The end of October saw a reenactment of King Gojong's enthronement as head of the Korean Empire at Unhyeongung in Jongno-gu, Seoul that was an interesting experience to attend. Admission fees were waived on account of the special event, though the light rain that afternoon seemed to keep many people from attending. It was also a little disappointing to have a group of high school students show up 10 minutes from the end and spend all their time gossiping and squeeling loudly. Guess this is more proof that I'm turning into a cranky old man.
Before the coronation ceremony took place there was a performance of Joseon-era music by a boy's middle school band and a sampling of traditional dances. One of the dances that I recognized is the Taepyeongmu (태평무; 太平舞), which sees participants dressed in court clothing and dancing to wish peace and prosperity upon the nation.
A friend joined me for the outing and pointed out that the woman leading the dance (not pictured above) is recognized by the Korean government as an Intangible National Treasure. If true, my guess is that the main dancer was Yang Sung-ok (양성옥) who is a noted Taepyeongmu performer. The dance itself was registered in 1988 as Important Intangible Cultural Property (중요무형문화재) No. 94. While the relevant page on Wikipedia claims that there are three theories regarding the origins of the Taepyeongmu dance it only describes one of them; I was also surprised to see that there is not a Korean-language version of the page as is often the case.
According to the official website for the Cultural Heritage Administration, the contemporary version of the dance is from an arrangement created by Han Seongjun (한성준) in the early 20th century, based on a shaman dance from Gyeonggi-do. The Asia-Pacific Database on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) adds that the dance is based on the Gyeonggi-do danggut shaman dance dedicated to worshiping a village god in Gyeonggi province, while the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts (NCKTPA) narrows things further and pinpoints the location of origin as Wangshimni. Is this Wangshimni the same as the subway station of the same name that is currently part of the Seoul Metro System? Might be worth a trip to ask around, even if that technique didn't work too well in my attempts at finding the Joseon Dynasty ice houses.
My friend later pointed out that Taepyeongmu is perhaps the most difficult Korean dance to master since it involves some very intricate footwork. Ms. Heo Young-Il of the Korean National Institute of Cultural Properties writes on the ICH website:
[...] its rhythms are so unique not to be found in any other dances and are complex to master in short period, The basic rhythmic patterns are classified into 6 kinds: nakgung (4 beat), teobeolrim (10 beat), olrimchae (3, 12, 24 beat), dosalpuri (6 beat). Accordingly, its movement techniques are very complicated including 22 kinds of arm movements, 15 kinds of steps, 5 kinds of body movements, etc., among which diverse feet movements and gestures of foot are considered most important. In sum, Taepyeongmu contains the essence of Korean traditional dance in the point that it delivers the aesthetic principle of inner dynamics in the stillness.
Image found via 神州学习网
One interesting point that I saw brought up elsewhere - unfortunately I no longer remember which page it was on - involves the fact that the Taepyeongmu fuses elements of shamanism with court culture and clothing and grew in popularity during the Joseon Dynasty. Shamanism was often suppressed during the heavily Confucian Joseon Dynasty which brings up the question: how did such a hybrid ever develop? Unfortunately, I do not have an answer to this, though while searching for information on the Taepyeongmu I did come across a .pdf file from Han Kyung-Ja of Gangwon University that includes the following:
The origin of Taepyeongmu (太平舞) was uncertain in records. However, it is generally believed to have derived from Palgwanhoe (the Festival of Eight Vows). Palgwanhoe is a Buddhist and state rite honoring the Celestial King and five famous mountains and rivers in the Goryeo Period. There is a presumption that a symbolized king or god dance and sing songs, praying for national peace and prosperity as a part of Palgwanhoe. Maybe, the very rite is evolved into Taepyeongmu
Korean Buddhism was also suppressed in Joseon times, especially during the opening stages of the dynasty. The religion received a mild form of royal support when Queen Munjeong lifted the official ban following her rise to power in 1545, while further acceptance followed efforts by the sangha to repel the Japanese invasions of Korea in 1592 and 1598. Then again, apart from Queen Munjeong I wonder if Buddhism had any true support from the ruling elite of the Joseon Dynasty. Han Kyung-Ja presents an interesting alternative history for the origins of Taepyeongmu, but it seems to involve the same limitations as the connection to shamanism does -- reconciling the royal attire of performers with origins in an out-of-favor religion.
(Note: I am not all that knowledgeable on the Joseon Dynasty, shamanism in Korea, or Buddhism in Korea. As a result, there could be information out there explaining the relationship between these entities that I have yet to encounter. I will note that Wonkwang University (원광대학교) - a Won Buddhist university in Jeonju - has a museum collection containing both a shaman statue and a Tangka painting from the Joseon Dynasty.)
One popular theme present in most sites discussing the dance is that the interpretation of the Taepyeongmu one is likely to encounter today comes from an arrangement by Han Seongjun (한성준) some time at the start of the last century. It may be that the 'royal' attire was only added with Han Seongjun's arrangement rather than being associated with the dance at some earlier point in its history. For a detailed look at the inner workings of the dance - in Korean - check out this page on Naver.
For those in Korea interested in seeing a performance of Taepyeongmu you're in luck -- weekly performances are held at the Taepyeongmu Initiation Hall in Anseong, Gyeonggi-do with contact information, hours, and directions available online in English here from the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) site. And for those not in Korea, here are three videos of the Taepyeongmu dance: