SunBee Han is the official K-Pop ambassador for Portugal. She is also responsible for selecting the Portuguese representative to participate in the most important, international competition in the genre. What’s more, SunBee is currently living and teaching in the outskirts of Ericeira, in Lagoa.
Positivenomad Studio is the recently opened, highly promising, dance school in Lagoa. It is the project of SunBee and her husband, the award-winning choreographer Isira Makuloluwe. The couple’s joint efforts, talent and experience offer a high-quality, positive dance training to all.
The prestigious dance school is also held in high regard by the South Korean government itself. The studio represents a great showcase for the culture in Portugal, and is therefore, a matter of pride for the state. This is the reason why the South Korean ambassador did not want to miss the studio’s opening. Unfortunately unable to attend himself, his wife Jiwon Baek represented him the day.
In parallel with running the studio in Lagoa, SunBee still performs in London, and the two activities complement each other. Although there is clearly great glamour and prestige associated with performing in a metropolis like London, SunBee greatly values her work in the village.
SunBee kindly opens her studio to me and talks at length about her life back in South Korea; the early days of K-Pop; her glamorous career in London; and, her contrasting life in Portugal.
Before going further into the interview though, let me briefly contextualize the K-Pop and Korean Wave phenomena.
K-Pop and the Korean Wave
Although K-Pop stands for Korean Pop Music, the term is actually used in a narrower sense, for a specific genre. The music/dance draws from a variety of other rhythms, such as hip-hop, jazz, rock and techno. The style has become a global phenomenon among today’s youth.
A product of its time, K-Pop first appeared on the scene in 1992, with the explosive performance of a boy-band in a music talent contest on TV. You can watch their performance here.
K-Pop is part of the current Korean Wave, also known as Hallyu. The term refers to the staggering popularity of this aspect of South Korean culture. Staggering even in the context of a country that has become known for exporting pop culture, TV programs and entertainment in general. You can read more about the Korean Wave here.
The genre is helping to throw South Korean popular culture into the limelight, whilst influencing people all over the world. The multi-billion dollar business is also, partially responsible for South Korea’s astronomical economic growth. It is currently the world’s 11th-largest economy.
Interview with SunBee Han, Co -Director of Positivonomad Studio
Would you tell me more about the place where you grew up?
I am from South Korea. I was born in Seoul, where I grew up and lived until I was 24.
My parents used to have a grocery shop in a market there. Our home was at the back of the shop. A single room where our family lived.
My brother and I spent our days trying to copy the K-pop moves of the first groups back in the 90’s. That was all we had as kids and we were so happy.
We started our formal dancing quite late, when my brother was 15 and I was 17.
How did you become the dancer you are today?
Various factors brought me to where I am today: my parent’s support; winning a prestigious gold medal; my career in London; and, the Positivenomad Studio. I couldn’t say that any one of these is more important than any of the others.
My Parents’ Support
Although it was not related to anything in our family background, our parents always supported my brother and me. As a result of this support, the two of us were able to pursue something we loved.
Undoubtedly, stepping into the dance universe, straight from the market where we grew up, was one of the most important events in my life.
The Dong-A Dance Competition Gold Medal
In 2009, I decided to take my chance in the most prestigious national dance competition in South Korea, the Dong-A.
Winning this competition is every child’s dream. Winning means that you are the best dancer in the country. Thus, paving the way to a successful career in dancing.
In preparation for the big competition, I trained really hard, pushing myself towards being the dancer I always wanted to be. I could not have dreamed of winning this competition a few years earlier. But at the age of 21, I thought it was worthwhile trying.
To my surprise, I won the competition that year. I brought home my gold medal in 2009, and my brother his in 2010.
The Positivenomad Studio
I see the studio as my mission. I believe that I am meant to build a great dance institution in this area.
Building up to opening the studio, I started teaching K-Pop in Lisbon in 2018, at the Museu do Oriente . Following this, I was made responsible for selecting the Portuguese representative for the worldwide K-Pop competition.
How does it work? Well, each country holds their own national competition. The winners of each country have their performance recorded and sent to South Korea, where the final competition takes place.
From South Korea to Portugal: How did this happen?
Love! I met my husband Isira In 2010. Isira is a choreographer and was in Seoul at the time for an international festival. I was working as a production manager there, helping Isira during the festival. We fell in love and then, a few months later, were living together in London.
During that time, we visited Lisbon for 3 days. I remember being in Alfama and telling Isira that I could not believe how beautiful the city was. Next thing I knew, we were heading to the nearest estate agent, in Chiado.
Isira is from Sri Lanka but somehow, he feels at home in Portugal. Lisbon was his favorite place in the whole world, although he lived in Paris, back then.
We moved to the first property we visited, in Rua da Gloria. This was our first address after we got married, nearly 10 years ago. And, we lived there for 7 years.
I used to work in London for 6 months and then come back home to Lisbon for another 6. Lisbon is really convenient for traveling to and from.
K-Pop is super trendy and you are a prestigious, international dancer. Why did you choose Lagoa for your studio?
We bought our family house in Lagoa, a couple of years ago. And, the house came with a handy downstairs space, perfect for making a dance studio. So, that is exactly what we did. The location was never an issue.
Looking back at the place where I grew up, it is not obvious that I would have become the dancer I am today. My point is that, location was not an obstacle.
K-Pop was my pass to the life of my dreams. The dance opened so many doors in my life. This is what I wish for children in Portugal. And I know that this can happen, regardless of the place where they live. Be it the city or the countryside.
Tells us about the Positivenomad Studio project. How did it start and where is it going?
We first thought that the studio space and the apartment, that came with the house we bought, would be an ideal B&B for young dancers. People would be able to use the studio during their stay, for a small fee. Unlike the dance studios in London, which are always so expensive.
We did not expect the studio to do so well. So this year, I am focusing more on developing our studio, both the classes we teach and the ones we host.
We want to make sure that our student’s first experience with dance is positive. Hopefully this will give them the gift of dance for life.
When we are young we always dance. As we grow up, we tend to close this door. But dancing is for everyone. We need to leave the door open.
How about the K-Pop classes, who are your students?
Our K-Pop classes are going really well. There are students coming from as far as Setubal. They take the train to Lisbon, the metro to Campo Grande, and then the coach to Ericeira, where we pick them up. This takes several hours. I feel sorry for them, but they are happy.
I have just recently started having my first local students. This has been my goal since the beginning but, it took some time to take off .
My students are mainly from outside Ericeira. They usually find me through the Orient Museum, which does the marketing for my classes through Lisbon Time Out. On top of that, being the K-Pop Ambassador in Portugal also gives me some visibility throughout the country.
Usually, when my students first arrive, they are very shy, unlike kids in South Korea. To overcome this, I make sure to practice a lot of self-confidence exercises. Hard work is the second aspect I emphasize. Dance is really physical, there is no place for laziness.
We hold weekly K-Pop workshops on Saturdays from 11 am to 1 pm, as well as regular kids’ K-Pop, for 7 to 11 year-olds.
What was your own dance training like?
When I was 16, I started thinking more seriously about pursuing a career in dance, because this was what I really loved doing.
My first step towards professional dancing was visiting the local dance school. The teacher told me then that, if I wanted to go to university, I would have to train in ballet and contemporary dance.
This was the first time I heard about ballet, and that was exactly where I started my formal training, at the age of 17. The beginning was not easy, I was not flexible enough.
However, I was lucky to receive good training during the two years that followed. So I made up for lost time! After that, I enrolled at a very good university.
I went to Han Yang University’s Arts Faculty in Seoul, where I got my BA and MA, in dance and dance film. This is how I became a professional contemporary dancer. And then, I went on to teach in a high school specialising in the arts, in Seoul.
How about London?
London was my rebirth in Europe. I was apprehensive at first, because I was unknown there, unlike in South Korea. But luckily, things went really well, from the beginning.
I had to rebuild my career from zero, as an Asian dancer. Nobody knew me there when I first started, in the Elizabeth Hall. Following my first show there, I was mentioned in the Times, the Independent and the Guardian.
In 2013, I joined Shobana Jeyasingh. This is a well established, contemporary dance company, where I still work. With them, I was UK magazine Dancing Times’ distinguished “dancer of the month” in February 2014. That was when my career in London really took off.
I was very pleasantly surprised by this accolade, considering that I was an Asian dancer, unknown in the West. I was the first South Korean dancer to be individually mentioned by the UK media.
Tell me more about the Positivenomad. Apart from K-Pop, what other classes do you teach?
We have a few teachers with whom we work to host Salsa, Belly Dance and Kizomba classes.
On top of that, Isira has recently started teaching Contemporary Dance, and people are responding really well to this, too. Isira is a great choreographer. He used to do choreography for the Geneva Ballet, for example. And he is well respected for the quality of his work.
Contemporary Dance is still not very popular in Ericeira, so we want to encourage people to try it, by charging a very small fee.
What brought you from Lisbon to Ericeira?
Having a baby. Our son was born in Lisbon in 2017 and we would like him to grow up in a place like Ericeira.
Back then, we were living on the third floor, in a busy tourist area. We dreamed of having lovely neighbors in a quieter area, with more nature and more room to play. This is why we started looking into this area.
Settling in Ericeira: how did you find it?
We moved to Lagoa 2 years ago, without really knowing what we were coming to. Our first spring was cold and windy, in a non-insulated house. We had not prepared our minds for this. But, now that we have got insulation in the house, and we know what to expect from the weather, we are fine.
Our neighbors in Lagoa are lovely and helpful, and the village is really calm. This is exactly what I need when I return from London!
As for Ericeira, I think this is a tiny town with great potential.
Any upcoming projects?
This year, I have a project with the South Korea embassy, in which I am touring with a K-pop workshop.
There are K-pop groups all over the country, but most don’t have a professional dancer to learn from.
Just like it did for me, K-Pop can make a big, positive difference to the life of young people in Portugal.