Korean Dance- Traditional Culture


By Won Gyeong Ran (My aunt)


This study is about Korean dance and the significance of this cultural aspect to the people of Korean ancestry all over the world, especially to those Koreans residing on the island of Oahu- This particular topic was chosen because of personal experience and by observing how the Halla Pai Huhm Korean Dance Studio has survived these many years, showing the fact that Korean dance holds an importance to the Korean people. The arrival of the late Halla Pai Huhm to the islands was, in a way, a blessing to the Korean immigrants for she provided a place to gather together in a foreign land. Korean dance was not only an art form for the student dancers of the studio. It was a way for them, especially the second and third generations, to learn about their own history, culture and heritage.


The study did not take place in a certain location. The topic was chosen mainly because of personal experience. There were a couple of interviews that were completed. One interview was in person and the other was done over the telephone. The first interviewee was a young woman named Bianca Min who had danced at the Halla Huhm Studio for a little over two years. She started when she was in third grade of elementary school and stopped when she hit the sixth grade. The interview was done face to face and it only took one visit for approximately twenty minutes. The meeting was basically a time for questions and answers. The second subject was Mary Jo Freshley, who was an instructor at the Halla Huhm Studio for many years. Although she is retired now, she still teaches at the dance studio and at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Her interview was done over the telephone and took approximately thirty to forty minutes. The interview with Ms. Freshley was also done through questions and answers.

Korean Dance: Introduction

Almost every country in this world has a form of artistic expression through dancing that is unique to that culture. Korean dance, which has been around for thousands of years, holds certain qualities that distinguish it from the rest. The two words that come to mind when speaking of Korean dance are mut and heung. According to the text Korean Dance and Music, mut connotes some kind of beauty and heung connotes a state of everlasting exhilaration. It states that the essence or the real beauty of Korean dance is in the perfect combination of the two terms. Heyman describes mut and heung as "Irrepressible joy-almost reaching the point of giddiness ... a joy pouring forth from within ... from a deep sense of beauty ... a state of everlasting exhilaration." Both texts claim that Korean dance is not about technique or dancing for the dance's sake, but for mut and heung.

Korean dance is split into two main types of dance, which are court dance and folk dance. Within these two types are various categories. The dances are grouped in the ritualistic, court, folk or the mask category.

Ritual Dance

Ritual dance is usually in the same classification as court dance and can also be categorized under religious dances. There are three different religious dances: the Confucian, the Shaman and the Buddhist. The ritual dances were usually performed at the temples or the shrines of royal ancestors. They may be also performed at the house of those who are sickly or those who want their new houses to be blessed. Dancers of ritual dances are usually in long robes and sleeves that look like monk dress.

Court Dance

The court dances were usually performed at the banquets being held at the royal courts. There are two different kinds of court dances: Hyang-ak and Tang-ak. Hyang-ak is an original Korean dance and Tang-ak originated from China. Although court dances are composed of music, dance, and singing, they are usually very formal, restrictive, feminine, and have an emphasis on elegance. The main reason was probably because these dances were normally done for the king and the people of the royal court. The court dancers' costumes were a little more elaborate and elegant than the ones worn by ritual dancers. The reason behind it was because the court dancers danced for the royal court and those in the upper class.

Folk Dance

Folk dances were not confined to certain locations. They were performed in numerous places. Heyman states that mut and heung are important elements in Korean folk dance. There is a lot more emotions and personal improvisations involved in this type of dance. Over the years, many different individuals have choreographed folk dances. These individuals were the ones who brought their own little flair into the dance. This in turn made the performance seem refreshing and exciting to watch. According to Korean Dance and Music, folk dance is looked upon as being "masculine, animated, fast in tempo, and without restraint on the dancers' movement." Rhythm is very much involved in this genre of dance. The costuming for folk dances does not have certain specifications because there are so many different categories under it and because the dances were performed for various crowds, The dress could range from very simplistic to extremely extravagant. An example would be the salp'uri dance and the fan dance, which are both folk dances. The costuming for salp'uri is usually very simple. The dancer usually wears a white Korean blouse and skirt and dances with a long silk handkerchief that flows very prettily as the dancer moves around on the stage. The dancers of fan dance are usually in a Korean woman's attire with a court-style coat over the dress. The colors are brighter and the colorful fans that are used in the dance add to it.

Mask Dance

Mask dance dramas are under the folk dance category. They originated under Buddhism and exorcism and were performed by the common people of Korea. Mary Jo Freshley stated that it was important because it gave the commoners a chance to show their concern for society and in a way, poke fun at the upper class. Although this may have seemed shocking, it was seen as politically correct because it was done in a cultural setting. Nowadays, mask dances are performed just for entertainment. Jerky movements of the body characterize the movements of mask dance. Another distinctive move would be the high position of the legs as the dancer is moving around the performance area. The costuming of mask dance is simple. The clothing is usually farmer or commoner wear with an animated mask and long sleeves so that the audience cannot see the dancers' hands. At times the dancers wear fancier coats over their common attire, depending on the dance and where it is being held.


The interviews with the two individuals mentioned earlier gave me an insight into Korean dance and the impact it has on people who are exposed to it. Bianca, although she did not enjoy going to dance class because she was forced to attend, admitted that she learned a lot from dancing at the studio. She learned Korean words, some background history of the dances that was taught to her, how to move her body to interpret the dances. Bianca also claimed that Korean dancing was a form of exercise to her and complained that her legs became bigger and muscular from it.

Talking to Ms. Freshley once more was a reminder of how much effort she puts into the Halla Huhm Studio and how much love she has for Korean dance and Korean culture. She sounded a bit surprised to hear from me after so many years of no contact. I was once a student at the studio myself and had stopped attending by the start of my sophomore year in high school. Throughout our conversation, the only thing that I could feel coming out of Ms. Freshley was this strong passion for what she does. Although she has aged after many years of teaching, she still sounded like she had her spunk. I had asked her why she thought Korean dance was important to the Korean culture, especially to the Korean culture of Hawaii. She replied that it was important because it maintained the Korean culture and that it does not teach Korean culture to only Koreans, but to people of other ethnic backgrounds as well. She used the Buddhist dance as an example to illustrate how different ethnic groups can collaborate together to perform a dance. Ms. Freshley also believed that all the history of Korea is contained in shamanism and that shamanism is the root of many of the Korean dances. One example would be the salp'uri. The salp'uri is under the folk dance category and is said to be "the crystallization in dance form of all that may be truly Korean." It literally means to "exorcize the devil."


Talking with these two individuals really opened up my eyes to Korean dance and the impact it has on the people surrounded by it. Although Bianca was forced to go to dance class, she did get something out of it. She did not do it all for nothing. I believe that because of her experience, her "Korean side" was exposed and grew. Honestly, after having that talk with Ms. Freshley, I was seriously thinking about going back to dance. I learned about my history and was intrigued by how the dances had come to be. I was amazed at what people had to wear back then and was thankful that I did not have to wear those clothes everyday. The grueling hours of practice made everyone want to quit, but the end results made up for our aching bodies. I believe that through dancing you not only learn about Korean culture, but also you learn about discipline and control over yourself. If you wanted to get better at a particular dance, then you had to practice because practice makes perfect. Discipline and control went hand-in-hand at the studio. You needed these two elements in order to survive in Korean dance, just as you would to "survive in Korean culture." I end this paper with a excerpt from a letter written by one of Halla Huhm's student in September of 1991 describing the importance of Korean dance to the Korean community living in the states:

"Before I left for college, Mrs. Huhm gave me a red sash she brought from Korea. Though a seemingly small gift, that sash has come to symbolize, in my mind, my acceptance of being different in a non-Korean world. Aside from bringing entertainment and culture to generations of Hawaii and U.S. residents, unknowingly Mrs. Huhm has helped me conquer my childhood feelings of inferiority as an Asian-American because she was so full of pride for her culture and so generous in bringing it to others."


Cho, W. K. (1962). Dances of Korea. New York City: Norman J. Seaman.

Korean Dance and Music. Ministry of Public Information: Republic of Korea.

Korean National Commission for UNESCO (Ed.). (1983). Korean Dance, Theater and Cinema. Oregon: Pace International Research, Inc.

Heyman, A. C. (1966). Dances of the Three-thousand-league Land. Seoul: Dong-A Publishing Company, Ltd.

Funeral of the Late Halla Pai Huhm. Pamphlet: 1994.

Phone interview with Mary Jo Freshley (2002, April 18).

Personal interview with Bianca Min (2002, April 15).