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Farmer's Dance: A Korean Tradition

A performance of the "Farmers Dance" at Korean Folk Village.

A performance of the "Farmers Dance" at Korean Folk Village.

The Farmer's Dance, or nongak (pronounced NOHNG-ock), is one of the oldest dance forms in Korea. Originating in the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C.E. - 668 C.E.), the Farmer's Dance was traditionally performed during planting, harvesting, and other agricultural events. Early records mention Korean farmers working to the beat of percussion instruments. Until recently, the dance was performed in the rural areas, in particular during the planting and harvesting, to give encouragement to the farmers and to provide them with a beat to work by. It was also often performed as a part of shamanistic rituals to protect houses from thieves and fire, to purify the village, and to give thanks to the river or mountain spirits.

lthough the different regions of Korea have their own variations of the Farmer's Dance, two major styles stand out: one is from the eastern and southeastern area and the other from the southwestern region. The former is characterized by its fast-paced music and the acrobatic movements of the dancers, with the most exciting feature being the dancers who twirl long, white paper streamers attached to their hats to the music. The latter style of the dance is slower and less acrobatic. In place of twirling hats with streamers, the dancers wear conical hats topped with big, colorful paper flowers. As the dancers move, these flowers bob and turn with every movement of their heads.

The dancers wear white costumes with colorful vests and sashes. Some carry banners that read "Fanning is the foundation of society," while others sing and dance to the sounds of various percussion instruments that include small and large gongs, double-headed hourglass and basic barrel drums, and sometimes conical flutes. It is the player of the small gong, or kkwaenggwari (pronounced GANG-ga-ree), who sets the beat and leads the dance.

Today the Farmer's Dance is seen mostly at special festivals and folk art competitions but can also be observed from time to time on village holidays and at major village events in rural areas. When it is performed now, the two major styles of the dance are often combined.