Michael Reinschmidt (University of Arizona)
Following Korea’s 1992 presidential election, the first free election in 30 years, salsa dance came to Korea on the soles of a few enthusiasts returning from overseas. Without the help of a Latin American Diaspora introducing the dance, as has been the case in other countries, salsa seemed dead on arrival and was never thought to make it out of Seoul. With all eyes on “big pop Hallyu,” however, cool salsa clandestinely and captivatingly spread to other cities and provinces serving the “special young-and-restless” to evolve into a formidable presence.
This ethnography (conducted between 2006 and 2010) reflects on aspiring dancers’ desires to meaningfully distinguish themselves (empowered by 1980s Minjung Undong still inspiring and enabling dancers’ agendas of defiance). Mainstream popular as well as traditional culture often requires aspiring dancers’ courage to cross norms of gender, hierarchy, and even religion. Salsa’s welcome followed the arrival of a powerful “thrill” that never existed in Korea: a couple dance with multiple partner interchangeability based on captivating rhythmic-musical forms. Resting on a solid foundation of desirable qualities, salsa allows practitioners a lifestyle identification that sports local Korean as well as global-cosmopolitan, secular, virtual, and physical modernities.
But the sociocultural dichotomies visible in the scene couldn’t be starker. Without the help of a Latin carrying community Koreans are organizing this Caribbean dance into a viable local variety. Bare of Latin instruction, teaching and learning salsa has been defaulted upon education traits that make no efforts to hide their traces of Confucian influence. Despite this habitual reliance on a well-known system on one hand, on the other salsa eminently functions as a new icon of successful transgression for young women and men to stand out from within a largely Confucian-based, albeit modern society that is still inundated with hierarchy, filial piety, and often unquestioned obedience.