HomeAsian AmericansDance crew is redefining 'ajumma'

Dance crew is redefining ‘ajumma’

By Amy -Xiaoshi DePaola, AsAmNews Contributor

When someone mentions an “ajumma,” one may picture a middle-aged Korean woman, clad in her tracksuit and visor, grumpily elbowing her way through the grocery store.

Lee Ann Kim wants to challenge those stereotypes with Ajumma EXP.

The co-founder of the San Diego-based dance crew is all about subverting expectations, even down to their choice of hip-hop music: You won’t see them dancing to K-pop any time soon.

“We’re seen as meek and quiet and subservient… we’re unfashionable, we’re naïve, we’re inexperienced,” Kim explained. “If we continue to do what people expect of us, we’re just perpetuating, so we’re all about disrupting.”  

Ajumma EXP was born out of Kim’s 47th surprise birthday, after her friends surprised her with a party bus. Despite being dolled up to the nines, the ajummas were completely ignored.

“It made me think twice about my own biases about ageing, about the word ajumma,” she remembered.

Afterward, she and her friend, Sonya Chin, wanted to shine a spotlight on where they were in life, to “do something wild.”

And that’s just what they did: the group of friends crashed a tuxedo- and ballgown-studded after-gala party with a flash mob, complete with choreography by fellow ajumma, Melissa Adaoto, to “Supersonic.”

While initially starting off with 12 members, Ajumma EXP now has around 65 women and preparing for its sixth seasonal debut. The group has even inspired similar chapters beyond their region—and attention from the IW Group and fashion brand Love, Bonito.

“When we first saw Ajumma EXP on their Instagram and the flash mob they did for International Women’s Day, my brand manager and I said, ‘We have to do this!’” recalled Stephanie Seow, Head of North America at Love, Bonito

The Singapore-based company then reached out to do a collaboration with Ajumma EXP, all agreeing on a fundamental ideology: breaking down stereotypes surrounding older Asian American women.

Even though Love, Bonito primarily markets to millennials, Seow said, they wanted to showcase the empowerment and duality of Asian women, which can be seen in the video as the group throws off their tracksuits for power suits.

The soft silhouettes and bright colors were deliberate choices to symbolize the power of femininity and fun—and even the visors have a key message.

“It’s that barrier between us and the world,” Kim explained, that can symbolize the sometimes-aggressive masks ajummas don in public to survive. But underneath that, “there is that soft, beautiful, powerful” person.

Kim also recalled the dedication it took to shoot the music video—which has surpassed over 30,000 views, according to Seow—chuckling over the memory of the ajummas rehearsing for three hours after a full dinner.

“They have young children, they’re all working, they’re all in their forties and sixties—and here we are on a Friday night, dancing over and over again to Rhianna with meatballs in our bellies,” she laughed.

Love, Bonito hopes to do more collaborations with Ajumma EXP in the future, as well as spotlight other Asian community leaders, said Seow. They are also opening up their first US-based store in SoHo.

Ajumma EXP are currently busy preparing for their annual flash mob in March to coincide with Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. Kim predicts that this season will be their “best yet”—with a surprise.

The group plans on “releasing the last section of our dance” for people who can’t regularly join in on their practice in San Diego “so that anyone in the community can learn it” and join in at the end.

But at its core, Ajumma EXP isn’t only about busting moves, Kim says. The group offers an opportunity for older women to step out of their comfort zones to embrace camaraderie with other strangers, along with finding their own courage, sexuality and new meaning in life—especially for their oldest member, who is in her sixties.

“She showed up; she knew nobody in our group … and she said, ‘I’m not sure if I can dance. I don’t know if I can make it,’” Kim recalled.

But at the end of their flash mob day, she was “almost crying, saying, ‘I can’t believe I did it, I had so much fun, I remembered all the steps,’ and she gained a certain kind of youth and confidence she never had about herself.”

“Ajumma EXP is about showing young people what it looks like to grow old with joy,” Kim said. “There is no expiration date. The best is yet to come.”

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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