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Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Inscribed Korean Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity
Ganggangsullae


Women’s Circle Dance
Ganggangsullae Enjoyed under the Full Moon

The full moon rises 12 times in a year. The moon is largest at the first full moon in the lunar New Year (daeboreum) and the harvest moon that rises in the eighth lunar month during the Korean thanksgiving holidays (hangawi, or chuseok). On these moonlit nights many find it impossible to stay indoors. “Kwaeng-geurang kwaeng kwaeng kwae kwaeng kwaeng kwaeng dudu dida dudu diung!
It is only on this day that regardless of class or social status, men and women of all ages can all enjoy the day as a single group. Villagers enjoy the holiday that starts on the lunar New Year’s Day, going around to each house playing music. . .” (from the novel Spirit Fire (Honbul) by Choe Myeong-hui). On this day, men play the farmers’ band music to increase the festive mood, and women hold hands and skip together in a traditional circle dance (ganggangsullae). Under the bright full moon the women taste the feeling of freedom and pray for a bountiful harvest in the year ahead or celebrate the joy of the harvest. The circle dance, which combines song and dance, is Korea’s representative pastime for women in a group.

The moon is rising, the moon is rising,
ganggangsullae, ganggangsullae.
The moon is rising from the east sea,
outside the east window, ganggangsullae.
Whose moon is it? Ganggangsullae.
It is the petty official Kang’s moon, ganggangsullae.
Where has Kang gone, ganggangsullae.
Not knowing that the moon has risen?
Ganggangsullae, ganggangsullae.

Keeping in step with the cheerful and repetitive melody, a woman with a good voice sings the first part of each line, leading the chorus, and the other women respond with the refrain, “ganggangsullae.” As the full moon starts to rise, they hold hands and begin to move to the right as if they are drawing a circle on the ground and slowly accentuating their actions with a variety of patterned movement with such descriptive titles as “play, tortoise,” “breaking off the fern,” “rolling and unrolling the straw mat,” “tying and untying the string of herrings,” and “treading on roof tiles.” In addition, they can improvise and change the song lyrics as they sing aloud, allowing their words to give full vent to the joys and sorrows of the women.

The first part of the dance is slow, but the rhythm becomes faster as it progresses to the latter part; as the dancers gradually become more excited, their movements change briskly and dynamically. Sometimes, dancers experience a moment of complete abandonment to such an extent that one dancer stated, “When the dance reaches a climax, even the thought of my husband or my children vanishes from my mind completely. Only my body lost in ecstasy exists!” Indeed, there is a hypnotizing quality to the circle dance, so that it is not uncommon for participants to end up spending the entire night performing the dance.

The ganggangsullae circle dance is prevalent in the southern Jeolla province, especially in places like Haenam, Muan, Gangjin, Boseong, and Goheung, and the offshore islands of Jindo and Wando. There is a theory that Admiral Yi Sun-shin invented the dance during the Japanese Invasions of 1592-1598, but there are also many competing theories on the dance’s origins. Theories on the origin of the name of the dance itself are also numerous. What is clear, however, is that in days when there were few games for women, the circle dance served as a favorite pastime for women. Made up of simple movements accompanied by a song with an easy melody, the dance could be quickly learned so that anyone could participate. In addition, it was a game that bonded the women who participated into a community consciousness. While many women held hands in a circle and responded to the singing, the exhilarating melodies played with the traditional Korean instruments added fervor to the dance.