Sitting in her living room, Hyemin Park is surrounded by clothes as she cuts and sews her latest dance costume into shape.
“It’s literally a full time job,” Park said as she held her bright purple robe against her chest in front of mirror.
Park, 21, a senior at Montclair State University, is a traditional Korean dancer. Raised by a single mother, she was put into dance classes as a form of discipline.
“It’s not that I was a wild child,” Park said, “but my mom thought it would be best to learn how to act and control myself in a professional setting.”
“I wanted Hyemin to learn more about her culture,” Park’s mother said. “But, she was a kid. She didn’t want to sit around for history lessons. She was always moving around and dance was perfect for her.”
For the past eight years, Park has studied under EunHee Ahn at the Korean Traditional Dance of Choomnoori (KTDOC) in Palisades Park,N.J.
At KTDOC, Park and the other dancers perform in an average of 15 performances each year. Dances and performances range from small nursing home events to holiday celebrations such as the Korean New Year, Chuseok. For the past six years, Park and her company have been invited to walk and perform in the Korean Pride Parade in New York City.
“It’s such an honor to be a part of the parade because, as such a small company of 15 members, it’s crazy to think that we’re representing our culture’s dance in such a huge spotlight,” Park said.
Traditional Korean dance performances are usually very over-the-top. Their costumes, known as “Hanbok” in Korean, are ornately bright and heavily decorated in flowers.“ The dresses and robes weigh more than I do,” Park said with a laugh. “We wear so many layers and we make everything ourselves within the company. We really embrace the ‘traditional’ aspect of dance.”
In 2012, Park was taken as an apprentice under Ahn. With this new position came a lot of extra responsibilities. As just a dancer, Park would spend weekends rehearsing for performances. But, as Ahn’s apprentice, Park had to help translate emails, teach classes and help students who had fallen behind in dances stay on-track for performances, turning it into a full-time job while also attending school and trying to have a social life.
“She became very busy and it started to take a toll on her,” Denis Song, Park’s boyfriend said. “As much as she hated to admit it, the lure of dance was being taken away by how much pressure she was constantly under.”
With her busy schedule, Park was glad to have school as an escape from dance. During the week, she tried to focus her energy and time on being more of a ‘typical college student’ by going out on Thursday nights or cramming for exams.
“I always wanted to keep the two separate,” Park said. “They’re both escapes for me in different regards. If I danced on campus, my entire life would become dance and I never wanted that.”
In January 2014, Park took a brief hiatus from her apprenticeship to focus on school. “Leaving the company was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make,” Park said. “I felt like I had a responsibility to my teacher and students to be there for them, but it was becoming too stressful. Between school and dance, I literally had no time for myself.”
By the following summer, Park was ready to dance again. “My teacher and I had a long conversation,” Park said, “and I told her that, as much as I love dancing, I need some ‘me time.’ She understood and said that she needed me back because we were great together as a team.”
As for the foreseeable future, Park will continue to dance. “It’s a hobby I just can’t seem to shake,” Park said. “As long as I love dancing and don’t see it as a burden, I’ll continue to dance.”