Life on a rope
By Yun Suh-young
Life is like a tightrope walk.
You start off slowly, carefully climbing up onto the rope and when you are finally able to stand, it’s all about keeping your balance and not falling off while continuously moving forward.
When you finally reach the end, you ideally come down as carefully as you first began. But if you jump off or fall off in the middle, that’s it. There’s no second act.
So, life is like a tightrope walk. But for tightrope walkers, they put their lives literally on the rope.
Walking on the rope
What does it feel like to actually stand on a single taut line?
“On the rope, you feel all the different kinds of human emotions that you experience in life,” says Seo Joo-hyang, one of only two female tightrope dancers in the nation.
“There’s joy, anger, sorrow, and pleasure. You feel everything on the rope. But mostly when I’m on the rope, all I think about is how to not fall off it.”
The 20-year-old seemed to be learning much about life while out on the rope. Tightrope dancers called “eoreumsani” walk, jump, do tricks, and make jokes on a line suspended three meters above the ground.
Eoreum (tightrope dancing) is a phonetic spelling of “ice” in Korean. It was so named because walking on the rope was just as hard and dangerous as walking on ice.
The training process is just as hard.
Seo trains for at least three hours every day, even on the weekends. During the early years of her training, she stretched for two hours, practiced on the rope for two more and climbed mountains in her remaining time. Except for when she ate, her day was filled with training.
“I would do 20 to 40 rounds around the hill near our training center in squat jumps. When I was in high school, I didn’t have time to hang around with friends because I always had to come to train right after school ended,” said Seo.
There were times when she felt like giving up.
“Of course there were times that I didn’t feel like doing this. I didn’t have autonomy. My daily life was limited to tightrope walking and I would go home at around 10 or 11 at night after practicing. So I couldn’t meet friends or do what I wanted. I felt like giving up every three years,” she said.
“I overcame that period by taking a rest. I would sometimes disappear without contacting my teacher. After some time, I would feel like coming back again. That’s how I continued until now.”
Seo began tightrope walking 13 years ago but she still doesn’t see herself as a professional.
“The real pros have done it for over 30 years. I think I will need at least 20 years of experience to consider myself in that category. I’m still an amateur. I think like a pro, I have the spirit, but I don’t consider myself one yet. I don’t want to be too proud of myself at the moment,” said Seo.
Seo is a member of the Anseong Namsadang Baudeogi Pungmuldan which is the troupe that performs Korean traditional percussion music and tightrope dancing.
Namsadang is the nation’s first public entertainment group established during the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910). Baudeogi was the name of the woman who led it. She was also the first and only woman ever to lead the troupe. She became famous for entertaining laborers at the reconstruction site of the Gyeongbok Palace in 1865. She received a headband made of jade from the government as a token of gratitude for her contribution to the successful reconstruction of the building.
Because Baudeogi’s Namsadang troupe was formed in Anseong, the “pungmuldan,” or the troupe that performs traditional percussion music, was named Anseong Namsadang Baudeogi Pungmuldan. The troupe continues to stage traditional performances.
“I don’t think this can ever become a popular activity because it’s not something that people can access easily,” said Seo.
“It’s also not a performance that appeals to the broader public. At the moment our audience pool consists of families and people from the older generation. Only when the younger generation is included in the pool can we say that the performance is ‘popular,’” she said.
“I think it’s my job to attract more young people to the performance. I don’t exactly know how at the moment, though,” she added.
But she paid little heed to the idea of infusing popular music such as K-pop into her performances.
“I think it’s important to keep the tradition alive. We do try new things like performing on the rope with music from “Swan Lake.” But I don’t think it’s a good idea to dance to K-pop. It would water down the tradition.”
The Namsadang troupe performs regularly at the Anseong Namsadang Theater located in Gyeonggi Province every weekend. Their performance, which started in March, will continue through Nov. 25. On Saturdays, the daytime performance begins at 2 p.m. for an hour, and the nighttime performance runs from 6 p.m. through 7:30 p.m. On Sundays, performances run from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.
The pungmuldan performs six main acts during the show: pungmul (Korean traditional drumming), eoreum (tightrope dancing), salpan (acrobatics), deotboegi (mask performance), beona (spinning dishes) and deolmi (puppet show).
For more information, visit www.namsadangnori.org or call 031-678-2518.