Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about. This week, Dale H. (UK), asks:
Did you ever practice for mass dance events like Arirang? How are the participants chosen, how intensive is their training and what does it mean to them and their families?
In North Korea, the enthusiasm to participate in mass gymnastic and dancing groups was so high that those who did not participate were considered weird. As such, most North Koreans have experience participating in these kind of group displays. I remember doing gymnastics each year, probably from third grade in elementary school until I graduated, and it was something that most students I knew always trained hard for.
Each year our group would plan new gymnastic performances that would later be performed on each national anniversary day of the year. Though foreigners are probably quite familiar with the huge scope of events like the Arirang Mass Games, my small hometown didn’t have the capabilities to assemble groups of that size, so our gymnastic group did much smaller shows when ever we performed during the holidays.
To perform in a gymnastic group, you first needed to learn how to do various basic movements that are essential to gymnastics. In addition, you had to learn how to use various tools essential to the mass performances such as sticks, ribbons, and hula-hoops. In order to do that, you had to practice at least 2 to 3 hours every day, after each daily class, for at least two to three months before performance. It was hard work, so with performance dates approaching, sometimes students would skip classes so they could focus more on practicing.
The training approach used by gymnastic groups in North Korea differs depending on the school you are in. In my school we first divided the performers by team and within each team those who had the best leadership skills and athletic talents were selected first to get training. Once they got past their own training, they would educate the other students within their particular team. Because this was a group exercise in which one person’s mistake and absence was not allowed, I remember we all worked very hard during practice sessions.
Our athletic teacher was generally a funny and warm person, but he always became a very strict man during the training sessions. We tirelessly practiced the same movements over and over under his lead and I still remember how he would punish those who made even the slightest mistake during training. Since he punished the entire team for even just person’s mistake, we diligently repeated the training avoid punishment. It all paid off though, for after months of hard work we are able to perform at the holiday event without as much as a single mistake.
The training practices were always done at the school’s outdoor field and even when the weather got cold, this training was done outside. As someone who had weak health conditions, I always caught a cold during the winter gymnastic training sessions . However, because I thought we needed to train even if I was sick, I diligently took my medicine and participated regardless. Because the training sessions would continue for months, at the end of each gymnastic performance I lost a lot of weight. Sometimes there was soy milk or cracker snacks during break though, and I always remember that after training the taste was simply heaven!
When practicing all of the products we needed for the main show had to be bought at our own individual expense. So our families were always buying all of the ribbons, sticks, and outfits needed for the show. Since similar outfits were worn each year, fortunately we could often wear hand-me-down clothes from earlier classes. In other cases, some schools had students make payments to the school so that the school could order tailored outfits as a group. Parents complained frequently each time they paid, saying that they thought it was a waste to purchase an outfit that one wore only once or twice a year.
On the performance day, we wore our pretty outfits and did our best to not make a mistake when performing the moves that we had diligently learnt over the past few months. In big cities like Pyongyang, the scale of the gymnastic performances was much higher than in my town, and the training plan was always a lot bigger and harsher. But at the same time, I heard that the privileges for participants were a lot higher. In particular, those who participate in enormous gymnastic group teams such as Arirang received gifts like TVs, fountain pens, watches, ball-pens, and bags. In this way the children who performed at Arirang would become the object of envy among parents!
It’s not just gymnastics that formed the basis of mass performances, though. Music was important too and learning how to play instruments was taken seriously from a young age. Generally, students start learning an instrument from kindergarten or elementary school through the talented lead of a music teacher at school. However, some students with affluent families could get extra practice for their children by paying for extra tuition. Of course, if you learn at school you can use the instruments at school, but many students try to purchase their own instruments because the quality and the quantity of the instruments at school are poor.
In North Korea, those who have a talent playing musical instruments are popular because they’re able to get a physically easier jobs and earn a lot of money with their musical skills. My elder cousin benefited with her talent in accordion and entered North Korea’s Art University (예술선전대), worked comfortably and easily, and earned a lot of money by teaching the instrument through private lessons. As such, she was the pride of the whole family.
Because of these memories of my time in North Korea, one of the first thing I did when I got to South Korea was to purchase a guitar. Although I cannot perform that well, I sometimes play the guitar to awaken old memories of my life in North Korea.
Got A Question?
Jae-young grew up in North Korea but now lives in the South, and is happy to tell you all about her past. So if you have a burning question for her, get in touch and send us your questions.