Fresh Faculty: Jungeun Kim

Jungeun Kim is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Theater and Dance. Speaking with Managing Features Editor Caelen McQuilkin ’24E, Kim discussed the roots of her passion for dance, its educational potential, and the different meanings it has taken throughout her life.

Fresh Faculty: Jungeun Kim
In their conversation, Kim and McQuilkin hold up a mirror to each others’ vocations, using the “universal language” of movement to think through the power of writing. Photo courtesy of Claire Beougher ’26.

Jungeun Kim is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Theater and Dance. She received her B.A. from Hansung University in 2004, M.F.A. in 2006, and Master of Arts from Hollins University in 2009.

Caelen McQuilkin: The first question I wanted to ask you is, how did you first become interested in dance?

J.e. Kim: I don’t remember, but my mom said I always liked to dance. When I was a kid … I asked my parents, I wanted to take a dance class. But they said no, because we didn’t have enough money … But then, it was high school, [I] somehow discovered an open dance class. I went there with my friend, and I tried it, and then it was like the best thing ever … I went there with my school uniform … with a couple of other kids, we were just dancing to the loud music. You just get sweaty, and just laughing, and doing the things the instructor tells you to do. It felt like something just unlocked … I didn’t know what I was going for … I didn’t know why I was there, I didn’t know what that feeling was, I didn’t know what dance was — dance is — but then … I wanted to continue. So then I had to get a job to pay for the classes, which I did. And there’s something about ‘you work for it to get it,’ that … I didn’t feel like ‘oh my god, I have to work.’

So then I met people who had been in that art field much longer, much older folks. I didn’t want to go to college, because there’s not many schools that offer what I was taking — it was kind of more strict dance classes, like modern or ballet … [I wanted] sort of an open, just dance class. … So I was like, ‘No, I’m not going to college.’ But then all my older friends were like, ‘J.e., you have to go to college.’ And so I said OK … because I trust their input … They were advising me through their experience, because they didn’t go to college … They’d been in the industry a long time, so they see the value of education. Even if getting a job is just different, you’d be able to make connections, and meet different artists. So then I did [go to college], and I discovered a lot about different forms of dance, like modern, ballet, and improvisation. And then it just felt like my entire body was a sponge. I was just sucking in everything because it was so fun. I was very behind compared to other friends who had started dancing — for me, I started dancing when I was 18 — [they] started at six or a young age. So my knowledge in dance was very low.

CM: But you had the passion for it?

JK: Yeah, it was like, this is what I’m going to do, so I’m going to figure it out. I just practiced, and asked friends, and asked for help. I was very embarrassed at how bad I was … I was very embarrassed that I couldn’t get all the things that I was supposed to do, you know, like the teacher shows you, ‘OK, do a combination,’ and I was like, ‘Whaaaa?’ I was really struggling a lot, but it didn’t bother me, because I loved it so much. The newness — I could see other folks doing so well — but I didn’t compare myself too much. They grew up with doing it, of course they would be better, which is fine. It was like, ‘I’m just starting it, and I like where I am.’ It didn’t really disencourage me or anything, it just gave me more things to look for.

CM: I think that’s so cool. Do you have any stories that you think show something about your love for dance, or that passion you were talking about?

JK: Last week, we did a practice [in one of my classes]. We did one exercise in pairs. You’re playing with your partner’s negative space, but the direction was that you have to travel from A to B, so we have a directional goal, and it’s like having a dialogue with your partner. At first, it was hard, because everybody’s talking at the same time. So much to tell, so much to share, there’s no listening moment. So, then, when I gave them feedback, [I said] when we have a conversation, you ask questions. I respond, you listen, it’s constant interaction rather than one way — that’s the same thing with the dance exercise, movement exercise. And then everybody got it, everybody understood. And then they tried again, and everything just changed. It was a beautiful moment that I loved. People watching, and then being able to really communicate and listen to each other … When things happen like that, it really reminds me why I do what I do — that I can be able to witness the connection [between] two bodies. Dance is a language, it’s an art form … It comforts me, it challenges me, it pushes me in different ways. And I like that I can offer that, or at least I try to offer that, [to] whoever’s in that space with me.

Caelen in conversation with J.e. In her words, “you're writing about me, but you're also writing about the time we had.” Photo courtesy of Claire Beougher ’26.

CM: I really like that idea. It kind of reminds me of something else I was curious about, which was just, what are some of the other things that you hope students who take your class will learn, or at least start to think about?

JK: Learn how to listen. It’s really hard. But not just through your ear, listening that really lets your body to feel it … I think everybody has different ways to feel it, but sometimes we’re supposed to hear, and we get so caught up with specific goals that [we] need to reach, or that [we] would like to reach … but everything you do, you do with your body. So to be able to read, understand, and be able to pay attention to your body is … a really valuable lesson for us to have. If you can listen to yourself, not only just listening to others, but also being able to listen to yourself — often, people say, ‘Trust your gut’ [and] ‘What is your intuition telling you?’ And it’s like, ‘Hmm, I don’t know.’ But deep inside, you do know. You may not describe it, or you haven’t had a chance to explore it, but when you get to be vulnerable, when you get to be in that place, then, I don’t know, there’s an awakening. Not awakening — that’s not a very good way to say it — but you feel like tiny hearts coming out of you. I don’t know, it’s just … to listen.

The first class, I mentioned that this is not ‘my class,’ this is ‘our class.’ We are building community, and we maintain that safe environment where everybody feels safe, so that everybody’s not afraid to fall, everybody is there to catch. Often people say, ‘I want to take this class because I want to get out of my comfort zone.’ What would be the right learning environment for students to come out of a comfort zone? How can we create that? It’s hard. It’s hard. But through this class, I want to try. I would like to try. I would like to try with students, they push me, they make me laugh, I make them laugh [laughter].

CM: Yeah. I appreciate that so much because I feel like there’s some classes here that are just like, ‘OK, this is my class, this is what you’re going to do here.’ But I feel like my favorite ones that have changed the way I think about everything — and that I still think about to this day — are the ones where it was like together; we were all learning from each other, like how you were saying. Creating that community, and the feeling that you can trust the other people around you. I think that is such a valuable way to learn.

JK: Yeah. I mean, it’s not one way. Yes, I’m there as a teacher, but I’m still learning. I’m still a student, in a way. But … I want students to feel their voices are valued in that space, and be able to share without any judgment or without pushing anyone’s style. It’s hard — it’s nice — to make a circle for everybody. But I feel like we are trying.I feel like within a couple classes, everybody knows everybody’s name … It’s worthwhile to get to know them, because we’re going to learn together, we’re going to explore together. You want to know who’s in your family. You know?

CM: This is just making me be like wow, I want to take this class ...

JK: You knew some of the people who took a class with me, right?

CM: Yeah. My friend Eleanor Walsh [’25], who’s also an editor in the same section as me, she took ‘Language of Movement’ last spring, and she told me that you came and visited class one day, and she said it was awesome. She was like, ‘I feel like the class just got a new energy that day,’ or something.

JK: Wow, that’s so sweet. That’s one of the best classes I ever taught. Yes, I was nervous because I was there for an interview for the job, but then once I was in it, I was like, ‘I want to know everybody!’ We just improvised for an hour without pausing, without any specific direction. The simple [prompt] was, listen and follow, listen and respond … I just remember glimpses of it, but I remember afterwards, I was like, ‘Wow, I really love connecting with people through movement.’ Even though we just met that day … I feel very privileged, and I feel very honored that I had the opportunity. That’s why I really love teaching this ‘Language of Movement’ class. I never get like, ‘Oh my god, I have to go to class,’ I’m like, ‘What do you want to do today?! What are they gonna do today?!’

CM: I’m curious if you also have any thoughts on how dance and movement, and everything you’re talking about can change the world, or change people’s lives, or something like that.

JK: [Laughter]

CM: Wow, maybe that was kind of an extreme question.

JK: Yeah. That’s an extreme question. [Laughter]

CM: OK [laughter]. Maybe what I mean is, what do you think is the power of dance, and movement?

JK: What do you think is the power of your writing?

CM: Hmm. I guess that it can make people see different perspectives. And more, actually, that it’s a way for people, and me, to communicate with each other. And understand that maybe you can never fully understand someone who has lived a different life than you, but it’s still worth trying to find ways that you can talk to each other, and look each other in the eyes from different places. If that makes sense?

JK: Yeah. I think so. Yeah. I second that.

CM: Wow. I guess that makes me think about dance in a new, cool way now.

JK: I mean, sometimes I wish it could become more accessible … I feel like there is more to offer. It still has too much of an image of what dance looks like, what dance should look like. I asked you, do you like to dance? And you said yes — it feels, in a way, that body language is a universal language. Like when you handshake, you don’t say, ‘should we handshake?’ you just do it. You hug people. There’s a very tangible relationship that you can have, and I love that I’m able to study that, I love that I’m able to share that. I feel like there’s more to it, I feel like it … I wish it was more accessible, without needing to have those skills or techniques. I wish we could see dance as it is, rather than take it apart. Meaning, dividing it — there are different styles, of course, that have different histories — but I wish we could see dance in a much bigger way, rather than just one style, this style and this style. It’s hard to undo it.

CM: That kind of makes me think about a maybe parallel, or connected thing with writing. I feel like a lot of the time … there’s kind of this set thing of ‘this is what poetry should look like, this is what it should be about.’ But I feel like I also love writing because of the way that you can just look at the everyday moments around, things that we might take for granted, but actually have so much meaning to them. And how those things are so valuable to write about and understand how they shape us, too. If I’m interpreting you right, maybe it could be a similar thing with body movement, and how it relates to dance.

JK: Yeah, totally. Everything is so intertwined. There’s many roots, like what you mentioned about collecting different stories in a specific location or place, and you get to really create your own maps around how one story leads to the next story. I feel like it’s  similar, from your experience, from your background and your culture, you get to weave around through things, and you get to learn about yourself. For me, I really get to learn about myself.

CM: Yeah. Realizing that there are so many things that are connected to each other in that way, makes me think about how it’s easy to use the term ‘collecting stories’ because that’s just what people say, but then I’m like, ‘It’s not even like they’re mine to hold and put in a container, or something like that. That’s someone else’s life. And I just feel very lucky to be able to interact with that story, in a way, but try not to “take” it, if that makes sense.’

JK: Yeah. It’s like if you look at tree branches, you see a trunk, and then all the branches growing in so many different ways, and directions. They are connected, but they also have their own significant shapes. Maybe a bluebird would like to land on this tree branch more, versus this other tree branch.

CM: I think the last question I wanted to ask you is, what are some of the things that you feel like you’ve learned dancing and teaching?

JK: What I’ve learned. Hmmm. Good question. It’s so hard to name things, because I am still learning. I feel like it’s a never-ending experience. You asked me about what I want students to get out of my class, and I think I said learn how to listen. So I guess for me, I feel that I am learning how to listen to whoever I’m dancing with. And how to offer things, when I see someone is needing. I’ve learned how to make friends, learned how to have a good time … through dancing, and through studying about it, teaching about it, watching about it, writing about it, it’s sort of made me question, ‘What if?’ ‘What else?’ There’s other possibilities. Like, ‘What if we do this?’ ‘What if  [pulling a piece of paper out of a bowl on her desk] we danced about this for 15 minutes?’ Sort of like, it challenges me and I learn how to take those challenges without lying about it. Really learn how to be honest, be able to tell my story truthfully, without any decorating or anything. Or need to form something, need to perform it. I get to be really me. And I learned that through dancing. What is being me? How can I be present? Like, how I can be present with you right now. I don’t know if I could have done it if I wasn’t dancing.