K-pop dance legends Kim Wan-sun, Park Nam-jung come together for 'Eotteon Gayo'

Singers Park Nam-jung, right, and Kim Wan-sun [JOONGANG ILBO]

K-pop dance music has gone global, having started with H.O.T and BoA and now dominating with acts like BTS and Blackpink. But these dancing idols did not just appear out of the blue: In the 1980s, there were two singers nicknamed Korea’s Madonna and Michael Jackson: Kim Wan-sun and Park Nam-jung.

Not only did they have impressive dance moves, but they also had unique voices that garnered an enormous fan base among teenagers. It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that Park and Kim’s dance moves, like their L-dance and rabbit dance, have become the cornerstone for the popular K-pop moves the world sees today.

The two legends are soon getting together for part of the Mapo Foundation for Arts and Culture’s special concert series “Eotteon Gayo,” which centers on live performances by artists from the ‘80s and ‘90s. They will feature in the third performance, set for Jan. 18, and sing their hit songs, like Kim’s “Pierrot Smiles at Us” (1990) and Park’s “Crash Landing on You” (1988).

Posters for the Mapo Foundation for Arts and Culture's "Eotteon Gayo" special concert, set for Jan. 18 [MAPO FOUNDATION FOR ARTS AND CULTURE]

The JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, met with the two singers in their practice room. The upcoming performance would be the first time in seven years for the pair to be on same stage together.

“I came here to practice; I didn’t know there would be an interview,” Kim said. “We’re both not very talkative.”

Park, on the other hand, said, “Wan-sun was like my idol, so I couldn’t even look her in the eye. It was good just to be on the same stage with her.”

During their primetime, Kim and Park were like classmates, as they would both be on air almost every day.

“It was very natural because we would meet every day, like we were going to school,” Kim said.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, singers frequently had the chance to perform song covers on air. Kim and Park’s connection was Michael Jackson.

“Sometimes we would wear matching ivory outfits and sing ‘Billie Jean,’” Park said. “We’d used a drum machine, which was really cool to work with. The reactions from the audience were insane.”

“Nam-jung and I were really popular back then, so whenever we did a collaboration, everyone loved it. It was a time when we could literally do anything and it would instantly become a hit,” Kim said.

Singer Kim Wan-sun [JOONGANG ILBO]

The pair were each at the peak of their careers in the '80s, but their roots were entirely different. Park said he was so fascinated by the street dance scene in the 1983 American film “Flashdance” that he started going to Itaewon clubs to learn to dance on his own. Kim, on the other hand, had taken professional lessons in the studio established by her aunt Han Baek-hee, who had managed a number of successful artists.

“Wan-sun learned how to dance under a systematic curriculum, and I’m someone who had to start from scratch. It was a time when you couldn’t see dancing even on television. There weren’t many opportunities to listen to foreign music unless you went to clubs. I was able to get familiarized to dancing while working part-time in nightclubs in Itaewon, and after I debuted I choreographed on my own too,” said Park.

“I’d heard that dancers used to practice in the mirrors at clubs back then, but I had a choreography instructor. The studio I practiced in was huge. I was able to try out various different dances,” Kim said.

Nowadays, a myriad of K-pop acts dominate the industry. But in the '80s, Kim and Park were each unrivaled. Kim, notably, was one of the few female artists who did not receive loads of hate.

“I remember when female fans would hate on female artists, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen Wan-sun get hate. Other stars that went for a pure, innocent concept got lots of hate,” Park said.

“Everyone was childish back then. When singer Lee Ji-yeon went up on stage, the girls would get jealous because she had so many male fans, and they would curse harshly at her. I saw it with my own eyes; it was cruel. It was a shame, and Ji-yeon just pretended she never heard anything. At least she’s doing well now. The female singers from back then stay in touch, and we hang out regularly,” Kim said.

Singer Park Nam-jung [JOONGANG ILBO]

Park, on the other hand, says that not having a rival wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. After Seo Taiji and Boys made their debut in the ‘90s, fans swarmed over to the new hip-hop boy band.

“Sometimes I think I should’ve had a rival, because I had never felt the need for competition,” Park said, adding with a laugh, “It was honestly very frustrating when Seo Taiji and Boys first appeared.”

Kim also praised Park’s daughter Sieun, who is a member of girl group STAYC.

“I saw Sieun once, and she’s so pretty and talented,” Kim said. “Nowadays, I think it’s harder to find young singers who aren't talented. They don’t just sing; they’ve evolved to dance and even act.”

Kim and Park both say that it’s their first concert since the pandemic. Because they’d already performed the same dance for 30 years, they said they didn’t need to even practice.

“One may be worried that we might get a move wrong, or trip. I haven’t practiced dancing in a long time, but my body remembers it all,” Kim laughed.

“The only dance practice I do is when I wait for the elevator,” Park said. “It’s still perfectly fine. I’m trying a new thing in which I converse with the audience instead of just singing on stage. I think that’s what the world wants now, playing quizzes and handing out prizes.”

Kim and Park agree that it’s their longtime fans that gave them the opportunity to continue to perform on stage, even likening them as family.

“I have around 20 fans of 36 years and they’re like my closest friends,” Kim said. “I invite them to my house and hang out with them quite often. They all have their own work, so they tend to help me in their respective fields. I’m really grateful for their unconditional support.”

“I had my first-ever fan meet-and-greet about a month ago,” Park said. “My fans hosted it, so I took care of the lighting and sound equipment. There were about 100 people, and I couldn’t imagine something like this could happen. I’ve thought a small group was enough […] but seeing how they were rooting for me, I realized that I still needed to work harder.”

Singers Kim Wan-sun, left, and Park Nam-jung [MAPO FOUNDATION FOR ARTS AND CULTURE]

After meeting with them, “legend” seemed like an understatement. Both had passion that was nothing short of the many rookie artists nowadays.

“I’ve been releasing singles since 10 years ago. Last year I dropped two, and I think it’ll be the same this year,” Kim said. “Last summer, ‘Killing Diva,’ a movie about me, received an accolade overseas, and I got the best actress award. In May, I’m also planning to be in a musical. I want to try things I’ve never done before.”

“I want to do a nationwide tour,” Park said. “I want to make my own work, even if it may be small. Of course, Wan-sun is going to be a guest on my show.”

“We’ll see about that,” Kim laughed. “I might be busy with my musical.”