A roving reporter’s account of yesterday’s Trafalgar Square Dano festivities
by Jennifer Barclay
with photos mostly by Jeon Sung-min (photo of the b-boys by Katie)
It was a grey day on Sunday 17 June; but I donned a slightly sparkling T-shirt and set out for Trafalgar Square for the first ‘Korea, Sparkling’ Dano festival to be held there. ‘Korea, Sparkling’ is the new brand to lure foreigners to Korea. Dano? A traditional Korean summer festival, where people from neighbouring villages came together to have fun and celebrate the spirit of community. It would be just as likely to rain in Korea too, but warmer. The dark clouds looked like they might just hold off. And the cute little kids waving flags provided enough sunshine.
By two o’clock my mouth was burning nicely from eating delicious rice cakes in spicy, gloopy red sauce (comfort food, the Korean equivalent of baked beans) and my ears were assaulted by tinny pop music accompanying a taekwondo-inspired dance routine that no-one could see properly. Then the hosts on stage were teaching us all to shout ‘An-nyeong-haseyo!‘ The steps in front of the National Gallery were full of people, and the square was getting busier. It was already hard to get to the food stalls and the tourism stand where with flags and information they gave out questionnaires (‘When you think of travelling to Korea, what comes to mind?’). It seemed a successful day so far, I said to one of the girls handing out programmes. She smiled nervously. ‘I hope so! Thank you for coming!’
I giggled at first when the hip-hop dancers or B-boys started their breakdancing routine on stage. How did hard-working, obedient Korean kids get into breakdancing? Though they wore their baggy clothes and pulled-down hats convincingly. ‘Rivers’, the team of five from Seoul, were pitting their manoeuvres against Irish champs Bad Taste Cru. At first to my ignorant eyes it all seemed a lot of falling down and squirming crab-like on the floor, but then the acrobatic stuff started. When a young man balanced upside down on one single hand and then effortlessly flipped to the other hand and his t-shirt slipped down revealing a torso of pure rippling muscle, I realised how this stuff could catch on. Oops, someone somersaulted off the stage by mistake. But nobody hurt.
I’m a big fan of samulnori and the foursome up next with two drums and two gongs showed amazing stamina as they keep perfect timing, unfaltering, through crescendo, ebbing away then building again. It got my hips moving. They smiled throughout, making it seem easy as their hands just kept going and going.
An older British man in deep green uniform and beret was the most colourful, medal-bedecked of the veterans wandering around, so I had to talk to him. He’d been marching earlier to lay wreaths at the cenotaph for the Queen’s official birthday, and decided to see the Korean festival. He served with the Royal Ulster Rifles in the Korean War and showed me old photos. ‘We arrived in Korea in October 1950, and advanced as far as Pyongyang before the Chinese came over the border.’ They had ‘an engagement’ with the Chinese and were ambushed the following night; 208 killed, wounded or taken prisoner, including his friend. That winter the wind-chill made the temperature feel like 40 below — not so easy for digging slit trenches, and it took a while for their winter gear to arrive. A lovely old man, and hard to believe he was 83, Korean youthfulness must have rubbed off on him. I asked what he thought of the entertainment. He smiled, ‘They do a lot of that drumming, don’t they?’ It always throws him off when he’s marching at the annual Kingston event. We shook hands and said kamsahamnida.
It being Father’s Day, the hosts on stage taught London to say Ap-pa, ssarang-hae! (Daddy, I love you.) I noticed a lot of English-looking men with Korean wives, mixed kids. I also noticed a happy multicultural mix: African ladies in bright print dresses, Muslim ladies covered up, Indian families, Eastern European accents. I asked a couple of English girls what brought them here. ‘A Thai friend told me about it, she knows I’m into martial arts, but I missed that bit.’ What else had they enjoyed? ‘I like the dancing, the music. I tried some noodles, they’re nice.’
We watched an entertaining lion mask dance, two people in each lion costume shaking its white tassels to the drumming, and a funny masked lion tamer. Then hundreds of cameras were raised in the air to capture the very slow, formal and beautiful fan dance. When all the women span round, their pink silk dresses billowed out, flowing like water.
Who’d have thought I’d watch two breakdancing contests in one day? But again it was mesmerising, exhilarating, and after gorging on chap-chae noodles and pa-jeon pancake it was galling to watch these boys looking light as a feather, balancing their whole bodies on one hand, somersaulting in the air, then spinning on an elbow. When it ended, I said hello to a group of young people who looked like they were from London. I asked a black guy from Hackney what he thought of the breakdancing. ‘Be honest!’ his mate said, grinning. It turned out I’d found quite an expert, as Shane had seen his heroes, Extreme Crew, in Seoul, and they were hard to beat. What was a Hackney boy doing in Seoul? ‘It was for the world tournament of an arcade game based on dancing, Pump It Up NX. It’s a worldwide thing. I’ve been playing for many, many years.’ He was 22, had been playing for seven. So, who did he think had won the contest today? ‘Rivers,’ he said, without having to think about it. ‘They were more cleaner, impactful, more fresh, they had more variety. Their team moves were more cleaner.’
There was more from the samulnori; only this time they were also dancing, with those long white ribbons attached to the drummer’s hat, so he can make fast-swooping patterns in the air as he drums faster and faster. The leader did something that looked suspiciously like break-dancing. It was at the end of the final parade of all the performers that Korean Wave met Korean traditional. As the samulnori drums beat away, each of the Rivers B-boys came into the ring solo and showed moves that dazzled the crowd. When everyone had taken their final bows and the last kamsahamnida had been shouted, there was no doubt who the absolute stars of the show were. Rivers posed like a boy band in hooded tops, first with their backs to the crowd and then turning around to smile at their camera-toting fans.
I never found any of the ‘iris hair treatments’ or ssirum wrestling traditionally part of Dano, or the Dano fan-making that the literature had seemed to promise. Perhaps I was just too distracted by everything else. But the point of ‘Korea, Sparkling’ is to show emotional dynamism, vitality, enthusiasm and openness to diversity. Korea sparkled for Dano in London, and London sparkled back.
- More pictures can be found here