South Korean soldiers take part in a ballet class at a military base near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea, July 13, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
South Korean Troops Swap Boots for Ballet Shoes
JULY 15, 2016
The 15 male ballet students groaned as they strained to do the splits and laughed with relief after their teacher counted to five and let them relax.
Once a week, a group of South Korean soldiers near the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that divides the Korean peninsula trade army boots for ballet shoes in a class intended to ease the stress of guarding the world's most heavily fortified border.
"There's a lot of tension here since we live in the unit on the front line, which makes me feel insecure at times," said Kim Joo-hyeok, a 23-year-old sergeant doing his nearly two years of military service that is mandatory for South Korean men.
"But through ballet, I am able to stay calm and find balance as well as build friendships with my fellow soldiers," said Kim, who is learning ballet for a second year and plans to continue when he is discharged from the army.
Wearing shorts and T-shirts along with their dancing slippers, members of the army's 25th Division are taught each week by a ballerina from the Korean National Ballet under a program that began last year and has already included a performance of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.
Most of the students at a recent session were first-timers.
"Being in the army itself can be difficult, so I wasn't sure what kind of help I can be here," said Lee Hyang-jo, a ballerina at the Korean National Ballet who visits the base once a week to train the soldiers.
"But as the soldiers learn ballet little by little, they laugh more and have a great time and seeing that makes me think that coming here is worthwhile," she said.
As the suntanned, crew-cut dancers practiced movements including the splay-kneed plie to classical music, outside the studio, another group of soldiers played soccer.
But ballet toughens you up too, Lt. Col. Heo Tae-sun said.
"Ballet requires a great amount of physical strength and is very good for strengthening muscle, increasing flexibility, and correcting posture," Heo said.