To know why safe spaces for queer, feminist women in Seoul matter, you need to take a look at the country's fight for equality. On June 1 the 20th Seoul Pride parade took place, filling the streets with an outpouring of love and emotion. But despite the event growing from 50 attendees to nearly 100,000 in two decades, South Korea is still failing to protect LGBTQ+ citizens. A 2017 poll reported that 92.6 percent of the community worry about becoming targets of hate crimes. For queer women who identify as feminists, the struggle is twofold: facing male violence and gender-based inequality while also being told their identity does not exist. Amid this discrimination and oppression, a dance school for queer, feminists called Luddan tells students not only is it okay to exist, but your existence should be celebrated.
On their website, Luddan describes itself as “the place where you can dance as you are.” They aim to create a space free of discrimination and judgment based on appearance and gender. Housed in a basement space in the recently-gentrified Mangwon-dong neighbourhood, the business has a relatively quiet presence: there is no overt signage outside, no queer flags or markings, and they don’t have a business listing on Naver, South Korea’s largest internet portal. It would be a stretch to say this part of town actively welcomes queer women, but Ccol—a feminist bookstore run by a women-led NGO called Unninetwork—is stationed in a strip mall across the street and Hongdae. One neighbourhood over you’ll find a handful lesbian bars.
Teacher and activist Kim Yujin (Lucia) founded the school in 2016. For years previous she’d been part of a queer dance team called Queer Candy. There she learned “how valuable it is to have a space to dance as as a queer person.” She started hosting her own dance classes in her spare time with the intention to create a safe space for queer women who identify as feminists. Last year, the school added new teacher Song Leeseul (Izzy) to its roster and moved into the current two-room studio.
While many of Luddan’s classes are based on K-Pop and include the same pop playlists other schools favour, the philosophy behind them is in stark contrast to most South Korean dance academies. “Dance is an act of self-expression,” Lucia told me. “You think about how you want to express yourself, the gender viewpoint of that expression, and process how people will perceive it.”
This difference is quickly noticeable in the diversity of Luddan’s students. While their initial focus is on the safety of queer women, the classes include men, women, and non-binary individuals. Speaking more to the heart of the school, Lucia explained that most dance schools in Korea rarely break out of gender norms: you have to dance “like a woman” if you are a woman and “dance like a man” if you are a man. “Let’s say I’m a man but I want to express myself with softer lines. A teacher at your average dance school could critique you for looking weak. ‘Your lines should be harder. You look like a girl.’”
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Luddan also fights against South Korea’s patriarchal one-size-fits-all beauty standards by accepting students of all “shapes and sizes”. “One reason why Luddan stands out to me is our perception of weight. At a regular dance school, there are many restrictions on body types,” Izzy said. “I majored in dance but a lot of people told me if I wanted to dance, I would have to lose weight. I love that being thin isn’t a requirement to dance here.”
The school is part of a broader trend in Korea that's seen individuals pressing against gender binaries and patriarchal views of women. The movement was largely sparked by the brutal murder of a 23-year-old woman in a Gangnam bathroom in 2016. In the three years since there have been protests calling for female safety to be taken more seriously by the police. Women have also become more active in searching for safe, women-only spaces like Luddan.
But despite the growing focus on women’s rights, Lucia reflects the space where feminism and LGBTI-rights haven’t grown in parallel: “There are more feminists, but not necessarily more queer feminists.” For that to happen, Lucia said women would need to feel safe to come out as queer and as feminist.
When I ask Lucia and Izzy what would happen if a public female figure proclaimed she were a queer feminist in Korea, they chuckled. “Oh, there’d be several rounds of artillery. First from the men’s activist sites. Initially, they hate you for being queer and then they hate you even more for being a feminist! Here, you’d be called every weird thing in the book,” Lucia says.
Her prediction has been played out repeatedly in South Korean media where K-pop stars are often called out for promoting women-empowering messages. In 2018, Naeun of APINK faced major backlash after having a smartphone case that said “girls can do anything” and earlier this month, it was major and controversial news that singer Sunmi publicly support LGBT-rights.
Despite the backlash to public displays of queer life, Lucia is confident that there is a steadily growing community who are enthusiastic to embrace and support it. This can be witnessed daily at Luddan: many of the regulars are not yet out with their families or in their workplaces and see the dance studio as a refuge where they can briefly be themselves. “If I had to think of a hardship, it’s that dance is something you show to others and we can’t be open like that,” Lucia says. “[As a dancer] you want to put up videos, be on YouTube, have street performances and show people this cool thing you’re doing. Izzy and I are okay with [being public] but not all our students have that privilege.”
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Despite these challenges, there is an immediate sense of ease in the air during the actual classes. Students greet one another with smiles, tease each other, and shout out song requests during warm-ups. Luddan’s tightknit community is also reflected on social media. Their Twitter feed is filled with positive feedback from students sharing how the classes make them feel happy, safe, and liberated from constricting ideas of gender. One student puts it: “I’m learning so much about myself at Luddan. Even getting off the bus in Mangwon feels like stepping into a new world.”
Another dancer, who asked to be identified by her blog name Taman00*, recently wrote about how the classes there have helped her with her body dysphoria. “[I realised…] that dysphoria doesn’t just come from within, it also comes from the perception of others. But when I was with those that accept me for who I am, I was not afraid at all. […] Even if I can't accept my body entirely, I can accept now the lines of my body in dance. Not female lines, not male lines, but my lines.”
These expressions of gratitude are what motivate Izzy and Lucia above all. “For a lot of people, I can tell that it’s their joy to come here… that it’s the highlight of their routine. When people compliment me about the classes, I’m really motivated to work so much harder,” reflects Lucia. But they’re also encouraged by the changes they can see more broadly. Small queer feminist meet-ups are beginning to pop up all over the city—a few soccer clubs that get together on weekends and a community of drag kings that have begun performing. Eventually Lucia hopes to inspire more dance studios like Luddan, that can work together to build a vibrant scene. “One of Luddan’s dreams is that queer feminists—everyone from ordinary dance lovers to amateurs and professionals – can enjoy dancing together.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE AU.