Korean dance master Kong passes away at 80
By Rachel Lee
Kong Ok-jin, known for her Korean folk dance called the “cripple's dance” passed away at a hospital in South Jeolla Province on Monday at the age of 80.
Kong had a long history of ill health and suffered a first stroke in 1998, needing continued hospital treatment afterwards, but her passion for dance never dimmed. Even after the left side of her body was paralyzed when she collapsed following another stroke during a performance in 2004, she carried on working. Her persistent efforts to recover were shown in her last performance “Korean Master Dance Series” at the National Theater of Korea in October, 2010. In what turned out to be her final show, she performed “Salpuri,” a soul-purifying dance and the cripple's dance.
Born in 1931, her father was legendary “pansori” singer Kong Dae-il (1910-1990), and she started to learn Korean folk songs from him when young. Her father was the first human cultural asset designated by the South Jeolla provincial government. He reportedly sold his daughter to the late dancer Choi Seung-hee (1911-1967) to work as her maid in Japan.
Choi, who was friend of Kong’s father, taught her how to dance and sold her again to another person in Japan. When Kong Ok-jin returned home after five years, her father began teaching her “pansori” in earnest to make up for her lost time in Japan. Her artistic talent was recognized when she won first prize in a local singing competition in 1949.
The dancer is said to have made massive contributions to the culture of traditional dance in Korea throughout her life.
Audiences often found her movements comical yet sorrowful at the same time in her cripple's dance, to which she added individuality and humor. This was due to feelings of grief stemming from “han,” or the Korean sentiment of sorrow, denoting collective feeling of oppression and isolation. Although Kong’s petite figure in white costumes made her appear frail, her power was tremendous.
But most importantly, the dance touched many of the audience due to not only the fact that her brother and niece were physically handicapped but also she had an instinctive closeness with that group of people.
The legendary dancer also showed a creative one-person song and dance drama, a new genre based on well-known traditional Korean folk stories such as “Simcheong-jeon,” or the tale of Simcheong.
Before her one-person song and dance drama was registered as an intangible cultural asset of South Jeolla Province, she received sharp criticism from some mainstream traditional artists for not following the conventional style.
Kong was the first Asian dancer to give a solo performance at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York and took the stage in other countries including the United Kingdom and Japan, gaining international acclaim.
She is survived by her 63-year-old daughter Kim Eun-hee and granddaughter Kim Hyeong-jin. She is also the great-aunt of K-pop group 2NE1’s Kong Min-ji.