Star-Bulletin Features

Eun Sun Jung is dressed in court garments for a performance during a Korean Immigration Centennial Festival at Daiei last month.

in motion

Traditional Korean dance melds
the seemingly adverse qualities
of inner grace and outer joy

Read and listen

By Nadine Kam

Judy Van Zile has a picture of herself in a hula skirt, barechested, smiling and waving maracas at age 2, while she was growing up in Chicago. That explains a lot.

Dance instructor Halla Pai Huhm's name is synonymous with Korean dance in Hawaii.

"I was destined to wind up in dance and to wind up in Hawaii," said Van Zile, a University of Hawaii professor of dance who also wound up writing a book, "Perspectives on Korean Dance," recently published by Wesleyan University Press.

She didn't intend to write a book about Korean dance, but her interest was piqued shortly after she arrived in Hawaii in 1971 and "discovered a whole world of dance I knew nothing about." It didn't take her long, for instance, to figure out that the Hawaiian dance she had learned as a child was hapa-haole hula.

Just before moving here, she was concentrating on the Indian dance form bharata natyam, with movements "staccato, percussive and angular with an intricate stamping pattern," she said. "Trying to coordinate the movements with the musical accompaniment was an intellectual game.

"It was not as comfortable as Korean dance, which is much softer, much more rounded, with a gentle flow through the body. I liked the way it felt physically."

Movements encompass floating foot movements and gentle shoulder shrugs that emanate from a flow of breath rather than mechanical lifting of the shoulder. Such movements are referred to by Koreans as "motion in stillness" and express qualities of mot and hung, which Van Zile wrote roughly translates, respectively, to "an inner spiritual quality of charm and grace and a feeling of lively animation or enthusiasm, both which lead to an irrepressible joy or giddiness."

Although such movements can be exaggerated in a masked dance-drama, they are more often subtle to a point where several early reviewers of Ch'oe Sung-hui -- one of the first dancers to tour America in the late 1930s -- deemed the dance "unexciting entertainment," "slightly dull, slightly boring" and lacking in variety of "pace, idea and movement."

Van Zile studied Korean dance here under renowned dancer Halla Pai Huhm. Her studies would lead her to Korea to observe festivals and study dance techniques, but whenever she looked for other authorities regarding the dance and its history in Hawaii, all paths led back to Huhm.

Halla Pai Huhm grew up in Pusan and was versed in Japanese, Chinese, Okinawan and Filipino dance before arriving in Hawaii. In spite of limited finances, she persevered in opening a self-named dance school, which has carried on since her death in 1994 by her protégé Mary Jo Freshley.

Over the years, Huhm kept photographs, letters and newspaper clips documenting her students and activities in the islands, and the documents will soon be added to the Dance Heritage Coalition collection. The Washington, D.C.-based, organization was founded in 1992 to preserve the history of dance in America.

A dancer performs the Buddhist ritual cymbal dance para ch'um. The sound of the crashing cymbals is said to drive away worldly desire.

FOR A WHILE, Van Zile accepted that Huhm was the root of all Korean dance in Hawaii.

"Then one day I woke up and said, 'Wait a minute, she didn't come to Hawaii until 1950, but the first Korean immigrants came here in 1903. Does that mean that for (nearly) 50 years there was no other Korean dance in Hawaii?"

Going into newspaper archives confirmed that there was, indeed, something going on. Although little was actually written about the dances, she was able to glean some of the history simply by looking at the old pictures, dating to the 1920s.

Pulling a Star-Bulletin clip dated May 18, 1934, she shows two young Korean dancers performing during a program at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Although the girls wore long sleeves appropriate for Korean court dances, the costumes were shorter than usual, and for Van Zile, that showed a progression from a ritual to more entertainment-oriented form of dance, though she said there is always uncertainty in drawing conclusions about any sort of living art form that is subject to individual interpretation and innovation.

"With no film records from that long ago, we can only conjecture about what things might actually have been," she said. Interviews with older dancers who might have remembered the dances, too, were only as reliable as their memories.

She found very little on Korean dance written in English and while she didn't feel she had enough information to write a definitive study, she could at least make her knowledge available. She doesn't expect there will be a massive rush to know more about Korean dance in the way that there's a rush for the latest information on "Spider-Man" or the latest "Star Wars" saga, but she hopes that the book will at least offer a perspective on the culture that inspired the dance.

Judy Van Zile shows the news articles and photographs that helped to preserve the history of Korean dance in Hawaii.

Interest may be greater than expected as Koreans prepare to celebrate next year's centennial of immigration to Hawaii, although the book's timing was coincidental, she said.

"There is so much culture embedded in dance. This is what drew me to dance ethnology in the first place. We can learn so much about a people by looking at dance, which goes beyond being a source of entertainment.

"All dance comes from a particular culture at a particular time. Dances don't just come out of thin air. They reflect attitudes toward the body, religion, values.

"Dance has an image of something that you participate in or watch to be entertained. Most people don't stop to think about where it comes from. Something like street dance or popping comes from a culture of machismo and showing off. The body language is saying 'This is who I am, dude.' "

Some of the ballet techniques we know today developed in Europe at a time when virtuosity and athleticism in dance demonstrated a mastery over physical challenges that translated into the ability to conquer nations.

Dances sometimes originate in minority communities where they are intended to be participatory and many Korean dances reflect this, becoming codified and stylized for the stage over time.

For farmers, dancing was a community building activity intended to ward off evil spirits or welcome bountiful harvests.

Masked dance-dramas provided an outlet to deal with topics otherwise considered taboo. Performers become caricatures of individuals and portray frivolous or bawdy behavior, providing an outlet for political statements.

Dances were also performed in Confucian shrines at Buddhist temples, and in shaman rituals to honor ancestors, appease gods and enhance one's well-being. In more recent years, artists "have been trying to modernize, part of the globalized phenomenon," Van Zile said. But just as in other immigrant populations in Hawaii, "we find older things going on as those who have moved here hang onto traditions of the home country."

Even so, it has come to be deemed more as an art form than an expression of a particular belief system. "Korean dance in Hawaii has come to be a symbol of Korean-ness," Van Zile said. "It doesn't express Buddhism, Confucianism or shamanism so much as it states, 'I am Korean.' It is an identity marker."

"Perspectives on Korean Dance": By Judy Van Zile (Wesleyan University Press), 336 pages, paperback, $24.95.


What: Judy Van Zile speaks on "Dancing Backwards: Researching the History of Korean Dance in Hawai'i"
Where: Center for Korean Studies, University of Hawai'i at Manoa
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, with 7 p.m. refreshments
Admission: Free
Call: 537-6271

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