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Korean Court Dances


Korean court dances, called Chongjae, meaning literally "display of talent," were used to entertain for the royal family, court functionaries, and foreign envoys. They were also performed on festive occasions sponsored by the state. Some were derived from those of Tang China and called Tang-ak chongjae, while others were newer forms of Korean court dances called Hyang-ak chongjae. The former were gradually modified by Korean dancers and musicians over the centuries so that it is hard to trace their original traits.

Court classics glorifying the court and praying for a long life for the king were formulated in solemn, elegant movements accompanied by equally solemn music and occasional songs. Today, about 50 court classics are preserved in the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, including Kommu (Sword Dance), Ch'Doyongmu (Dance of Ch'ioyong), Mugo (Drum Dance), P'ogurak (Ball-Throwing Dance), Suyonjang (Banquet Dance), Ch'unaengjon, Kainjommoktan (Beautiful Persons Picking Peonies), and Hangmu.

Chongjae performances follow a strict formula. Each movement is solemn and graceful, without outward extravagance, particularily due to Confucianism's influence. Even though dancers were accompanyed by splendid stage settings and costumes, their movements were never dramatic, but always serene and self-composed.

Chinese court dances began to be imported from Song China during the Koryo Dynasty(918-1392). These mostly followed simple formulas. For instance, dancers would divide themselves into lines moving forward or backward together or facing each other. Whatever the case, their left and right arms moved together with their left and right legs. The lines move symmetrically left and right and then would disperse into four groups. They would then converge again at the center. Their costumes and props differed by theme and role. This required a variety of different garments, shoes, extended sleeves of different lengths and colors, belts, and coronets. A king's procession also requires a variety of dignified props, such as long-handled dragon, phoenix, peacock fans, a short-handled lotus, plantain, and five-leaf fans.


In accordance with the theory of the five cardinal elements, all costumes were designed in red, blue, yellow, white, and black. To heighten the visual effect, all court dancers wore sleeve extensions, called hansam, over the hands. Court music accompanying dance usually has a slow beat and produces a solemn yet magnificent ambiance. The common times are 20/1, 16/1, 12/1, 10/1, and 4/1.

The stage props are often referred to in the names of court dances. A court dance is called Honsondo (Peach-Offering Dance) if a silver tray appears as a prop, Posangmu (Treasure Table Dance) if a lotus-flower jar on a service table appears, Sonyurak (Boating Dance) if a boat appears, and P'ogurak (Ball-Throwing Dance) if a ball and goal-posts appear.

Early court dances followed strict styles and rules. In performing dances imported from China, chukkanja, or pole bearers, led the way for the premier dancers at the start, who sang kuo and ch'io Chinese songs in Korean pronunciation. In the indigenous Korean court dances there were no pole bearers and dancers lifted and lowered themselves backwards and forwards as they sang. These distinctions became blurred as Chinese and Korean dances influenced each other from the late Choson period.

The outstanding pieces of this period include Ch'unaengjon, Ch'uoyongmu, and Chinju Kommu (Chinju Sword Dance). Ch'unaengjon was created by Crown Prince Hyomyong. Of all the court dances, this piece is the sole remnant with steps recorded in detail and it is still frequently performed today.

The story goes like this: one morning Emperor Gaozong of the Tang Dynasty heard the beautiful twitter of a nightingale. The king ordered the court musician Bai Ming-da to record the lovely tune in musical notation. To this music, a dance piece was attached later. It was later transmitted to Japan.

However, in Korea, Ch'unaengjon has its own story, form, and music. One balmy spring day, Crown Prince Hyomyong, listening to the flute-like twitter of a nightingale sitting on a willow tree, instructed a court muscian to record its song. Then he wrote the following poem:

A wind from the Wolhabo Levee ripples my silk sleeves.
I see the face of my beloved in a flower.
The Dance of the Spring Nightingale is perhaps the loveliest of all.

Later, a court musician, Kim Ch'ang-ha, created a dance to accompany the song. Of the numerous court pieces choreographed in the Choson era, Ch'unaengjon and Musanhyang are both pas seul (solo dance), which are rare today. Ch'unaengjon integrates the full range of beautiful movements seen in most court dances. The bewitching pose of the dancer, her quiet movements and enigmatic smile which all take place in front of a spring blossom, is testament to the Korean ideal of dance captured in the adage "overdone is worse than undone."

Ch'unaengjon conveys a traditional feminine image expressing the delicate mood and slow movements of a professional woman entertainer. Musanhyang is performed in the nimble. The Ch'unaengjon dancer wears a large coronet and yellow court suit, dancing gracefully on a mat woven with a floral pattern. The accompanying music is called Yongsan hoesang (a chamber suite for the Buddhist Dance honoring the sacred mountain Yongsan).

Another court dance is called Ch'toyongmu. Ch'toyongmu is the sole mask dance inherited through court tradition. This free and masculine dance was used to expel the evil spirits and performed at the end of the year. It was initially performed as a pas seul. The dancer wore a black robe, a court official's headgear, and a red mask (red was believed to ward off evil spirits). Later, it became a dance for five persons, with the dancers dressed in five colors, white, blue, red, green, and yellow, reflecting the concept of the five cardinal elements of cosmology.

The earlier masks in Ch' Coyongmu were all gigantic, as if to be more effective at driving away evil spirits. The use of space in this dance was much more complicated than that in other dances.

Chinju Kommu, which originated from the court repertory, has been handed down from Chinju. This production is considered highly artistic, as it preserves both the archetypal form of the court sword dance and the special techniques developed on the southern coast.

The difference between the sword dance of the courts and that which evolved in Chinju tradition is summed up as follows: the former is performed by four dancers, the latter by eight; the former is accompanied by t'aryong changdan, or the rhythmic cycle of folk ballads; the latter by yombul changdan, or the rhythmic cycle of Buddhist invocations which builds up to a very fast pace.

The special movements which make the Chinju Sword Dance distinctive are sugun sawi, ipch'um sawi, pingsak sawi, pangsok tori, and yonp'ungdae. The dancers start with bare hands and take up their swords later. They wear extended white sleeves at first, then take them off and perform varied motions with their bare hands. The overall pattern of the dance resembles a military march.


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