How to Learn Traditional Japanese Fan Dancing

Benna Crawford
Japanese dance at sunset

The Japanese fan dance is a graceful and evocative form of storytelling set to music. The traditional dances date from as early as the regional cultural fusion during the Japanese Heian period, from 794 to 1192 CE. Chinese, Korean and Japanese music and artistry influenced court dances that would eventually evolve into important elements of Kabuki theater.

Basic Fan Moves

The work with the fan and the traditional movements are common across dances. Men and women perform roles of either gender. The power and grace of the dance, and subtle distinctions in moves, differentiate the characters and setting.

Open the Fan

No matter what dance you are doing, opening the fan is an important skill to learn. Here's how to do it.

  1. Hold the closed fan horizontally, chest-high, pivot-end pointing right, in your right hand.
  2. Place your thumb on top of the pivot.
  3. Position your flat, open left hand under the closed fan, supporting it. Push the sticks, or top edge, open with your right thumb as you sweep the fan out, away from your chest.
  4. At the same time, pull the bottom edge toward your chest with your flat left hand.
  5. Never grab the paper or silk, just the wood sticks and end pieces.

Three Ways to Hold the Fan

There are three main ways to hold the fan during the dance:

  1. Hold the fan horizontally on top of your flat open right hand with your thumb resting on the pivot to steady it.
  2. Hold the fan flat and horizontal from the top. It now rests on your thumb with your open palm on top, steadying it.
  3. Hold the fan vertically with your thumb on the pivot, your remaining fingers curved around the bottom, and your palm facing toward the center of your body.

Walking as a Character

Dancers portray characters and emotions by their walks. Remember that Japanese dance is grounded and almost always performed with flexed knees. To create an illusion of calm, your upper body - the shoulders and head - should remain level, not bob up and down when you move. The fan may be tucked into the obi at your waist when you are walking.

  • To walk, put both feet together and bend your knees.
  • Slide your legs forward, keeping your feet in contact with the ground at all times.
  • To portray a man, take the basic walk stance and turn your toes outward, away from each other. Grasp the edges of your kimono sleeves with your pinky fingers, place your thumbs over your index fingers, sink into your hips, lower your shoulders, pushing your elbows out and your hands toward your centerline, and walk.
  • To walk as a woman, put your knees together, causing your feet to turn inward into pigeon-toes. Hold the edges of your kimono sleeves lightly and bring one sleeve across your chest. Keeping your hips low, shoulders level and toes pointing inward, walk.

Fans as Props

In the dance, the fan is used as an extension of the arm to make lyrical sweeping gestures, or as a prop, a stand-in for another object. One of the most beautiful dance movements with a fan, popular in all Asian cultures with traditional and fusion fan dances, is the blooming flower; an ensemble of dancers becomes a colorful garden.

Tell the Story of Raindrops

Just like the flowers above, you can create falling raindrops with your fan with these simple moves:

  • Grasp the guard end of an open fan with a thumb on one side of the end stick and flat fingers on the other.
  • Raise the fan overhead and slowly bring it down to your side, twisting it back and forth to trace a tight spiral in the air.
  • Open the floodgates to a pounding rain with the fan open in your right hand, thumb on the pivot at the bottom and fingers spread over the sticks on the opposite side.
  • Lift the fan overhead, slightly to the left, raising your left hand, palm open and flat.
  • Lightly tap the open fan against your palm as you move both arms down and to the right to make an audible rainfall.
  • The fan ends next to your right outer thigh; your left hand rests at your left side.

Try a Simple Bon Odori Folk Dance

Bon Odori is a folk festival celebrated in Japan in May. The group dancing often makes use of paper fans, either an open sensu or a flat paper fan. Dances are circular, energetic and light-hearted. Put these basic moves together to create the repetitive choreography of the Bon Odori dance. Remember to stay low, in contact with the ground, and use your practice with the open fan to hold it properly.

  1. Face the center of the circle of dancers with your open fan flat in your right hand, palm facing left.
  2. Raise the fan chest-high and "clap" it three times with the flat palm of your left hand.
  3. Grasp your right kimono sleeve with your left hand as you turn your right plan up to make the fan flat. (Imagine you are catching raindrops on the fan.)
  4. Step right once, as you swing the fan across your body, low and to the left. Let your gaze and head follow the fan.
  5. Take three steps right, raising the fan up and turning it over slowly so it ends flat at about head height. Follow the fan's movement with your head.
  6. Extend the left arm to the front and place the fan just under the left elbow as you step once to the left. You should be facing the center of the circle.
  7. Raise the fan high and grab the right kimono sleeve with the left hand again, holding the left hand close to the center of the chest.
  8. Take six big steps to turn completely around clockwise. Flip the raised fan from top- to bottom-facing, alternating with each step.
  9. Start with the right foot and take three steps to the center of the circle, spreading your arms wide in a graceful arc.
  10. Take three steps back to make the circle bigger again and again spread your arms in an arc.
  11. Turn to the right, extending the right arm front with the fan held flat. The left palm is placed flat on top of the right elbow. Dip the fan up and down like an invitation.
  12. Turn to the left and repeat the move.
  13. Flex your knees, hold both palms flat, arms extended, hands close together.
  14. Lean slightly forward and take one step forward with the right foot as you sweep both arms down and to the sides "tracing the shape of Mount Fuji."
  15. Step back with the right foot as you grasp the right kimono sleeve with the left hand and straighten up.
  16. Flex the knees again, bending the right elbow to bring the flat fan in front of your chest.
  17. Take three steps forward, flapping the horizontal fan once on each step.
  18. Straighten up and drop the left hand.
  19. Turn the right palm holding the fan to face left. The fan will be vertical.
  20. Clap the fan three times with the left palm. On the third clap turn to the center.

The combination may be repeated to continue dancing.

Japanese Sparrows

For those who have mastered the basics and a simple dance or to, the Sparrow dance is another festival staple that involves much more movement of the feet and elaborate manipulation of two fans. School children learn the dance but its expert execution takes time to master. The dance originated 400 years ago among stone masons who interpreted the moves of a common sparrow with fluttering fans and hopping footwork. Follow along with the video below to practice this complicated dance.

Choosing a Sensu Fan

Pleated fans, or sensu, used for the dances are sturdier and more ornate than pretty paper fans that provide a welcome summer breeze. Look for a sensu made of heavy painted paper with hardwood or bamboo "sticks" and "guards," the inner and end pieces that serve as the spine for the material, and open and close the fan. Guards that curve just slightly at the tips protect the delicate paper or silk edges of the fan when it is closed. Some dance fans are made of silk that may be woven, embroidered or painted with a pattern.

Mastery From a Master

True mastery of Japanese fan dance requires a master teacher. The delicate nuances of every downcast eye, tilt of the head, footfall and hand position on the fan seem flowing and effortless but are complex and precise. You may be able to find classes in Japanese dancing through Chinese dance studios in your city, or through a local Asia Society. On the East Coast, Sachiyo Ito & Company in New York City offers group classes and private lessons. West Coast dancers can find fan dance instruction at Kabuki Academy in Tacoma, Washington. And you can always take inspiration from dancers featured on internet videos performing stately Kabuki-style story-dances, energetic festival folk dances or Asian fusion fan dances, to work on your form and storytelling skills.

How to Learn Traditional Japanese Fan Dancing