Dance Tidbits – Dances of Japan

To the Japanese people, dance is an important part of their lives. And it is equally important not only to the participant but the spectators too. Much of the Japanese culture derives its folk dancing around the Shinto and Buddhist faiths. Dancing in ancient times was used to pray and honor the Gods. Shinto is the indigenous religion of the people of Japan. It is an action-centered religion that focuses on traditional practices to connect the present day Japan with the ancient past. While Buddhism has been practiced in Japan since at least 552 A.D., it too, has had a major influence on the development of Japanese society and is still an influential factor on the culture in Japan today. It is interesting to note, that, most Japanese Buddhists are also affiliated with Shinto, as neither of the two religions demand exclusivity.

Japanese dance form is completely different from ballet and other Western dances. The Japanese have a different way of looking at dance. Big steps and jumps of ballet and other Western dances signify the desire to escape this earth, striving to reach the heavens. Japanese dance consists of movements requiring bent knees and low center of gravity. The emphasis is more on being closer to the earth or ground. In this way, the Japanese show their desire to remain in contact with the earth, their constant source of energy.

In the 7th century, two types of dance were introduced to Japan from China. They were called Bugaku and Sangaku. Bugaku was considered entertainment for the aristocracy depicted by quiet and serene dance movements. Bugaku still exists today and now consists of court dances. Sangaku was the opposite, considered very lively. Sangaku also included music, puppetry and/or acrobatics. It was more for the working class people of Japan. Sangaku later changed to Sarugaku, a lively form of dance, which was performed at various social functions. Sarugaku then transformed into Noh theatre, a combination of dance and theatre. In Noh theatre, it is interesting to note, that men play both the male and female roles. Many characters can also be masked.

You may have heard of Kabuki dancing or Kabuki theatre. Kabuki theatre started around the 17th century. It was a little of Noh combined with traditional folk dance, traditional music and puppetry. Kabuki is classical dance-drama, highly stylized and known for the elaborate make-up worn by some of its performers. Dengaku is the epitome of Japanese folk dance. These dances were danced in the fields to pray for a good harvest, or to thank the gods for providing one. Dengaku centers on work and was made up of working man’s dance which are traditional folk dances and tells tales of the lives of the Japanese man or woman. Nitton Minzoku Buyo are Japanese folk dances performed by ordinary working people such as farmers and fishermen. Nitton Minzoku Buyo dances are done at ceremonies, plays and music festivals. It is a dance handed down from generation to generation designed to get people of all Japanese communities to come together and can be seen at Japanese festivals and popular events.

Costumes and props are a huge part of Japanese dance. The costume of a Japanese dancer can tell us what the dancer is feeling and who he or she is. It is possible to see a dance or play start out slowly, so the actors can create very flamboyant costumes to keep the audience interested. Of course, the very well known kimonos are part of Japanese tradition and dance. When it comes to stage costuming, there are several relevant differences from the normal, everyday kimono use. Stage costumes are designed according to the season of the performance and whether the actor is a man or a woman and the character being portrayed. Beautiful Japanese stage costumes have long been considered to be works of art. On the flip side, an interesting aspect of Japanese dance is that it can be all about the dancer’s physical expression and not the costumes at all; this is called ‘sudori.’ You may see an obi wrapped around the waist of a Kimono to hold the costume together. Happi (traditional Japanese straight-sleeved coat) is a more basic form of clothing for festival dances and not considered formal wear. Hakama are baggy trousers used when the dancer is emulating a samurai. You may see props such as towels and masks used in many of the Japanese dances. Umbrellas are used in dances that are mainly about rain. Hats are used in dances to do with farming. Fans are the most common prop and are used because they are symbols of good luck. Swords may be used when a samurai is the dancer.

I think it would be wonderful to visit Japan in August. There is a special dance called Bon Odori done at the Bon Festival held every summer in every district in every city of Japan. Bon means welcoming ancestors’ souls. This festival lasts a whole week in August and pays tribute to those who are no longer with us. A very noble concept!

Thought Of The Week:

Be patient, the best things happen unexpectedly.


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Shane Meuwissen is the Media Specialist for Fordney Foundation.  He is a former dance instructor who know works with his company Slow Motion Dance Videos capture the beauty of dancing. If you would like to learn more about Shane and his video work, visit his website