Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Yeowonhwa dance © National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage, ROK/M.Kye

Yeowonmu, Women’s Circle Dance in Korea

The circle dance, where people dance in a rotating formation, has appeared in many cultures since ancient times. The form and structure of the circle dance reflect the aesthetic concepts of mysteriousness, the incessant generation of filling and emptying, eternal return, unity, and defense. While there are various kinds of circle dance forms in Korea, the grandest one, with more than 250 dancers, is the yeowonmu.

Performed during the Dano festival on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, yeowonmu is a dramatic representation of the historical episode of General Han defeating Japanese invaders. In the dance, a diverse and dramatic cast of characters made up of male and female dancers who appear in splendid costumes. Particularly dazzling is the ornate flower headgear, which, at three-meters high, is as immense as it is colorful. Because of its great size, the headgear must be placed on the dancers’ shoulders instead of their head.

The earliest record on yeowonmu is found in a poem composed in 1593 by Munbyung Choi, a Confucian scholar and leader of loyal troops; he wrote, ‘Yeowonmu at the Dano festival will be shining forever while the General is fighting in confidence’, honoring the fidelity of General Han. This suggests that yeowonmu was already popular as early as the sixteenth century. Moreover, a prayer composed in 1765 by Governor Chungeon Jung of Jain county says, ‘There remains a dance called yeowon in the country… every year a ritual is done at the time of Dano,’ which is evidence of yeowonmu transmission into the eighteenth century. According to these records and others, yeowonmu has been performed as a sacrificial offering to appease General Han and his sister as guardian deities of the village as well as to repose the spirits of the deceased Japanese invaders. This conciliation comes through the circle dance when the performers put on the flower headgear and center around two yeowons.

On the day prior to the Dano festival, shamans and priests honor General Han by performing a ritual to invoke his spirit. Accompanied by music, the shamans and priests visit shrines to worship the General in a shamanic and a Confucian ritual. Before yeowonmu starts, several boy dancers, aged thirteen and fourteen who belong to the shaman family, put on traditional female costumes (long red skirts and green short jackets), and they hold a thirty-centimeter string in each hand. They proceed from the side of yeowonhwa, female dancers who wear the flower headgear, to the center of the circle and then return. This act is followed by the dance of two male shamans disguised as females with flower headgear. Around them, a circle dance is performed by thirty to forty dancers, including two boy dancers, two military servants, one to two military commanders, and twenty to thirty military officers.

The dance is accompanied by the dynamic music of a cylindrical drum (buk) and a small gong (gguengguari). The musicians begin a circular formation, and then they are followed by the straight formation of the shamanic musicians, who play an hour-glass-shaped drum (janggu) and a large transverse bamboo flute (daegeum). The two yeowonhwas, performed by two male shamans to represent large flower trees, are the central elements of yeowonmu. As such, the whole scene of yeowonmu revolves around the two flower trees in the circle while inviting spectators to dance together, thus creating a symbol of the unity and harmony of the community.

Circle dances have been performed since ancient times to secure affluence, perfection, safety, harmony, peace, and so on. In this respect, the circle dance reflects the most substantial wishes of humanity from a cosmological point of view influenced by the circular motif of the sun, moon, and the sky. Through the circle dance, the human body and its movement are sublimated into the cosmological realm, and the yeowonmu is a majestic Korean version of this traditional form.