I don’t know if I’ve ever had such a blast while feeling so awkward. Dancing is what I do, and I own it. But this time I was dancing unfamiliar dances in a barely familiar style in front of thousands of people. Plus I’m a tall white girl who was dressed in street attire amongst Kimono clad Japanese women much shorter than I. Still, I pushed on because it was SO GREAT!
Little Tokyo has celebrated Nisei Week since 1934 when the second generation Japanese Americans convinced their elders to both celebrate their common Japanese ancestry while honoring their new identities as Americans. To help expand and market Little Tokyo businesses during the Great Depression, the founders knew more attention needed to be given to the second generation “Nisei” and even non-Japanese, rather than just to the “Issei” or original immigrants.
And so a beautiful cultural festival was born.
Nisei is a week full of Japanese arts, music and dance such as Taiko drumming, origami, Japanese brush paintings and flower arrangement, Samurai armor and swords, Kimekomi dolls and Tea ceremonies. I was awed by amazing Taiko drummers (especially as they incorporated choreographed arm movements and shouting out to the audience) and viewing beautiful bonsai at JACCC , but I especially enjoyed dancing Japanese folk dances with hundreds of dancers for the closing ceremonies on First Street.
For the Parade and Ondo dances, festival attendees were welcome to join in the counterclockwise circle.
Two blocks of First Street in downtown LA were blocked off for hundreds of dancers and thousands of observers.
Live music by Minyo Station was fabulous! From the Yagura, a high wooden scaffold, they performed songs that involved thousands in the audience to participate.
They created an imaginary line, splitting the street in two “love” and “hope” and had us chant as if we were on a boat, creating the rhythm for the song. (Minyo Station at Nisei Week)
For the Ondo dance, everyone but the dancers cleared the streets. Each dance school or group was
wearing matching Kimonos. As I tried to learn the steps, I noticed differences in the way individual dancers executed specific movements. I was fortunate to wind-up near Michelle. Michelle, is a beautiful dancer. Moreover, she was a gracious teacher. She welcomed me to emulate her movements while she gave me the names and background of the movement. For example, one of the dances told a story of miners as we dug coal, shoveling over our shoulders and making gestures of a mountain.
In retrospect, my Ondo dance experience exemplified what Nisei is all about. First I learned from trained classical Japanese dancers in beautiful, traditional costume. A few of the songs allowed easing into the slow subtleties of gliding, and gestures that are both nostalgic and knowing.
There’s a grace and enigmatic quality that a dancer can convey behind the story-telling of the hands and eyes. This was greatly satisfying to see and to attempt emulation.
While I learned the primarily ‘traditional’ folk movements of the outer circle, I watched a few dancers in the inner circle taking the dances to a whole new level. They jumped, added turns, vocalizations and Americanized dance movements. They were having a lot of fun.
I had only brushed the surface of learning the original choreographies. But after about an hour, I had made a full circle of dancing with those in kimonos and I jumped into the inner circle. I love dance fusion, and
here was a space for dancers to put their own unique style and funk into the choreography. After I felt comfortable, I threw in some Hula kaholo while others were sliding to the side.
This closing ceremony offered a simultaneous display of traditionally inspired Japanese folk dances along with the same dances stylized by American and individualized movements. This is after all, some of the goal of the founders, to give regard to the new heritage that was being cultivated in Little Tokyo.
I highly recommend Nisei Week as a beautiful, welcoming place to dive into Japanese and Japanese-American culture.
Minyo Station http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWq70Jmy3G0