The following appeared in the Chicago Tribune, February 25, 2005, Friday Section (Section 7), page 11:

Island allure fuels family business

A love of Hawaii led one family to spread its traditions, dance

By Jennifer Olvera

Special to the Tribune

The Barefoot Hawaiian's 130-plus dancers — who vary in skill level, age and gender — put on more than 600 shows annually, including some at area sporting events.

As a child, Jewel Babcock was aflutter about the Hawaiian Islands. But extravagant vacations were out of the question for her family. 

"Fortunately, it didn't cost a thing to dream," she laughed. 

Babcock, who now lives in Mt. Prospect, kept the radio near her bed tuned to an AM station that, in those days, during the wee hours, played Hawaiian music. 

"It had terrible reception and always faded in and out," she said. "But somehow, it was the sweetest thing I ever heard." 

As a teenager, Babcock collected every Hawaiian record she could get her hands on and sought out live Hawaiian dance performances, which she said were in fashion in the 1950s. When she had kids, Babcock passed on her love of the tropics. 

"My mother [made it her mission] to help my sister and I experience hula," said Babcock's daughter Owen Kennedy of Schaumburg, owner of the decades-old Barefoot Hawaiian shop and dance studio in Des Plaines. "She saw it as [an important] part of a unique culture-even if it was far away from us. At that time, she only saw Hawaii in pictures and movies but fell in love with the islands and what they stood for: Paradise." 

Kennedy was just 3 years old when she started Hawaiian dance lessons at the now-defunct June Bold School of Dance in Des Plaines. 

"Very few people were doing such a thing at that time, much less anyone as young as I was," Kennedy said. "At first, I remember being enamored by the costumes. The grass skirts, coconut tops and flowers seemed so exotic to me." 

Sealing the deal, she got to wear makeup when she performed. 

"It was very glamorous," Kennedy chuckled. Over the years, Kennedy danced at the late Honolulu Harry's Club Waikiki in Chicago, and she has performed everywhere from Trader Vic's in Chicago to a park in Shanghai. 

"I even arranged entertainment for Hawaiian Airlines for many years," Kennedy said. "I'd organize dance performances to encourage people to travel to the islands. Meanwhile, I was booking luaus and the like out of my home on the side." 

Given all the Hawaiian hula — scratch that, hoopla — in their lives, it seemed like a no-brainer take things a step further. In 1983, the mother-daughter team opened the Barefoot Hawaiian. More than 20 years later, they remain hooked.

"The grass skirts, coconut tops and flowers seemed so exotic to me."

— Gwen Kennedy

There, Kennedy teaches various forms of tropical dance, plays host to a professional dance troupe and sells and rents tropical trappings for theme parties. Her mom keeps Hawaiian culture close to her heart as the vice president of the biz. Both have traveled to the Hawaiian Islands many times since, and Kennedy shared her hula know-how with her mother over the years.

Brush up an Hawaiian lore

Some quick facts about the 50th state:

  • Hawaii was admitted as the 50th state on Aug. 21, 1959 — the most recent addition to the union (Alaska was 49th, also in 1959, and Arizona was the 48th in 1912). 
  • A little fish with a huge name — the humuhumunukunukuapua'a or rectangular trigger- fish — was designated as the state fish in 1985 during a campaign to educate the public about the diversity of Hawaiian sea life.
  • Aa and pahoehoe are types of lava.
  • Hawaii's state bird is the nene or Hawaiian goose. 
  • The pua aloalo or yellow hibiscus is the state flower.

— Michael Esposito


Since Barefoot's inception, Kennedy's entourage of professional dancers has shimmied at park districts, libraries, backyard barbecues and schools (they also enact full-on Polynesian revues). In total, the school's 130-plus, non-professional dancers, which vary in skill level, age and gender, put on more than 600 shows annually

As for why she continues this lifelong love affair, Kennedy said it's because of Hawaii's cultural allure.

"It's beautiful," she said. "Everything about the culture carries a special meaning. Hawaiian dance, for example, is passed down through generations, and it's about love, family and happiness. It's something that families share with one another"

"Commonly, the movements of Hawaiian dance are used to tell a story, whether it's a love story or a story about the places where people live," added assistant instructor Susan Juskey of Lake in the Hills. "It's just so expressive and so graceful."

The studio's roster of classes for non-professionals includes Maori poi ball dancing (which incorporates twirling balls), Samoan fire-knife dancing (a guy-friendly performance with fi- ery machetes), Tahitian drum dancing (a hip- centered dance performed by men and women), hula (female dance with fluid hand movements) and ukulele. Most of these classes resume in September and generally are offered in 12-week blocks. Summer classes are being considered, but nothing definite is scheduled. The price of instruction ranges from $150 to $180 for the full term.

Currently, hula is being offered for women at 8 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays, and dancers can jump in anytime. The cost is $150 for the full session, and no special discount is given for late starts.

The Barefoot Hawaiian's upcoming performances include a spot during the Chicago Wolves game March 5.

Visit or call 847-694-7336.