Jae Hoon Lim moves across the stage gracefully but powerfully, capturing the attention of the audience with his confident and poised demeanor. Lim performs with a great amount of fluidity and connection to his own body, never missing a beat as he shows off his hard-earned technique with stunning tricks and lifts. Lim leaves the audience mesmerized by his long limbs and muscular, athletic body.
Lim, a native of South Korea, came to the United States nearly 20 years ago solely to learn English; he had never danced a day in his life. Here in America he discovered a talent as a dancer and choreographer that he did not even know he possessed. It completely changed his path in life and influenced the lives of many young dancers, making him a widely known and respected member of the dance community in Philadelphia.
Lim was a sophomore physical education major at Korea University in 1995 when he decided to take a year off from school to enroll in the ESL program at the University of California at San Diego, planning to return home after one year.
“After living here for a year I fell in love with the country, the culture, and the people,” Lim says.
Much to his parents’ dismay, he dropped out of Korea University and started from scratch. At age 20, Lim enrolled at San Diego Mesa College and took his first dance class to fulfill a General Education Requirement.
“I took my first basic dance class called Jazz 101,” Lim laughs. “I learned how to do jazz hands, kickball change, and all that good stuff.”
After Lim’s first semester at Mesa, a teacher told him he had the potential for a real career in dance and took him to the Academy of Performing Arts in San Diego, where he started studying dance seriously.
Lim immediately jump-started his dance technique by taking three or four classes a day, six days a week. As a natural-born athlete, he caught right on with the physical aspect of dance.
“I injured myself quite a bit in that first year because I was pushing myself a lot,” Lim says. “The more challenging part of dance for me was learning the proper way of training my body. Dance is an athletic sport, so being an athlete really helped me become a better dancer.”
The Academy of Performing Arts has a resident company at their studio called San Diego Dance Theater. Lim started taking class with the director of the dance theater who would soon become his mentor, Jean Isaacs. Six months later, Isaacs asked Lim to join the professional company.
“I remember when Jae first came to take class in the 90’s. He was brilliant right then, even before he was trained in dance,” says Isaacs, the Artistic Executive Director of the San Diego Dance Theater. Isaacs, who has a professional eye for dance skills, immediately fell in love with Lim’s tall, muscular body type and his ability to move strongly and athletically yet smooth and expressive at the same time. “After class I asked him where he came from and found out he came right from Korea. He’s brilliant, talented, and also has that beautiful body that’s incredibly expressive.”
Isaacs, an internationally known professional dancer and choreographer, has been working with the San Diego Dance Theater for 42 years and has been the artistic director of the company since 1997. After inviting Lim to join the company, Isaacs immediately put him in a few of her pieces and even gave him a solo because she saw so much potential in him to have a professional career in dance.
“You can’t be resistant if you‘re a dancer, and Jae just ate everything up. Sometimes dancers are more resistant or don’t want to contribute to the process and expect a lot, which is not fun for the choreographer,” Isaacs says. “I use many different approaches to dance-sometimes I start with an image, or a movement, or music. He was just in there for all of it and very open.”
After a year with the company, Lim started looking at colleges to attend so he could further his career in dance.
“I helped Jae look at a few places that he considered and I felt that the University of the Arts was the strongest option,” Isaacs says. “I was sad to see him go but he was so young and he obviously needed to go to college to continue his training. There was no places in San Diego that could offer that.”
With the blessing of his mentor, Lim decided to attend the University of the Arts and arrived in Philadelphia for the first time in 1998. Attending an arts college in a new city also opened doors for Lim professionally. During his first month at UArts he went to see Koresh Dance Company perform at the Drake Theater, where he met Roni Koresh, the founder and artistic director of the company.
“I was very impressed with the style and the dancers Roni had, so after the show I approached him and said ‘I want to join your company.’ He said ‘Okay, come to our rehearsal’”, Lim explains. “I took his class a couple of times so he knew who I was and I got asked to join the company in 1998. Because of this, I never had a lapse between dancing professionally.”
At the time, Koresh was a new company and had to rehearse at night because that was the only time they could get studio space that they could afford. During his four years at UArts, Lim went to school from 8:30a.m. to 4p.m. and then rehearsed at Koresh from 9p.m. to midnight or later.
Lim graduated from UArts in 2001. After attending many auditions in New York City, he left Philadelphia and danced with Shapiro and Smith Dance Company, Sarasota Ballet, and River North Dance Company over the next six years.
“I auditioned for two companies and for the other two I just walked in said ‘I would like to dance for your company,’” Lim says with a slight smirk on his face, showing his self-assured attitude. “It was partially good luck, partially my ballsy attitude, and partially having a little talent.”
Like many professional dancers, Lim soon fell victim to an abundance of injuries on his ankle, knee, and back, and was feeling slightly discouraged.
“After all my surgeries I thought I was done but I decided to give it one last shot because I wasn’t done in my heart,” Lim says. “So I came back to Philadelphia and told Ronnie I wanted to come back to Koresh.”
In 2009, Lim brought Koresh to his home in Korea to perform. Since he never danced back home in Korea, this homecoming meant a lot to him. It was also the first time his parents saw him perform, which gave Lim the fulfillment of knowing they finally understood and accepted the career path he chose to take.
“My adulthood started in this country, so to go back with an internationally known dance company really completed the full circle for me,” Lim smiles. “That’s when I decided that I’ve done enough for it, and then my passion for teaching dance started to give me more gratification.”
Since he greatly enjoyed teaching at universities, he applied for a few faculty positions but soon learned that universities required dance professors to have an MFA degree. In 2010, Lim retired from full-time dancing and started pursuing his MFA degree at Temple University while also teaching as a TA.
Many dance students at Temple have worked with Lim as a teacher or choreographer and are inspired by his energetic and intricate choreography and style. Sophia May, a senior dance major at Temple, met Lim two years ago at a class at Koresh and immediately loved his dancing.
“I love his style because he is extremely strong and athletic. He can move sharp as well as smooth and free flowing,” May says.
Sarah Warren, a junior dance major at Temple, has worked with Lim in three pieces he choreographed and has also had him as a teacher.
“Having the opportunity to work with Jae Hoon consistently for two years really allowed me to start figuring out my own body and develop myself as a dancer and mover,” says Warren, who considers Lim to be the most influential part of her college career. “He pushes me to reach my fullest potential and expects a lot out of me as a dancer.”
One of the pieces that Warren danced in was Lim’s MFA Thesis Concert titled Life Between, which they presented in February 2014 at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, a museum of medical oddities.
Lim became inspired to create this piece after he visited the museum in 2010 and saw the specimen of Harry Eastlack, who was victim to a very rare form of gene mutation called F.O.P.
“Eastlack reminded me of how people with disability view the world differently,” says Lim, who has recently developed a strong interest in physical disabilities such as F.O.P. and scoliosis. “But we all have some sort of disability; mentally, emotionally, or physically, which is what inspired me to create a dance.”
Lim, who is also a licensed Pilates instructor, is completing his MFA in May 2014 and is creating and teaching a Pilates course for the Theater department at Temple University next year. In the future, Lim is interested in working closely with physical therapy departments at universities and creating a dance-based therapy exercise for patients with scoliosis to minimize the progression of symptoms.
“We as a society view neurological disorders with such empathy and compassion but treat bodily deformations as something grotesque,” says Lim, who remains passionate about using his dance and education skills to help people with bodily disabilities. “My hope is that through my work, people can see that it is still a body and still a person, and we need to treat these people equally.”