The Korean Sword Dance is one of the most treasured parts of the Korean folk dance traditions. Performed originally in the courts of royals, it is now enjoyed by audiences all over the world.
A Violent Legend Becomes Grace in Motion
The legend of Geommu (translated as Geom, sword, and mu, dance) comes from a violent and bloody tale from Korea's ancient past. According to the story, a boy named Hwangchang had incredible prowess for dancing with the sword, so much so that the king of a rival kingdom invited him to come and perform in his court. The boy ended up slaying the king, and was killed himself afterwards. His home kingdom honored him, however, by dancing with swords and masks in his honor.
This legendary dance may have been how the Korean sword dance started, but like most cultural art forms, it changed along with the country, most notably during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The dance was turned into a much more formalized group dance, primarily performed by females, and is now considered the Twelfth Important Intangible Cultural Property of South Korea.
The outfit worn by the women dancing Geommu is similar to other traditional Korean dances, with long, colorful robes (the "hanbok") fastened with a belt ("jeon-dai") and a militaristic hat. The costume is modeled after the soldier's uniform during the Joseon Dynasty, but the colors of the hanbok may vary depending on the region the dancers come from.
There is one main prop in the Korean sword dance, but it comes in pairs. The "kal" is a replica of a blade, only about a foot and a half long, kept dull to prevent injury to either the dancers or the audience. The polished steel glinting in the stage lights as the swords are manipulated by the dancers has thrilled audiences the world over. Many traveling Korean cultural performance groups such as the Seoul Performing Arts Company bring the Geommu to stages and festivals all year round.
Watching the Korean Sword Dance
If you can't find a traveling troupe in your area, YouTube has many examples of the Geommu. The dance is performed usually by six to eight female dancers, but there are variations, such as dancing along with percussionists (playing a buk, barrel drum, on the stage) or dancing in two groups with a soloist in the center.
Much like the Korean fan dance, the beauty of the movement comes from the layers of grace and movement creating rippling tableaus of color and flashing metal as the dancers move around the stage. This "changdan" cycle consists of three main formations:
- Ipchum-sawi: dancers standing face-to-face in two rows
- Anjeon-sawi: in the same formation as Ipchum-sawi the dancers kneel and continue to dance
- Yeonpungdae: Much like the fan dance, performers form a circle and rotate with their blades twirling in their hands.
Not all of the dance is done with swords in the hands of the dancers. Many sections of the dance have the blade resting on the stage. When it is picked up there are three rings loosely attached between the blade and the handle which add both glitter and more sound to the dance.
Preserving the Historic Arts
Since the origins of Geommu come from a period of war, it is no surprise that the dance itself has often been in danger of vanishing due to the many conflicts with China and Japan. In 1964 South Korea began designating several dances as being worthy of preservation, setting aside funding and support for teachers to continue the art. Geommu was the twelfth to join the list along with the Ganggang sullae and Pungmul, two other traditional Korean dance forms. Thanks to the efforts of the government and the dance teachers the choreography, costumes, and music have moved beyond its roots in Jinju, South Korea and spread throughout the world.