Stepping into Korea Identity lessons: Dance instructor Soon Hee Ahn helps her students express themselves in their ancestral culture.

April 01, 1996|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,SPECIAL TO THE SUN Sun staff writer Alisa Samuels contributed to this article.

The children in Soon Hee Ahn's classes learn about Korean culture in a form that dates back centuries: the rhythmic drums, swishing fans and colorful costumes of traditional Korean dance.

"I want the children to understand their Korean culture and to learn to express themselves," said Mrs. Ahn, 44, a professional dancer and dance instructor with a studio at her Ellicott City home.

Pointing to her heart, she added, "First, they have to listen here before they can dance."

It is a lesson that resonates with her 6- to 16-year-old students -- all of them of Korean heritage -- and with their parents.

"Whenever I get the chance to give my children exposure [to the Korean culture], I do," said Marcy Gitt, an Ellicott City resident with two Korean children, one of whom is a member of the class. "I think it's a neat way to integrate my daughter into the culture."

And Mrs. Ahn -- who has been dancing since she was a girl in Korea and has taught dance in the United States for 16 years -- hopes the study of traditional Korean dance will help students develop a crucial sense of cultural identity.

"When my daughter was in kindergarten she said she wished she had blue eyes and blond hair," recalled Mrs. Ahn. "From that point, I started teaching her about the Korean culture. Now, at 17, she's proud of her heritage."

Mrs. Ahn's contribution to cultural education comes at a time of increasing prominence for the local Korean population.

In the 1990 census, Howard County was home to 2,369 people of Korean descent, or 1.3 percent of the county's overall population. That population is growing, although there are no firm figures, said Pat Hatch, director of advocacy and community education for the Foreign-born Information and Referral Network Inc. in Columbia.

"I think that Koreans who work both in Baltimore and Washington tend to see Howard County as a safe place and a good place where their kids can get a good education," Ms. Hatch said.

At Mrs. Ahn's studio, students in the two-hour Saturday class -- TC all girls -- don brightly colored Korean garments called chukoris (tops) and chimaas (skirts).

On a recent Saturday, students lined up in stocking feet, ready to dance on the shiny hardwood floors in Mrs. Ahn's basement, surrounded by mirrored walls.

"We will learn the 'puchaechum,' " said Mrs. Ahn, using the Korean name for "fan dance."

Each student was given two fans, one for each hand. After a demonstration that involved opening and closing the fans with a flick of the wrist, the teacher demonstrated how to create the illusion of flowers and peacocks by using the fans with various movements.

Between teaching body movements, Mrs. Ahn talks about the origin of various dances and customs; she also includes lessons on how to pound the puk and changgo (drums).

It is an instructional program that Mrs. Ahn has been refining since she arrived in the United States 16 years ago from Seoul, South Korea.

An accomplished dancer, she was assistant director for two years for the Washington Korean Dance Company, in Falls Church, Va. She performed at President Clinton's inauguration festivities, has danced at the Kennedy Center in Washington, Lincoln Center in New York, and at festivals and colleges.

She also has studied other forms of dance, including ballet at the Peabody Institute and jazz at Coppin State College.

"I am still learning," said Mrs. Ahn who has been dancing since she was 12. "I was late getting started. My best friend had danced at a school festival, and she looked so beautiful. I started the next day and practiced daily, stretching my limbs."

In addition to teaching in her dance studio, Mrs. Ahn taught dance for 12 years at the Baltimore Korean School, now in Columbia, and is teaching Korean dance for the third year at Bethel Korean School in Ellicott City.

"I have all Korean children in my classes," said Mrs. Ahn.

In many cases, she said, "the parents are very used to the folk dances because they understand and therefore accept it very easily."

During the recent two-hour lesson, students also learned the Korean names for costumes such as "tangeue" -- a long top garment that shields the hands and was once worn by Korean queens and princesses.

A bonus for the students was dressing in garments as they learned Korean tradition and history.

Future lessons will be divided between learning the basics of folk dances and playing the puk and changgo drums that are strapped to the body and pounded during the "drum dance."

In deep concentration were Joann Kim, 10, and Julie Kim, 7 (not related), fifth- and second-grade students, respectively, at Waverly Elementary School in Ellicott City.

"I like dancing, but it's hard," Joann said.

"The fans are my favorite," Julie said.

Pub Date: 4/01/96

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