By Carolyn Bick
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Da-Hyang Kwon was just 12 years old when she discovered what she wanted to do with her life.
“She went to the theatre with her friend to see this traditional performance, and she became really interested in it,” Kwon’s daughter Hye Jing Yang said, translating for her mother. “She decided to go into traditional music and dance. But her parents were really opposed to it.”
They were so opposed, Yang said, that every time Kwon’s father saw her, he would spank her in an effort to dissuade her from a path considered scandalous and low-class. But Kwon was stubborn. At 20 years old, Kwon moved out of her parents’ home to South Korea’s capital city of Seoul to find the famous dance instructor Lee Eun Kwan, designated as South Korea’s National Treasure Number 29.
“She doesn’t know why she loves it so much, but she gave up everything to follow that path,” Yang said.
Within a year, Kwon became one of his top students. Kwon’s teacher said her name was fitting: ‘Da-Hyang’ means ‘variety,’ and she could do everything — dance, sing, and play instruments.
That was in 1968. Today, the 70-year-old Kwon teaches 15 students traditional Korean performing arts at Gook Ak HanMaDang in Tacoma, Wash. Of those, 12 are singers, and three are instrumentalists. Though she doesn’t exclusively teach any of them dance, she does teach dance as a complement to singing.
Kwon has had a long and storied career as a traditional performance artist. Not only did she accompany her teacher and another student around the globe, performing in places like Osaka, New York, and Los Angeles, she also recorded musical albums with him. In 1968, and then again in 1969, she traveled to Vietnam to provide relief for the Korean soldiers on the frontlines of the Vietnam War.
Even though Kwon’s husband was supportive of her career path, Yang said her mother almost gave up her career after Yang and her brother were born. Between raising children and keeping a household, performance took a backseat, and Kwon didn’t perform for several years, while Yang and her brother were growing up. But her heart constantly ached for the stage, and, after a few years, she got back into it.
“She said it was her destiny to follow this path,” Yang said, translating her mother’s firm, confident response.
Though Yang and her brother had been living in the United States since they were in middle school, Kwon and her husband didn’t move to the United States until 2008. Kwon isn’t sorry she did, because it allowed her to be closer to her family. Still, she kept in touch with her teacher, Lee Eun Kwan, who had bestowed the title of National Treasure on her in 2000, in recognition of her mastery in the field. In 2013, the year before her teacher passed away, Kwon invited Lee to perform with her students. Given their history, Yang said her mother was touched that he gave his last performance with her and her students.
Though she had larger classes in South Korea, Yang said, her mother is still excited to be able to pass on traditional Korean performance arts to young Asian Americans.
“They are eager to learn from her, and follow her instructions, and she feels really happy. She feels really confident in her area, and it makes her really proud,” Yang said. “She really loves what she is doing. … She did it for over 50 years, and she is so happy that she fell in love with it.”
Kwon will be honored at the Top Contributors award dinner on Dec. 7 at House of Hong Restaurant in Seattle, from 6–9 p.m.
Caroly can be reached at email@example.com.