PAJU, South Korea - The 15 male ballet students groaned as they strained to do the splits and laughed with relief after their teacher counted to five and let them relax. Once a week, a group of South Korean soldiers near the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that divides the Korean peninsula trade army boots for ballet shoes in a class intended to ease the stress of guarding the world's most heavily fortified border. "There's a lot of tension here since we live in the unit on the front line, which makes me feel insecure at times," said Kim Joo-hyeok, a 23-year-old sergeant doing his nearly two years of military service that is mandatory for South Korean men.

"But through ballet, I am able to stay calm and find balance as well as build friendships with my fellow soldiers," said Kim, who is learning ballet for a second year and plans to continue when he is discharged from the army.

Wearing shorts and T-shirts along with their dancing slippers, members of the army's 25th Division are taught each week by a ballerina from the Korean National Ballet under a programme that began last year and has already included a performance of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.