Shall We Dance?
KoreAm Journal/August 2008
Story & Photos by Bill Stephens
Korean American students of the Susie Kim Dancesports studio in L.A. strut their stuff at this year's Summer Ball.
When you think about pasttimes most identified with middle- and senior-aged Korean Americans, golf and karaoke immediately come to mind. But in recent years, ajushis and ajumas have been dancing to a new tune, literally, cha-chaing their stresses away and waltzing to strengthen their bodies and marriages.
Mirroring national and international trends, more and more Koreans are embracing ballroom dancing.
According to USA Dance Association's Peter Pover, America's Dancing with the Stars on ABC, which was modeled after an equally popular British TV show, has helped revive DanceSport, as it is sometimes called.
Lucy Long, a folklorist and ethnomusicologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, believes that ballroom dance has also gained popularity in recent years because people are exercising more and looking for new ways to spend quality time with their partners. They are realizing that adults need to play, too.
But an activity characterized by spins, dips and, at times, hip-shaking seems a particularly surprising choice for a generation known for toiling as immigrants in a new country and devoting most of their waking hours to a small business to support their family. Who had time for a hobby aside from the occasional golf outing?
Some observers schooled in Korean culture say ballroom dance is a good match for a people sometimes known for their flare for the dramatics.
"Koreans are sociable, exuberant and feel intensely," says Long, who lived in Korea for eight years. "Ballroom dance fits [them] because it's expressive."
"1-2-3. 1-2-3," calls out Susie Kim, as her students attempt to move their feet in tempo to the waltz. The athletic instructor then demostrates.
People giggle at their mistakes. One woman, not laughing, walks away from her husband and sits down.
Kim coaxes her back to the dance floor.
A former professional ballroom dancer herself, Kim has been teaching international style and the slower-tempo American social style ballroom method at the Susie Kim Dancesports studio in Los Angeles since 1989. Before that, she was involved with running a dance studio at a different Koreatown location with her ex-husband, also a competitive ballroom dancer, since the mid-Ô80s.
"When I began competing in ballroom dancing, I found the atmosphere of competition so gorgeous — the costumes, the lighting and the music," recalls Kim, who has always been athletic. "It was so attractive to me and moved me.
"Because I'm a competitive person, I also enjoyed that aspect."
Dancing began as a hobby for Kim after she immigrated to the U.S. from Korea in 1979, but then she fell hard for what she calls the "artistic sport," studying in New York with top American and British coaches. She met her ex-husband who would become her dance partner while in New York, and they competed professionally in the U.S. and Korea before opening their L.A. dance studio.
They wanted to attract a Korean clientele, but interest back then was low. "It was hard," says Kim, who had to take a second job to stay afloat. "[Korean] people were busy running businesses."
Around the mid-1990s, Kim noticed her business started to pick up and there was a growing interest among Koreans. Just in the last 10 years, she estimates the number of Korean ballroom dance instructors in Southern California has more than doubled from just a handful.
Most of her students — about half of whom are married couples and the rest singles — dance for fun, not competition.
She believes the aging of the immigrant generation has something to do with the growing number of Korean ballroom aficionados. Her clients tend to be more established financially, their children are grown, and they have more leisure time.
She thinks middle-aged Koreans have become more health conscious and consider ballroom dancing a good form of exercise.
In fact, many ballroom dance practitioners have lost weight from the activity, which is often perceived as a hobby but can be quite a rigorous sport. There have also been studies suggesting that older persons who practice ballroom dancing lower their risk of dementia because of the mental exercise of learning steps.
Since Peter and Anna Park started dancing two years ago, Peter has lost 20 pounds. The 55-year-old businessman and his 53-year-old realtor wife, who are intermediate-level dancers, practice at Susie Kim's Dancesports studio three times a week.
Anna thinks there has been a change in lifestyle with her middle-class, middle-aged peer group: Before, their lives were defined by work, work, work. "Now you can enjoy life more," she says.
Sean Chung, who teaches at the Westmor Dance Studios in Los Angeles with his wife Evelyn, says ballroom dancing has helped several of their students overcome health problems. "One man went from a 40 to a 34 waist," he says.
On a recent Monday, the Chungs are teaching rumba to mostly middle-aged Korean beginners in a small first-floor ballroom.
"You're doing well!" Sean, a lanky retired engineer, calls out to one student. "Miss Oh, it's easy, yes?"
Sean came to Los Angeles in 1966, Evelyn in 1959. They met at a church and considered dancing a fun hobby. As they got better at it, they competed as amateurs and began teaching Koreans international style ballroom at Westmor 10 years ago.
"We didn't know if there was interest," Sean recalls. "But 24 Koreans showed up (to the first class)."
"When Korean couples reach 50 and kids are grown, they often develop separate hobbies," Sean observes. "But ballroom dance is the only hobby or sport couples can do together."
Notably, Korean society historically frowned upon ballroom dancing, which was considered the kind of activity practiced by cheating housewives and their slick younger male partners in smoky cabarets. It was even once thought to be a threat to the family. When the younger generation picked up ballroom dancing abroad and reintroduced it in Korea in the late 1990s, DanceSport got a new lease on life and is now just as popular in Korea as it is worldwide.
How ironic that an activity once thought to be a threat to the institution of the family is now contributing to strengthening Korean marriages, according to several couples.
"Korean American couples over 50 don't touch or hold hands in public," says Sun Lee, a 55-year-old nurse. She and husband Michael are advanced students at Westmor. "But touching makes you close," she says. "Because we dance, twice a week we hug and hold hands."
Sokwang and Helen Cho have been dancing at the L.A. studio for 10 years.
"Dancing keeps you young," says Sokwang, 70. "We've made friends here, people we travel with on cruises."
Three nights a week, Julie and Andrew Paek, who live in suburban Fullerton and have two grown children, dine in Koreatown and then fox trot, swing and tango at Susie Kim's Dancesports studio afterwards. It's like having weekly dates.
Julie admits, though, she initially hesitated when her husband suggested they take up ballroom dancing. "I didn't want to [try it] because it had a negative image in Korea," says Julie. "But then I saw it's wholesome."
The Paeks, both engineers, are now advanced students and occasionally attend dance parties and balls, where they get to dress up in a tux and gown.
"We feel like a prince and princess," Julie says playfully.
There is more interest in ballroom dancing among Koreans than ever before, according to Heung Kim, who studied international ballroom in England and has been teaching dance in the U.S. for 22 years.
"Koreans are more established. They're thinking of life quality, their marriage and a hobby," says Kim, whose studio is in Orange County's Westminster. "Often the man is forced by his wife to join her for lessons. (But) then it becomes their hobby."
Because ballroom dance involves partnership, it encourages couples to work with and help each other, Kim says. He adds philsophically: "Dancing's like life."