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The late Halla Pai Huhm's nearly half-century of residence in Honolulu was marked by an unwavering dedication to the dance traditions of Korea, and her legacy comes alive whenever the company she left behind unfurls one of its concerts. In August 2000, the Halla Pai Huhm Korean Dance Studio celebrated its golden anniversary with two sold-out showcases of its founder's choreographies--and the announcement of federal assistance toward the preservation of thousands of items of memorabilia for this designated U.S. Irreplaceable Dance Treasure.

"I never threw anything away," declared Mary Jo Freshley, director of the studio and president of the Halla Huhm Foundation, describing the archives and collection now stored in her home and vulnerable to the ravages of Hawaii's tropical climate, insects and time. "The grant is about all the stuff we have put in acid-free boxes, but there is a lot more," she said. "It's an important resource for anyone who wants to do research." And a resource worth preserving, according to the assessment of the Dance Heritage Coalition, an alliance representing the nation's major dance collections, based at the Music Division of the Library of Congress. From the 900 nominations it received for its inventory of "America's Irreplaceable Dance Treasures: The First 100," the coalition selected three--the Katherine Dunham Center of East Saint Louis, Illinois; Cross Cultural Dance Resources of Flagstaff, Arizona, founded by Joann Kealiinohomoku; and the Halla Huhm Foundation--for a special award. They will share a matching $90,000 grant from the White House Millennium Council and the National Trust for Historic Preservation toward conserving their unique collections. These are "endangered dance treasures of such distinction that [their] loss would have substantial consequences on the cultural and artistic future," said coalition director Elizabeth Aldrich.

The Korean community is a dynamic element of Hawaii's ethnic diversity. Korean dance is as piquant a feature of the state's multicultural bounty as Korean cuisine. Halla Pai Huhm, born in Pusan in 1922 and educated in Tokyo, at 27 became part of the swelling wave of Korean immigration to Hawaii. There, she opened her dance studio, keeping it afloat by working as a travel agent. Huhm often gave free classes and, in spite of her out-of-pocket expenses for costumes, equipment, high-quality recordings and guest teachers and artists from Korea, she rarely charged for the concerts she staged.

"To her," said Mary Jo Freshley, "music and dance were a way to educate people--not just the Korean community, but the community at large. Many in the audience were not Korean. She was able to expose people like me to the culture."

At first blush, Freshley seems an unlikely successor to the woman whose name is synonymous with Korean dance in Hawaii. "Who would have thought that when I came to Hawaii in 1961 to teach health and physical education, I would end up running a Korean dance studio?" she mused at the studio's recent concert, adding her usual apology to the audience for not being Korean. "I have done the best I could over the years," she said in her self-effacing way. More surprising than her ethnicity, when this farm girl barely off the boat from Ohio saw her first Halla Huhm recital in 1962, was her lack of any dance background. Nonetheless the kaleidoscope of colors, customs, karma and cadences on stage overwhelmed her and Freshley knew she had found her vocation. "The charisma of this lady and rhythmic pulse of the art, since I'm a jazz fan," she said, explain the attraction. "Korean dancers are also musicians and drummers. You have to be able to do the combination." Freshley got her feet wet in a summer class at the University of Hawaii, where Huhm was teaching, then continued at Huhm's studio. "It was a slow start," she recalled. "But when she saw I was interested, she would let me dance whenever there was a chance."

From disciplined dancer to devoted disciple, Freshley's ascension was rapid. Her apprenticeship "was a labor of love, seven days a week," she recalled. Freshley insisted Huhm would have preferred that a Korean succeed her as the doyenne of Korean dance in Hawaii, and Huhm brought several from Seoul to train. But none worked out, and during Huhm's waning years there was no doubt Freshley would one day take over.

"When Mrs. Huhm died, she had only one beneficiary, a niece who had no interest in running a dance studio and so turned it over, along with Mrs. Huhm's mutual funds, to the 501(c)(3) foundation the local Korean community had organized. So I decided to retire because I knew it would be a lot of work."

She was right. The studio consisted of the lease for the space; utility services; dozens of drums of different varieties; footlockers full of hundreds of costumes; a gaggle of knives, gongs, fans and other props; eighty students; and a teaching schedule that has kept Freshley in class at least fifty hours a week. There were also 5,000 photographs; newspaper articles in Korean, Japanese and English; programs, brochures and flyers; plaques for awards; medals from the Korean government and other items, and eight-millimeter film since transferred to videotape.

Freshley and others of Huhm's "girls," as the senior students who embody the Foundation modestly call themselves, were so busy organizing these materials that for two years the studio did not give a public concert. But by 1999, the troupe was back on track with a fifth-year memorial event to honor its founder. With cameras from two Korean television stations rolling, some forty students between 6 and 60, many of whom never knew Huhm, but all exploding with color and energy, thrummed up a thunderstorm in the University of Hawaii's Orvis Auditorium, dancing to the beat of their own percussion. There were drums of all sizes, shaped like barrels and hourglasses, as well as the little hand-held sogo. And there were masks--male, female, young, old, front and back. Also on the program were Huhm's signature fan dance; the classic Arirang, to Korea's best-known song; and an excerpt from a traditional danced drama. Still, the program barely began to sample the variety Huhm had brought to Hawaii.

"People should know that Korean dance is very diverse," said Freshley. "There are Buddhist-influenced dances done with a small gong as part of the temple ritual; exorcism dances; dances performed at Confucian shrines where the dancers are in rows and don't move more than a foot. There are the court dances that are like beautiful paintings, costumed with sleeves covering the hands, since it was impolite to show them to the king, and very symmetrical. The masked tradition began as the common people's way of venting their frustration at the upper classes. The masks are often grotesque, humorous or satirical and the dances can be noisy and boisterous. It's theater."

There are also the celebrations of seasonal folkways known as farmers' dances and music. "That's where the most exciting rhythms belong," Freshley explained. In 1995, the year of Huhm's death, senior studio dancers traveled to Korea for the Farmer Music and Dance Festival Competition. "We knew we were not technically good enough to compete in the four-drum event because we knew only changgo [a double-headed, hourglass-shaped drum]" Freshley recalled, also noting the four-drum genre is usually the preserve of the huskiest men. So at the advice of master drummer Kim Duk Su of Seoul, they entered their own original choreography. Dubbed Aloha Changgo Nori, the bravura pas de quatre featured four seasoned female percussionist dynamos in Hawaiian print vests and head leis, pounding out a suite of show-stopping rhythms on the hourglass changgo and the four basic hula instruments--ipu (gourd), kalala'au (poles), pu'ili (split bamboo) and 'uli 'uli (stone castanets). The ladies took second place in the foreign division, an unheard-of honor for a women's ensemble. Since then, some variation of this multicultural virtuosity has usually been the troupe's concert finale, and an appropriate one it is, confirming the strength and vitality of this precious heritage.

Paula Durbin is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
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Title Annotation:Korean dance artifacts
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1U9HI
Date:Feb 1, 2001
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