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Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year's Resolution: Bon Odori at San Jose Japantown's O Bon Festival

As a child my parents made me take Japanese dancing lessons the way other kids were forced to take tap dancing or piano lessons. From a child's perspective there were two kinds of dancing:

1. The bon odori (pronounced bone oh-doe-ree rolling the "r") summer dancing for the O Bon festival that meant we would be wearing thin, unlined, comfortable, lightweight kimonos called "Yukata" with soft obi (pronounced oh-bee) sashes around our wasits and dancing outdoors in the parking lot of the buddhist church we didn't attend. In a way, bon odori is the Japanese equivalent to country line dancing. Everyone does the same steps and movements in unison but while walking in a circle around a narrow, central platform which traditionally held live musicians like the drummer whose rhythmic beating set the pace for the dancers below. The bon odori dancing represents simple folk stories told in a simple way.

Mia Hirata (left) and I wearing fancy style kimono and obi sashes

2. The second type was classical Japanese dance. It was much fancier, more formal and focused heavily on technique to tell the story. Hand gestures, head direction, arm movements, and foot placement were all crucial details in performing a classical piece well. Our teacher was kind so the lessons themselves were quite enjoyable and I think I always looked forward to the time spent with her.

Once a year we would perform the dances we'd learned onstage at our church's annual dinner. That night we would have to wear heavy kimonos with thick, formal obis that were hot and hard to breathe in. I can still remember how I often felt like my ribs were going to crack under the tightness of the obi. Sometimes we had to hurriedly do costumes changes and often used props like parasols, fans and baskets.

It also meant my hair would be pulled, by force, into an excruciatingly tight bun, sealed to my skull with liberal dollops of Dippity Do hair styling gel and lots of hair spray. The only hair that escaped this torture were two, long, spiral curl, side burns that would boing like Slinkies as I performed the dance routines. It also meant I would have to wear my mom's lipstick, which had a horrible floral taste to it when first applied. After a few minutes the scent would dissipate but it was all pretty awful to a little kid.

Pigeon toed me, Mia Hirata, Holli Watanabe and her sister Jenna

At the end of the night we would painfully take our buns down which could only be done by "cracking" our hair loose from their Dippity Do helmets. LOL

We would all take classes from our sensei (pronounced sah-n-say meaning teacher), Madame Kanriye Fujima, who I remember as a very graceful and kind woman. She would come to town several times a year to teach us how to be little dancers. For the classical dancing we would go to her home and learn the steps in preparation for our performances. For the bon odori we would all gather in the parking lot at the Buddhist church and learn the steps as a group. I loved these practice sessions because they were always followed by ice cream. . . Creamsicles, Fudgecicles and those little parfait cups of strawberry or chocolate with vanilla ice cream and a tiny wooden spoon.

I scanned these photos the other day and sent them to Mia and Holli, two of the girls I used to dance with. We had a great laugh over our memories of what Mia (who was always my dance partner) aptly called our "good ole times" back when we were just kids and our biggest problems were things like hating Dippity Do and getting too tanned during the summer so that white powder had to be applied (to Holli and Jenna's faces) for this performance.


So how does this tie into possible New Year's resolutions? Because San Jose's Buddhist Church holds bon odori dance lessons each year in preparation for the two day O Bon festival in San Jose's Japantown each summer where over a thousand people come together with the women wearing kimonos and the men wearing happi coats to perform the traditional dances of Japan. I was thinking it might be neat to revisit the tradition, willingly, as an adult because it was very much a part of my childhood. With time I have a much greater appreciation for holding onto this bit of cultural heritage I had shunned for years.

What are your resolutions this year?

1 comment:

  1. OMG, you said Dippity-Do! Hats off to you and your comrades for upholding a beautiful tradition... In spite of...

    ReplyDelete



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