Communicating Cultural Values through Dance

One of the most stark realities I’ve encountered through my monthly journeys to Ugo to learn the steps to the Nishimonai for the annual obon festival in August: I am a terrible dancer.

As discussed in a previous post, Nishimonai features dances along bonfire-lit streets to two songs every year from August 16th to the 18th: ondo (音頭) and ganke (がんけ). Ondo is performed first and, while the song itself lasts only about two minutes, the musicians perform it on loop for about two hours. I had another conversation with the president of the Nishimonai Preservation Society recently, Yano-san, during which he told me a bit more about the structure and historical meanings of these songs and dances. Ondo – ethereal and other-worldly in its own right, but featuring playful pun-filled lyrics and relaxed tempo – basically serves to set the mood for ganke, which is also performed for around two hours but is slightly faster and has a more serious atmosphere. Yano-san explained that these songs have slightly different origins, which also explains why ondo is slightly less serious than ganke: while both songs were first performed in Ugo nearly 700 years ago during the Muromachi Era, ondo was initially performed as a harvest dance, whereas ganke was performed with specifically Buddhist implications. At some point several hundred years ago – the details remain sketchy – the two widely admired dances were thought best merged together into a single festival, resulting in the current structure of the two being performed back-to-back. The slight nuances in atmosphere between the dances is readily palatable if you make the journey to Ugo in August: people drink beer and enjoy picnics during ondo, but are quieter and more focused on the festival itself during ganke.



The Festival
Dancers at the 2014 festival.

The Festival 2
The dreamlike atmosphere.

So, what are the Buddhist beliefs encapsulated by ganke and espoused by obon in general? Obon is a Buddhist holiday—and one of the most important holidays in Japan—that celebrates familial ancestors, and the dancing and music performed at obon festivals throughout the archipelago was thought to raise and send back the spirits of the dead. In the case of Nishimonai, the dancers themselves were thought to represent these ancestral spirits from the other world, a detail which is reflected in their unique costumes: hats (called amigasa) and masks (called hikosa-zukin) obscure the faces of those who wear them, just as the faces of the spirits are obscured by death and the passage of time and memory.

The amigasa straw hats.

Hikosa-zukin masks – pretty much the coolest!

Men and women can (and do!) wear either costume in contemporary performances, although the hats were originally for female performers and the masks for men.

Japan’s relationship with obon kind of functions like the holiday season in the U.S.: hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, return to the home of their ancestors to pay respect and attend (or participate!) in these festivals. It’s a time to celebrate people and local communities, and as such obon dances were crafted so that anyone could easily learn and participate in the festivals.

But “easy,” as I’m learning, is an extremely relative term. And in the process of learning these graceful (if tricky) dances, I’m also gaining much more than the steps. I’ve had lessons now for both ondo and ganke, and am starting to learn so much about the hearty, independent, kind spirit of Ugo, and about how cultural exchange and the building of deep social bonds can take place wordlessly. Below are two striking anecdotes that illustrate what I’m talking about.

The first is about being extended the kind hand of cultural understanding and being given the benefit of the doubt. During my first lesson of ondo, I was tripping all over my feet and barely kept up. Our sensei turned around and asked me, “Are you having problems understanding the Japanese instructions, or is it just difficult?” I told her that it’s because I’m a terrible dancer, to which she laughed and proceeded with instruction as before without missing a beat.

Preservation Society 1
A look inside the auditorium of the Nishimonai Preservation Society in Ugo, where the monthly dance lessons are held.

Preservation Society 2
Model dancers wearing amigasa in the atrium of the Preservation Society.

Imagine what it’s like looking like the stereotypical “foreigner” in a place where the conception that foreigners cannot learn or speak the very difficult language of Japanese runs rampant. Although assuming that a Westerner can’t speak Japanese and adjusting accordingly is undeniably a byproduct of the thoughtful, kind-hearted Japanese social custom of anticipating reactions to make everyone’s experience more comfortable, it often means that I’m treated differently… which, in a society where conformity and insider status is extremely important, can lead to feelings of isolation. I’m handed English menus in restaurants without second thought, I hear comments about my appearance by countless people walking down the street who don’t think that I might just understand, and even if I have a conversation with someone in Japanese it’s often assumed that I can’t read or write the language. My Japanese is by no means perfect, but it doesn’t need to be to communicate effectively. Indeed, the perceived difficulty of the Japanese language for foreigners is one of the primary challenges of cultural exchange in Japan.

So when our sensei accepted my answer without second thought and went back to patiently going through the steps with me again (and again), she set a deep precedent of respect and mutual understanding. My foreignness didn’t matter. She wanted to teach me, and I wanted to learn from her; I understood – and trusted – from that moment that we were working toward the same goal regardless of our differing backgrounds. And even if words did fail us, we could communicate through the gentle steps of the dance, through the graceful hand movements, and from our mutual goals of learning and sharing a part of Ugo’s beautiful local spirit.

The second anecdote is about extending a hand of cultural understanding myself, and fostering trust and understanding through effort. The lessons last for about an hour and a half with two five-minute breaks. Most of us spend these ten precious minutes sighing about how the handwork is difficult is to remember or letting the new moves settle in. This was especially true during the most recent ganke lesson, because ganke is especially tricky – even for the veterans. The moves are often only subtly different, but one person’s wrong step can throw everyone off. During break this time, however, I approached our sensei and, after apologizing for taking up her break time in advance, came at her with a list of questions: How far apart should my feet be, since I’m taller? How bent should our knees be? How should our hands look on the third step? Should our steps have a bounce in them, and how big should our strides be? Rather than be annoyed, she looked at me with a gentle smile, and enthusiastically and thoroughly answered every last question.

When break was over, she looked over her shoulder with kind eyes and a barely perceptible smile every time she explained a new move, as if to personally check that I was following without broadcasting this somewhat special treatment. While my fellow lesson-mates laughed when (literally) tripping up as the night came to a close, I decided to use the extra minute of downtime to practice the steps by myself. And during that time, our sensei came up to me and offered a few extra pointers to make sure I locked it down.

As old as this music is, its practice and performance has the capability to function as a refreshing exchange of humanity in the face of globalization and the pre-packaged conceptions of “Japaneseness” and “foreignness” that come along with it. In the process of beginning to learn the dances for Nishimonai, I’m learning that – along with the dance itself – respect, a desire to learn, humility, local aesthetic sensibilities, and sheer kindness are being communicated as well. It’s fascinating to me that my foreignness, in some ways, means less in a tiny town of a few thousand people tucked away in the mountains of Akita and is less defining of my interactions than it can be in Tokyo, a sprawling cosmopolitan metropolis of over thirty million people. At the same time, I’m continually reminded by the gentle kindness and practicality of the people of Ugo that cultural exchange is a two-way street, and that a simple gesture like showing my willingness to learn this beautiful dance can be as meaningful as the simple gesture of letting me try to learn it in the first place.

The only problem on the horizon is whether or not I can get it together by August. I really am a terrible dancer.

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