Seungmu is a representative folk dance form of Korea which displays the essential characteristics of Korean traditional dance both in techniques and in aesthetics. The literal meaning of Seungmu , Buddhist monk's dance, indicates its religious origin.
Seungmu has been transmitted mainly around Gyeonggi-do and Jeonra-do provinces. Accordingly it used to be divided into Gyeonggi style and Jeonra style. The former has been developed with the contribution of Seongjun Han (1874-1941)who composed it into an highly artistic style in 1910's while the latter has been refined by Maebang Lee who is an honoured master still alive.
Seungmu is often said to reflect the essence of Korean dance in the point that it fully demonstrates the outstanding artistic standard and aesthetic values of Korean dance. There have been various opinions on its origin: that is, from an apostate monk's drum dance repenting his previous offense against Buddhist commandments, or from old Buddhist monk's dance included in Korean Mask Dance ( Talchum ), and so on. However, the most reasonable assumption is that it derived from Buddhist ritual dance performed by monks as a religious offering to Buddha. Seungmu seems to have been adopted as an effective means to propagate Buddhist doctrines to common people after Buddhism was prohibited to upper class in the middle of Choson Dynasty. Later, it came to be performed by professional dancers, which resulted in its rapid secularization and sophistication.
Seungmu is composed of 10 minor repertories within 20-30 minutes. The first one is Yeombul (a prayer to Buddha)characterized by solemn religions mood and slow, elegant movement patterns. The second one is Yeombul Dodri (fast Yeombul)in which the rhythms of music and dance get dynamic and fast. In the following Taryeong and Jazeun Taryeong (fast Taryeong), highly active, liberal movement patterns are displayed with rhythms accelerating. The fifth one is Gutgeori performed by highly elegant, smooth style, which is followed by Jazeun Gutgeori (fast Gutgeori). Next one is Neurin Gutgeori (slow Gutgeori)in which the performer takes his hands holding drum sticks out of long sleeves (jangsam). The eighth stage is Drum Beating getting faster up to the the ecstatic level and in the following Dangak, most intense movements and rhythms are used. The last one is again Neurin Gutgeori, in which slow, circular movements are performed to calm down the emotional excitement after drum beating is stopped.
Likewise, Seungmu is tightly composed to deliver the religious enlightenment of Buddhism to spectators. And its techniques comprehend the basic elements of Korean traditional dance. Most of all, the delicate unison of dynamics and stillness shows the aesthetic essence of Korean dance. Seungmu is now designated as Important Intangible Cultural Treasure No. 27.
Society for Preservation of Seungmu
Ms. Young-Il Heo
Professor, Department of Dance
Korean National University of Arts,
Korean National Institute of Cultural Properties