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Heonseondo from Jeongjae, In Search of the Origins of Court Dance, a regular performance by the Korean National Gugak Center Dance Theater, 2004 © Korean National Gugak Center

Jeongjae Dances of the Korean Royal Court

One category of Korean royal court is jeongjae, which is performed at banquets. Etymologically, jeongjea is derived from two words, jeong meaning ‘to offer to a superior’ and jae meaning ‘talent in the arts’. Thus, jeongjae means to offer one’s talent in the arts to a superior, through music, song, and dance.

Fifty-three types of jeongjae were passed down to the late Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Of these, Geommu (Sword Dance) and Cheoyongmu have the longest histories, originating during the Silla Kingdom (57–935 CE). Geommu is based on the story of Hwang Changnang.1Hwang Changnang, a seven-year-old boy, was famous for his sword dance. Invited to perform the dance in front of the King of Baekje, the boy took the opportunity to assassinate the king. As a court dance of the late Joseon dynasty, it was performed by female dancers dressed in sleeveless vests and military hats, holding swords in both hands. It features an impressive move called yeonpungdae, which resembles a swallow spinning and creates gusts of wind. Cheoyongmu has origins in the Cheoyong legend.2According to legend, Cheoyong was the son of the East Sea Dragon King. After a pox spirit entered his wife’s bed, Cheoyong warded off the spirit with song and dance. It was performed from the early Joseon dynasty by five dancers, each dressed in one of the five cardinal colors of Korea (obang)—blue, red, yellow, black, and white, representing east, south, center, north, and west, respectively. The dancers also wear red masks adorned with peaches to ward off misfortune. Accompanied by “Cheoyong’ga” (“Cheoyong’s Song”), the performance expresses the warding off of evil and welcoming of fortuitous events.

Jeongjae is further classified into dang’ak jeongjae and hyang’ak jeongjae. Dang’ak jeongjae, which includes a variety of dances, was brought to Goryeo under King Munjong from the Song. Heonseondo , one of the dang’ak jeongjae dances, depicts the heavenly mother descending from the divine world at a party on the first full moon of the lunar New Year to present the king with a peach of immortality, borne once in a thousand years. Dang’ak jeongjae dances feature jukganja3A red wooden stick adorned with woven bamboo strands and crystal orbs on the top. It is used to give the dancers stage directions. bearers that guide the dancers at the beginning and end. Under King Taejo (1392–1398), a dance called Mong’geumcheok (Dream of the Golden Ruler) was created to legitimize the establishment of Joseon in the place of Goryeo. It is performed to a song about Taejo’s dream, in which he was presented with a golden ruler by a deity who wanted him to create a new dynasty.

Hyang’ak jeongjae dances originated in Goryeo. Mugo , a hyang’ak jeongjae dance, is performed around a drum that was originally made of driftwood found by Lee Hon in Yeonghae under King Chungryeol of Goryeo. The dance is mysterious, resembling two dragons fighting for the yeouiju orb or a pair of butterflies flitting about a flower.

Bongnae’ui was created under King Sejong of Joseon, performed to the song “Yongbi’eocheon’ga,” which compares the founders of Joseon to six dragons, praising their literary and military accomplishments. It also features jukganja and bong’wi’ui. Also notable are the Chun’aengjeon and Musanhyang, created by Crown Prince Hyomyeong under King Seonjo (1801–1834). A song with lyrics celebrating his mother’s fortieth birthday accompanies Chun’aengjeon, which depicts a nightingale singing on a willow starting to bloom in early spring. The dancer wears a hwangchosam with wide yellow sleeves to symbolize the nightingale, fitted with colorful osaek hansam on the ends of the sleeves. The head is adorned with a floral crown. It is an understated dance, performed on a six-foot flower-patterned mat (hwamunseok).

Royal banquets were classified as oe’yeon (external banquets) and naeyeon (internal banquets). The former were held for the king and attended by male officials and the crown prince while the latter were held for the queen, queen mother, and grandmother and attended by the crown princess and ladies of the court. As the palace had strict rules about the separation of the sexes, the jeongjae were performed by boy dancers at the oe’yeon, and by female dancers at the naeyeon. The music was sometimes performed by blind musicians.

Young Suk Kim (Artistic Director, The Society for Research of Jeongja)

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Notes   [ + ]

1. Hwang Changnang, a seven-year-old boy, was famous for his sword dance. Invited to perform the dance in front of the King of Baekje, the boy took the opportunity to assassinate the king.
2. According to legend, Cheoyong was the son of the East Sea Dragon King. After a pox spirit entered his wife’s bed, Cheoyong warded off the spirit with song and dance.
3. A red wooden stick adorned with woven bamboo strands and crystal orbs on the top. It is used to give the dancers stage directions.