on TV and makes gay jokes, which were virtually nonexistent prior to his coming-out.
As the Internet penetrated the lives of everyday people, the personal lives of stars became more accessible and celebrities more familiar to the general public.
“People used to encounter celebrities unilaterally via newspapers, TV, magazines and so forth, so stars were perceived as ‘mysterious’ to everyday citizens,” pop culture critic Kim Hun-sik said.
“That mystique is disappearing with the change in media. Instead, the public is looking for stars that it can relate to.”
Stars are no longer regarded as people to gawk at, but have become tangible people. Recent trends show many ordinary people are vying to be an entertainer.
The 2012 season of the popular TV talent show “Superstar K” recorded over 2 million participants, its highest ever. Its first season in 2009 had garnered a little over 700,000 contestants.
There are about 3,000 applied music academies in Korea, according to Jo Hong-gyeong, who runs vocal training school Voiceeffect.
“There were only a handful of so-called ‘major’ academies two to three years ago, and now there are 40 to 50,” Jo said.
Despite music’s popularity, vocational dancing still faces a negative perception.
Eighteen-year-old dancer and high school student Yun Seoul-hyeon said his parents and teachers alike were against him becoming a professional dancer.
“Student athletes and other students with specialties are supported by government funds, which is not the case with dancers,” Yun said. Dancers basically have to look out for themselves, which makes dancing “difficult to learn or to succeed with,” he said.
Park Min-jun said he faced the same bias when he first told his father that he was going to become a dancer. Park, who was attending one of the top universities in the country, decided in his mid-20s to take up dancing professionally.
Park’s father fiercely opposed the decision, because he wanted his son to become a diplomat or a government official.
Park, 32, started his own dance school last year, but his father remains reluctant to tell his friends about his son’s occupation.
“Although my father feels differently now, most men his age ― who are in their late 60s ― still think of dancers as ‘dandara.’ They think it is closely associated with nightclubs and partying,” Park said.
Pursuing a career in the entertainment field is a rough path, but baby-faced dancers remain unfazed.
“When I dance, it just feels good, no reason,” 15-year-old middle school student Lee Da-young said.
“All my worries just vanish. Even if it’s just when I’m dancing, they disappear,” Lee Min-ji, 14, chimed in. “Dancing makes me happy.”
By Yoon Min-sik (email@example.com