MoveTube: Gangnam Style and the changing face of South Korean hip-hop

Hip-hop artist Psy's song Gangnam Style has become a worldwide sensation. But in the dance world, South Korean hip-hop has been a serious force for years

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Who knew that South Korean dance would make international news? With the video of hip-hop artist Psy going viral on the web, the song has not only topped the music charts but along with its chirpily surreal dance routines, has inspired a slew of imitations, parodies and homages.

In Seoul itself, a recent festival showcased a whole gamut of different dance acts performing Gangnam Style. In New Zealand, ballet director Ethan Steifel and dancer-choreographer Johan Kobbog have just posted a home video of themselves improvising a mime scene from their new production of Giselle with Psy instead of Adolphe Adam playing in the background. And in the Philippines, a thousand prisoners have perfected their own homage to the video – apparently drilled by the authorities in Cebu jail, who have adopted the heartwarming policy of using dance as form of personal rehabilitation as well as physical fitness. (A policy that would have been much approved by dance theorist Rudolf Laban, who back in the early 20th century used to orchestrate mass, amateur movement choirs to promote the idea that a free and graceful body was the route to a free spirit.)

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As a cultural phenomenon, Gangnam Style is clearly in a bonkers league of its own. But in the dance world, South Korean hip-hop has been a serious force for years. The b-boying craze took root back in the 1990s, partly among disaffected teens and young men facing military conscription, but by 2002 the country was producing world-class crews like Visual Shock and the government was actively promoting the dance as a key element of South Korean life – sponsoring the nation's own annual, World Battle competition and highlighting the distinctively Korean flavour that some of the best of the dancers had introduced into the form.

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Psy's spin on hip-hop is candy-coloured, postmodern fantasy. But this solo dance from the Last for One crew works with more sophisticated layers of eclecticism. Its music is a hip-hop remix of Pachelbel's Canon, juxtaposing beat boxing and traditional Korean zither: and at moments like [1.17] the dancer it works with the music to build up a looping intensifying dynamic of movement, or to concentrate a quality of stillness [1.42] that's in fascinating tension with the more traditional hard energy of the b-boy vocabulary.

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More sophisticated still is this fragment of a piece by the super-crew Project Seoul which has the acrobatic spinning virtuosity of b-boy moves inflected with older rarefied traditions of Korean dance.

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The first minute is very slow and dark, a zen prologue of slow-evolving patterns. But the rest requires multiple viewings just to figure out what these fabulous dancers are doing. The choppy hip-hop footwork becomes something else [1.27-38], so light and fast it seems to float. The one-handed balances and head stands [2.58-3.08] have an equivalent quality of suspension. The dancers seem as if they have all the time in the world, and to be breathing a different air as they move. As for the one-handed spin at 2.48, even when I watch it frame by frame I can't see exactly how it's done.

This is hip-hop as both ballet and T'ai chi. But also as itself. Has there been any other form in the history of dance to have travelled so far and fast around the world, and to have absorbed so many different colours and styles en route?


Judith Mackrell

The GuardianTramp

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