Thursday, 1 March 2012

Jultagi: The Art of Korean Tightrope Walking

On one chilly day in Seoul, I hurried to Namsangol, the Korean folk village, near Nam-san to watch a Korean tradition which I only saw in the movies and in the circus:  tightrope walking! In Korean, it's called jultagi or eoreum.

While I was still huddled in the subway, I expected there must be hundreds of other curious tourists who were also making their way to Namsangol.  And I was right!  Upon getting out of the Chungmuro Station, I joined bundled up grownups and kids in clogging the alley leading to the site. It was a one-way human traffic though.

And at the center of Namsangol, where the stage sat, hundreds, who were either comfortably sitting or eagerly standing, were already enjoying the performance of Korean traditional drummer and dancers who were swaying their ribbons to the beat of the Korean drums. These performers are part of what they call Namsadang-nori, or travelling performers during the old Korean times.

Dressed in loose, white costumes, the dancers entertained the audience with their acrobatics as well as their synchronized movements. (I wonder how long it took them to rehearse the head swaying! I was especially scared their necks would snap with those sudden 180-degree turns!).

I especially loved taking photographs with their dancing ribbons and all, but jeeez, the freezing temperatures, especially when you’re outdoors, just made it difficult to hold up the camera, focus and enjoy the show!

But after the dancers had wrapped up their performance and made a deep bow (thankfully, their necks were still intact), it was the main event!
The tightrope walker, a petite guy who looked like he was in his 50s, came out and readily took charge of the elevated and securely fastened installation.  It was, I think, seven feet high. A foot more and it would be a loud ‘ouch’ and a few broken bones. (I wonder how high was the tightrope in the Korean movie, The King and The Clown. We should ask Lee Jung-Ki).

He was indeed a master!  He easily walked, danced, turned and turned some more on the rope! He even engaged the audience in a conversation while resting on both ends of the rope! And he was holding up a fan! In this freezing weather!

And as a guy, I wondered what he felt while bouncing on the rope with his legs spread! He didn’t flinch or scream in pain. I guess the rope didn’t interact with whatever was sensitive within those cracks. Ha-ha-ha!

And while looking at the photographs now, I noticed one thing. He was looking at the edge of the installation while doing his thing. I read somewhere that those Olympic gymnasts performing on the balance beam would fix their gaze at the end of the beam while doing their routine so as not to lose balance. The tightrope master was doing the same!

So that’s the trick! I need a tightrope now! Quick! Ha-ha-ha!


Well, I may never be able to do some tightrope walking seven feet up!  But hopefully, I can find a tightrope somewhere and test my skills if it’s about two feet high. And I’m definitely not bouncing on my cracks. Ha-ha-ha!
                                         (The musicians on stage.)
The tightrope walking performance was a delight to watch. It was always entertaining to see performance which we could not be able duplicate ourselves.
                                (Engaging the audience from high above)
Too bad, I didn’t get the name of the master in case I see him practicing on some telephone lines somewhere.
 (I love this routine where he bounces up and changes directions.  Such balance, focus and well, lightness!)
He definitely gave a new meaning to the idiom ‘knowing the ropes’. I hope I’d be able to see him perform again someday. 
                        (The master taking a bow.)

And enjoy watching his kind of art.
          (A remote TV broadcast unit at Namsangol)


  1. nice writing!

    My favorite parts of Namsan are the Hotel Shilla and the Hotel Hyatt sides. I think they are at the opposite side of Namsan from Namsangol.

    One day there was a discussion on the English website in US about which city park is the best in the world. About 50 people wrote responses. 3 of them chose the Namsan park. It got the biggest support among Asian city parks. It is gorgeous specially in the spring and fall. And you can enjoy fantastic view from Namsan and you can also walk along the nice walking trail around Namsan.

    1. Thanks! Yes, Nam-san is especially pretty in spring and in fall. And that walking path on the side of the National Theater is also interesting.