You can make the argument that all dance tells a story but, in the case of Japanese folk dance, the centrality of story is unmistakable. Folk dances derived from treasured myth, seasonal supplications to the gods, the novelty of intriguing foreign dance forms, and the necessity to drive out demons. The dances are a kind of moving calligraphy written on the body in timeless language.
A Lineage of Movement
It took millennia for Japanese folk dance to develop and evolve as it was handed down. The cultural heritage carefully preserved today requires years of rigorous study to master and tells the story of a people and a colorful passage through time. Each town had its own dance for festivals and holy rituals, and two major spiritual traditions are reflected in many of those dances. Shinto dance deals primarily with earthly preoccupations, such as harvests and prosperity, and Buddhist dances are all about ancestors and the afterlife.
- Archaeological evidence shows figurines of Japanese dancers and costume artifacts, including masks, from the Yamato period -- 300-710 AD.
- Ancient harvest dances and a ritual to call out the sun (from about 800 AD) are the basis for choreography still performed today.
- By about the mid-700s, isolated Japan opened to limited contact with the wider world and, gradually, foreign folk dances were incorporated into indigenous rituals.
- Noh theatre emerged in the 14th century and relied on Saragaku dance for many of its conventions.
- Kabuki came later, in the Edo period after 1600, a common people's dance-drama influenced by Noh and local folk dances.
Dengaku - the Beginning
More than 2,000 years ago, Japanese farmers celebrated an annual festival to importune the gods for a bountiful harvest. Their highly stylized ceremony, Nachi no Dengaku, was the predecessor of Japanese folk dance. In the dance, you can find movements -- the bent knee and flexed foot, the low center of gravity, the precise synchronization, the use of props such as fans, the mirroring -- that show up in later folk dances. Dengaku is preserved and performed today as an important cultural artifact that tells some of the history of the Japanese people.
Every sequence of the dance is deliberate; the footsteps are a main feature, and they represent stamping out the underlying evil to purify the space. In one solo segment, a dancer represents a deity descended from the heavens. Try the sinuous moves:
- Grasp a fan in your right hand and bend slightly forward at the waist.
- Allow your right arm to curve across your body, your left shoulder to rise as your left arm curves out high behind you.
- Lead with your right knee, keeping your feet flexed as you raise the knee to the right side and follow it around.
- Stomp the right foot flat on the floor to the beat of the drum as you raise your left foot off the floor, cross it slightly in front of the right leg, and stomp.
- Continue turning slowly in this way, holding the arms in position, until you complete eight beats.
- On the eighth beat, raise both arms up and straighten your torso briefly.
- Turn into the opposite direction -- fan arm curved out behind you -- and resume the slow stomping moves in the opposite direction to form a snaking line in-between rows of kneeling dancers.
The Kojiki is an ancient Japanese myth of darkness and light in which the sun goddess is lured from her cave with a ritual offering and a sacred dance. Kagura is the name of the temple dances inspired by the myth and typically tells all or part of the story of the return of the sun. The mythological dance was quite bawdy and seductive, but the derivative Kagura temple dances are more sedate rituals and can be performed in a kind of slow motion that emphasizes every gesture and every use of symbolic props.
Try the low stepping move of the Kagura to appreciate how developed your quads should be for this dance.
- Stand tall with your knees straight and your feet slightly splayed.
- Jump/hop into a squat, sitting low between your knees. Your feet are now spread wide -- about three feet apart -- and your knees are over your feet, pointing out to the sides.
- Raise your right heel, shifting your weight to the left leg.
- Slowly brush your right foot toward you until only the toes touch the ground.
- Point your foot, raise it off the floor, and then slap it down, stepping forward and out as you do.
- Continue to "walk" this way, in whatever direction the dance takes you, staying low to the ground in a squat and never straightening your knees. Tougher than it seems!
Bugaku are Imperial Japanese court dances that fused influences from Chinese, Korean, Southeast Asian, and Indian dance. They took the forms of dignified civil dances and dynamic warrior, running and children's dances, choreographed to Chinese or to Korean music. These are geometric pattern dances with extremely stylized arm, hand, and feet movements. They tell stories; one defining characteristic of the genre is the elaborate masks which identify the various players. If you see a traditional Bugaku dance performance today, it may remind you of the cultures Bugaku was borrowed from -- the Chinese New Year lion dance, for instance.
Dancing with a fixed metal mask over your entire face is a challenge in itself but managing a real sword in a group at the same time calls for precision.
- Grasp the hilt of the sword with four fingers of your right hand, wrapping your thumb around it securely, bending your elbow, and holding the sword close to your torso, blade pointing skyward.
- Move the sword horizontally in front of your body by extending your right arm and slowly twisting your wrist, keeping the sharp edge of the blade pointed away from you.
- When not executing a specific, controlled move, the sword is always positioned close to the torso and pointing up. It may, when you are not moving, rest lightly against your right shoulder.
Sangaku was rowdier dancing that appealed to the common people and might utilize puppets, acrobatics, and energetic music. It was the entertainment at various social occasions, not confined to formal presentations or temple ritual. The earliest Sangaku evolved into a popular dance form called Sarugaku, a precursor of Noh theatre. The masks used in the dances serve to disguise the males who play female characters in all-male Noh performances. When Sangaku appears in traditional Noh theatre today, it often has a burlesque quality that disguises the deceptively difficult mastery required for the art form.
Try the suriashi, the sliding walk in Noh theatre typically assigned to the women (who are almost always played by men in masks and kimonos).
- Stand erect -- men often perform with bent torso, women usually stand tall.
- Keep your legs together, knees touching, toes just slightly "pigeoned."
- Relax the knees imperceptibly before beginning the deliberate walk, a trick that creates the impression of gliding gracefully across the stage.
- Shifting your weight without bobbing up and down, slide one foot forward about half-a-step, raising just the toes slightly before setting the foot flat. Keep the foot in contact with the floor at all times.
- Follow with the second foot as you complete the first step for a continuous, flowing motion.
The Awa is a 400-year-old festival dance from the island of Shikoku. In the dance, men and women are separated into groups and move in different styles. The men are bent forward with bowed legs, hands raised just over the head, wrists gently waving up and down. The women are more upright and graceful. Their palms face inward at the start, their wrist movements are more rounded, the fingers of each hand move in unison. Throughout the dance, the women remain tall, taking high steps, and the men stay lower to the ground, always with bent knees. There's a kind of jazzy feeling to the drums, flute and brass gong playing that is reflected in the lively progress of the dancers down festival streets. Awa seems simple to perform but you need a strong back and muscular thighs to maintain the raised arms and bent knees positions, synchronized with the measured drumbeats.
Get the "bounce" in Awa with a rapid two-step on each step as you march.
- Women: Raise the knee of the stepping leg and touch the toes down just in front of the standing foot.
- Pick up the stepping foot instantly and then complete the step down.
- Men: For fast traveling in a parade, perform the rapid two-step out, away from the body, to cover more ground.
Bon is a summer festival (late July or August) that welcomes and honors ancestors. It is an upbeat, happy time with a cheerful traditional folk dance known as Bon Odori. Everyone dances -- Bon Odori isn't difficult to learn and exuberance trumps precision in performance. Bon Odori is usually danced at night, when the souls of the ancestors visit, so you will see open-air stage shows and street dances lit with strings of lights. Depending on space, people generally dance in a great continuous circle. If you'd like to try a Japanese folk dance, Bon Odori is a good one to attempt. Just mind your feet and memorize a few simple arm gestures, put on a dazzling smile and repeat, repeat, repeat. The video is a mini-lesson you can master in less than five minutes.
Step from Past to Present
Japan's insular society allowed a vibrant tradition of distinctive folk dances to emerge as beloved storytelling devices, region by region. Eventual contact with the rest of Asia enriched those dances but never obscured their character or origins. The classic Noh and Kabuki theatres, emblematic of Japanese culture, owe their style and structure to the old dances preserved in performances on stage and in the streets.