[the palaverist]

Sunday, August 16, 2009

[so what's this korean dance you're learning?]

This is a reasonable question that a number of people have asked me, including my mom. A quick search for Korean dance on YouTube turns up mostly pop, and if you throw in the word "traditional," you get mostly women. And I had to admit that even I wasn't very clear on what the dance style I'm learning is supposed to look like when a man does it. (When it comes to men's dancing, I'm much more familiar with the twirly hat stuff and the 사물노리 (samulnori) farmers' dance.)

So I went searching, and I've turned up a few examples, which I will present for you here without further ado (better to link through where you can see the YouTube videos in a bigger size):
The first one is, I believe, roughly what my teacher has in mind for me. The odds of my dancing that well are not high. My parents told me about a budding jazz singer they knew who started weeping when they played a Sarah Vaughan record for her, and I kind of feel like that watching this video.

All of these dancers are impressive, and having taking a few classes, I have a much clearer idea of just how challenging it is to move gracefully through these poses. It's a beautiful form of dance, and extraordinarily foreign to me. I remember how startling it was when a crowd of people started up with a folk version of this sort of thing during the halftime of Korea's quarterfinal game in the 2002 World Cup, dancing in a circle and banging drums and cymbals there in the dirt field of the local middle school.

Bonus: For those who don't know, Korea has perhaps the world's most badass b-boy culture. Please to enjoy. 멋있다!

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Friday, August 14, 2009

[visiting my congressman]

This morning I went to Representative Michael McMahon's Brooklyn office to present my support for health care reform in person. I met a young, friendly staffer who's on the same side as me, but made it clear to me that McMahon sees himself in a tough spot on this issue.

McMahon is the Representative for NY-13, a district that until the last election was held by Republican Vito Fossella. Fossella was caught in a scandal and declined to run for reelection. Then the favored Republican candidate, Francis Powers, died of a heart attack. In the end, McMahon took 61 percent of the vote in a district Obama lost.

According to the staffer I met, the people coming to McMahon's office to talk to him on health care have been about 80 percent against, and this has got McMahon worried. He also said that they'd decided not to hold any town halls because of concerns that they would be unproductive shouting matches. I reminded the staffer that shouters are not the same thing as polls or surveys, and that the last time we had a major poll, back in November, we elected McMahon on a Democratic platform that included health care reform.

But I think there are two important points here. The first is that a Democratic Congressional Representative is saying that his position on health care is being swayed by the overwhelming number of people coming into his office to speak against health care reform. We need to get out there and talk to our Reps to make sure they do the right thing!

The second point, which I hope our Representatives will grasp, is that the shouters and doubters on health care were never going to vote for them in the first place. Does McMahon truly believe that if he caves on health care, these nuts will come around to the Democratic side in 2010?

If health care reform passes, the Democrats will look strong. They'll have a record of achievement. And they'll get shouted at by loonies during the next election cycle. If health care reform doesn't pass, the Democrats will look weak. They'll come into the next election cycle facing accusations of incompetence. And they'll still get shouted at by loonies.

I hope the Democrats in Congress realize that voting down health care reform is not a winning proposition.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

[more dancing with the ajummas]

As my grandfather tells it, he always thought of himself as rather weak and small. He's short, and as a child he seems to have been somewhat bookish (though his idea of bookishness was to run five miles to the library, get a book, and run five miles back), and as an adult he became a corporate lawyer, not a role that necessarily calls for strapping men.

Then, in his forties, he took up mime. Now, this was before mimes became a horrible punchline, before that awful time in the eighties when mimes, like the homeless, became a constant urban menace. The way her learned mime, it was a serious, strenuous art form. He lost weight, gained strength, and developed a sense of physical presence and spatial awareness that was still serving him well into his eighties, as he would dance about the kitchen, closing cabinet doors behind him with his foot.

I take after my grandfather in a lot of ways, and certainly physically. As a kid, I was small for my age, and I was never much good at sports. Compulsory Israeli folkdance at summer camp was always a horror of ineptitude and humiliation. And you might have noticed that I have certain bookish tendencies.

But in the last couple of years, I've started to dance. I was not the quickest student in my swing classes, but I wasn't consistently the slowest, either. And at this point in my life, I'm willing to learn slowly and awkwardly. It's really OK. I make a grownup living and can spell and all that, so it's not really a big deal if my Charleston is a little sloppier than some other people's.

And now I've managed to find my way into Korean dance. Karen, the resident American who's been studying this stuff for 15 years, insists that I'm learning faster than most students, that I've got great lines, that I'm a natural. I kind of think this might be similar to the way Koreans have been telling me my language skills are amazing ever since I learned to say hello, but she might also be being honest. For once, it seems, my odd little duck walk may be paying dividends. I tend to walk back on my heels, with splayed feet, and I've been told this is the walk of a yangban, or traditional Korean gentry. And my years of swing dance practice have taught me to keep my knees bent. So maybe I am better at following dance instructions than I used to be. Maybe my physical prowess is greater than it was when I was 12 and practicing layups.

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[more on japanese vs. korean coolness]

I was going to follow up on an earlier post about Korean vs. Japanese coolness, and wondering whether anyone in Korea would ever be doing something like this:

Yes, it's awful. But it's also cool in a way that I didn't think Korean culture would quite grasp: the cool of the avant garde.

So I went fishing on the Interwebs to see if I could find an equivalent, and lo and behold, I discovered Balloon & Needle, a Korean artists collective that does things like this:

For some reason, this gives me hope.

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Friday, August 07, 2009

[make health care a movement]

Sudden thought: If small groups of right-wing teabaggers — crowds of a thousand or so — are disrupting town hall meetings and shouting down Democratic congresspeople, why not show them up with some giant marches in favor of health care reform? I think that progressive activists could probably muster a few big crowds in the tens of thousands at least.


Wednesday, August 05, 2009

[is korea getting kinky?]

"Abracadabra" from Brown Eyed Girls is the first bit of Korean pop culture I've happened across that makes explicit reference to either BDSM or female bisexuality. (It's much more common to see sadomasochism couched in a "horror" context, which makes it more acceptable.) It's a sexy video, and not just a cutesy pantomime of American sexy.

Back in 2002, Korea was not sexy or cool. It really wanted to be cool, but it just wasn't.

I had a friend who was teaching in Japan at the time, and she reminded me that Japan used to be the same way. Back in the 80s, Japan was Mr. Miyagi and the dorky car executives in Gung Ho. And then one day, somehow Japan was cool. It was weird techno and Cibo Matto and tentacle porn, and those cheesy anime shows we used to watch were suddenly part of a vibrant Asian subculture.

When I wondered whether Korea would turn a similar corner, I saw a few things holding it back, but mostly it came down to prudishness and conservatism. Where Japan has a long tradition of frankly bizarre erotica and exuberantly weird subcultures, Korea's long-reigning Joseon Dynasty emphasized Confucian values of propriety, frugality and restraint. And Korea today is home to a large and passionate community of devout Protestant Christians. Also, Korea doesn't really do irony, and irony seems crucial to finding your way into the hearts of American hipsters.

Even so, the Hallyu, or Korean Wave, has managed to spread Korean pop culture across Asia in recent years. Compared with a stagnant, aging Japan and a China where censorship still rules, Korean culture can seem downright (dare I say it?) dynamic.

Will it catch on in the US? And if it does, where in our culture will it fit? I don't know, but I do know that Korea continues to surprise me.

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Monday, August 03, 2009

[dancing with the ajummas]

"Body like swan: above the water, everything slow. Down below the water, fast." "Like cha-cha-cha! Cha-cha-cha!" "Everybody, Fast! In a circle! She is thief, I am police!" With these and other curious exhortations, I was initiated tonight into the world of traditional Korean dance.

I found the class on Craigslist, where people seek to enlist their fellows in all kinds of bizarre behavior. I arrived at Lotus Music and Dance, a world music-oriented dance studio whose entryway resembles a dental clinic for a dangerous clientele — I had to sign in through a metal grate before I was buzzed into the office area, where I filled out forms and signed and insurance waiver. Once that was done, I was waved down the hall to studio A, where I found myself in the company of three middle-aged Korean women, a young American woman, and our teacher, Songhee Lee, standing resplendent in her hanbok and moving with daunting grace.

Korean dance is unlike any dance I've done before. For one thing, it's slow, requiring a smoothness of movement that, shall we say, does not come naturally to me. Second, its rhythms are dauntingly alien to me. And third, it involves keeping your arms in the air for extended periods of time, which is exhausting. (Toward the end of the class, I got to thinking about CIA-administered stress positions, and how they were inspired by North Korean techniques.)

In fact, my first experience of learning Korean dance was a lot like my experience of learning Korean: confusing, difficult, fascinating, and presented with a curious combination of welcome and wariness. Lee Seonsaengnim wanted my phone number and email, and so did the American (a dedicated Korean dancer, it turns out — I'll have to get her story), and everyone was terribly impressed at my ability to speak Korean. But as is so often the case with Koreans, the question of how I learned Korean shades into the more accusatory question of why I'm interested in Korea. There seems to be a general consensus among Koreans that while foreign fascination with her gigantic neighbor to the west and her rich and sexy neighbor to the east makes perfect sense, there's something a little weird about being interested in Korea. It's like finding out your friend is really into polka, or a huge Steve Gutenberg fan.

Nevertheless, the welcome won out, as usual. People are usually flattered when you find them interesting. Lee Seonsaengnim offered to arrange special sessions to teach me "man dance," and the American woman promised that she would give me free lessons. "Have you been to Korea?" I asked her.

"I go every year."

"Then can you teach me out to dance like the drunk old men in the park?"

She says she can teach me in an hour. We'll see.

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Saturday, August 01, 2009

[the cup]

Many years ago, I saw a lovely Tibetan film called The Cup. It has been a long time, but I finally watched it again, and I found it just as sweet, moving and lovely as before. It's the story of some monks in a Tibetan monastery in northern India — refugees, mostly — and one young monk's passion for soccer during the 1998 World Cup.

I guess I don't have all that much to say about it right now except that I would encourage you to see it if you can.

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Previous Posts

[things i'd like to write about but haven't]
[drop the red lantern]
[how not to apply for a job]
[pop is the new alternative]
[what does it all mean?]
[national fears]
[lies, damn lies, and sound effects]
[our pakistan moment?]
[how to fail like an olympian]
[cold winters]


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