KALIHI, Hawaii - A Kalihi woman has spent almost 60 years performing Korean dance. Mary Jo Freshley is now one of the top experts in the state on this, according to The Center for Korean Studies. Freshley is now passing along this art form to a younger generation of students, and says her love of dance and teaching helps her with Aging Well.

Freshley took up traditional Korean dancing in 1962, and she hasn't stopped. "Korean dance sort of spoke to my soul. Don't ask me why, it just felt comfortable," she says, adding that she's sure she was Korean in a past life.

The Ohio native came to Hawaii in the 1960s for a teaching job at Kamehameha Schools. She took her first class at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and was hooked. Two months later, she joined the Halla Huhm Korean Dance Studio, now the oldest studio of its kind in the state. It teaches centuries-old folk dance and music.

Halla Pai Huhm opened the dance school in 1950. She remains the most well-known teacher of Korean dance in Hawaii. 

The school serves Koreans and non-Koreans of all ages. Known to both locals and Korean visiting performers, the studio has been home to regular Korean performing arts classes in music and dance, rehearsals for community presentations and studio concert recitals, and special workshops and master classes by guest artists from Korea. A great deal of the repertory was handed down from Huhm.

Freshley explains the historical connection between dance and culture: "Much of the older culture is embodied in these dances. The beliefs, the general sense of every day life, sometimes. They're really an aesthetic life's journey portrayed in dancing. "

Freshley is so committed to this dance form, she has made a handful of trips to South Korea to train at the National Gugak Center for classical arts. 

Huhm died in 1994, and Freshley took over as full-time director and teacher. She says she has no plans to retire soon, or even go part time.

Now at age 84, Freshley says the daily exercise is one reason she is Aging Well. "I'm here 30, 35 hours a week so I'm constantly moving," she says.

Working her passion is equally important. "It also gives me a purpose to keep the legacy alive here, that I feel is very important."

She also finds connection and community among her dancers. "I have no biological family here, so I have a Korean family," she says. 

The Korean community appreciates her work. Mike McMillan of the Center for Korean Studies calls her "a phenomenon" and believes "no one in Hawaii does what she does with Korean dance. She is an exceptional person."

Judy Van Zile, professor emerita of dance at University of Hawaii at Manoa, adds, "She is a top expert in Hawaii on Korean dance performance. She has devoted a significant part of her life to perpetuating the traditions of some of the finest senior dance masters in Korea with whom she has studied, as well as the repertoire of the late Halla Pai Huhm.

"Mary Jo also has been creative in choreographing some of her own dances based on her in-depth knowledge of many different kinds of dance. A hallmark of her teaching is the genuine sincerity of her commitment to teaching both dances and the cultural background for understanding what they represent. Researchers from Korea have been approaching her to learn about the lineage of some of the important now-deceased people with whom she has studied, and to use the very valuable Halla Huhm Dance Collection materials now housed at the University of Hawaii's Center for Korean Studies, for which Mary Jo has served as a committed steward."

Freshley inspires her students. Bae Hwami, age 71, says Freshley is older than she, but moves with more ease. Hwami, a South Korean immigrant, also appreciates that Freshley expands so much effort in keeping the Korean culture alive and well.

Nineteen-year-old Annette Lee enrolled in classes six years ago and was amazed that Freshley did pushups before class. "She is very young at heart. Even at her old age, she is active and moving a lot, which makes me want to be like her when I get older," Lee marvels.

Freshley says it's simple. Life is a dance, so find your rhythm and have fun. 

For more information:

Halla Huhm Korean Dance Studio
Second floor of Palama Supermarket in Kalihi
1070 North King Street, # 202
(808) 949-2888