Soo Ryon Yoon - CEAS Postdoctoral Associate & Lecturer in East Asian Languages & Literatures
This talk explores the circulation of West African dance in contemporary Seoul through dance classes and festivals, and the perspectives of Korean individuals, particularly women, practicing West African dance on the corporeal and affective qualities of blackness and Koreanness. Based on an ethnographic case study on Guinean Dance Class at the Salim Health Co-op, a feminist and community-oriented organization, I show how the West African dance practice is mobilized as a “liberating” experience for the female dancing body that has been traditionally seen as lewd and suspicious throughout the modern history of Korea. Individual students and practitioners of West African performances express through their work, a sense of pleasure and freedom, yet their perceptions of blackness often hinge on the monolithic understanding of the “energetic” black dancing body, often reinforcing racial essentialism. Learning West African dance becomes an ambivalent act, that at times becomes a vehicle for confirming one’s imagined ideas about Africa and blackness, and at other times functions as an opportunity for the Korean individuals to critique the society in which the female dancing body itself has been subject to social control.
Soo Ryon Yoon (Ph.D. in Performance Studies, Northwestern University) works on transnational circulation of modern and contemporary performance, political economy, and embodied practices at the intersection of race and gender in East Asia. Her dissertation Dancing Africa, (Un)Doing Koreanness: Circulation of African Culture in Contemporary South Korea is a part ethnographic, part archival investigation into the relationship between political economy, racial politics, and three modalities of “African dance” performances – concert dance, dance at a museum, and folk dance in a dance class – in contemporary South Korea. This book-length project shows how Korean spectators, performance makers, curators, and public administrators practicing the dances and viewing the racially marked dancing bodies experience fluctuations in their own ideas and practices of Koreanness vis-à-vis the imagined qualities of Africanness. Ultimately, this project calls our attention to the role of performance as the very site in which racial and national consciousness is developed or troubled. Soo Ryon’s doctoral research has been supported by the Fulbright Program and the Buffett Institute Dissertation Research Award. While at Yale, she will be developing Dancing Africa, (Un)Doing Koreanness into a book manuscript and teaching an undergraduate seminar, “Race, Gender, and Performance in East Asia.” In addition to her academic work, Soo Ryon works as a freelance translator. She recently completed co-translation of a forthcoming book on yeoseong gukgeuk (Seoul: Forum A).