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Native blooms

Published Feb. 22, 2006

In the old days, Korean girls were taught their place was behind the man.

To hide their giggles behind clasped hands.

To take small bites.

And that their worth was based on how well they upheld these standards.

But now, when Jae Min Kwak and her troupe of dancers take the floor, wearing blood-red gowns and rouged lips, it is about another side of the Korean woman's identity.

Perhaps nowhere else was the Korean woman of old allowed as much expression and praise as in cTypeface:Obliquehyangak jeongjae cTypeface:- authentic native dancing.

The group, which includes five dancers from throughout the Tampa Bay area, recently performed at Royal Palms Senior Residence in Largo. It will perform at this year's St. Petersburg International Folk Fair Society festival, which runs March 24 to 26 at Vinoy Park.

- NICOLE JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer

Kwak, who arrived in the United States in 1970 with hope and spotty English, taught herself the traditional Korean dance. Her biggest lesson in learning the moves: respect, says the 50-something Kwak, who lives in Palm Harbor and owns Orient Expressions Co., a furniture and collectibles store on U.S. 19. With an arch of her back, she delicately bends her knees to the ground. Her full red skirts balloon with the movement. Her chin falls to her chest revealing to onlookers the elaborate chignon at the nape of her neck. It is a bow befitting an elder.

With arms flailing side to side, Kwak and two dance partners look as if they are long-winged sparrows attempting to take flight. Actually, they are tired poor farmer women - or, at least, that is what their movements are meant to symbolize. They end the flailing and begin to step slowly. The right foot moves: heel, toe. And then the left. The three women do the staccato-style movement in unison, with a bounce at the end of each step. This is to symbolize lightness. The poor farm woman has found peace and happiness despite her hard life, explains Kwak. To rejoice, they drum. The booms from the wooden sticks hitting the leather drums reverberates commanding power through the room.

Behind brilliant pink and green flowered fans unfolds grace, poise and regalness. With each flick of the fan, a new design is formed. The three women move in unison, resembling a flower bush swaying in the wind. "It's a rhythm of happiness," Kwak says. The fans symbolize good luck and longevity. At the heart of all Korean dance is a quest for harmony and purpose. Each move, from the way the dancer steps forward, to how she tilts her head ever so slightly to the left, is calculated. Breathing is the most essential ingredient - dictating the tempo of the dance.