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English morris dancing hits Japan, with all the bells and whistles

by Louise George Kittaka

Special To The Japan Times

The English form of folk dancing known as morris dates back to the Middle Ages and involves costumed groups of dancers stepping in time to music. Participants typically wear bells attached to their shins and may also wield handkerchiefs or sticks. Barely seen in Japan before, this traditional art can now be experienced in the most unexpected of locations: Shikoku.

Thanks to the efforts of English teacher Angela Fukutome, a small but enthusiastic Japanese morris dancing group is performing at festivals and cultural events around Kagawa Prefecture. Drawing on the old name for the Kagawa region, the group — known in morris as a “side” — calls itself Sanuki Morris.

Although Fukutome, a Briton, had no prior experience of morris, she studied various kinds of dancing throughout her childhood and teens, and trod the boards in musicals during her university years.

“I love performing,” she says. “I’d been teaching British culture in my classes at the local NHK Bunka Center, and I’d shown the class videos of folk dancing. I was already involved with dancing at the Ireland Festival in Takamatsu, and that got me thinking that it would be great to have something to reflect my British heritage, too.”

By chance, one of the mothers at Fukutome’s daughter’s kindergarten was an accomplished folk musician who played a number of instruments. Before taking up morris dancing, Aya Akiyama was a member of a professional chindonya troop, or advertising band, carrying on a tradition in which players are hired to march through the streets and advertise local businesses.

“Angela introduced me to English folk music and showed me some videos of morris sides,” Akiyama says. “I fell in love with it right away and suggested to Angela that we should have a try, and that was the birth of Sanuki Morris.”

In morris dancing, says Fukutome, the music is just as important as the dancing.

“For Sanuki Morris, we have musicians who play the mandolin, the drums, the accordion and the flute. I recently was contacted by a new ALT (assistant language teacher) in the area who plays the banjo. Once you put your foot through the door into the world of folk music, it’s amazing how many people are out there. There is a lot of crossing-over and fluidity with this kind of music.”

There are two main types of morris dancing: Cotswold and Border. Sanuki Morris currently practices the Cotswold style, where the dancers usually have simple costumes in light colors. Border morris, on the other hand, is more dramatic, with darker clothing and painted faces. Although she isn’t sure if Shikoku is quite ready for it yet, the theatrical element of the Border style appeals to Fukutome and she hopes to incorporate some of it into Sanuki Morris in future.

Morris is essentially a lighthearted, often humorous style of folk dancing, and, in line with this, Fukutome is experimenting with props that lend a Japanese flavor to the side.

“Morris dancers often use sticks, but there are no rules about what to use. We’re looking at the rolling pins used to prepare the dough used for Sanuki udon (wheat noodles), but I wonder if they will be durable enough,” she says. “If not, then we might use bamboo sticks!”

Fukutome readily admits that people back in Britain tend to poke fun at morris dancing.

“They laugh at the idea of people prancing around wearing bells and waving sticks, but when the dancing starts, everyone stops to watch!” she says. “It’s been the same in Japan when we perform. The first reaction is usually bemusement, but everyone soon gets into the spirit of things and they really seem to love watching.”

The Japanese members of Sanuki Morris note the connections between Japanese and British folk traditions.

“For example, Japan has o-Bon dancing performed at summer festivals, which also uses set steps and traditional music,” says side member Kazuyo Higashitsutsumi. “I’m enjoying learning both a different kind of folk dancing and British culture through Sanuki Morris.”

Akiyama, the former chindonya musician, is attracted by the close connection morris dancing has with everyday people’s lives.

“In England, morris exists because the sides perform to amuse the audience. I think there is a similarity between morris and Japanese chindonya in this respect.”

As a foreigner living long-term in Japan, Fukutome thinks it is important to be able to share and celebrate something from her own heritage.

“When you come to live in a place where there are few others like you around, you need something British to hold on to. Folk dancing has helped me to integrate into the local community and I’ve met people who I’d never have encountered otherwise,” she says. “To be British in Japan and to be able to celebrate that, it’s a wonderful thing.”

Sanuki Morris ( www.facebook.com/groups/sanukimorris) will be performing at the Flower and Garden Festival (www.city.zentsuji.kagawa.jp/site/gogaku/gardenfesuta.html) in Zentsuji, Kagawa Prefecture, on May 17. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

Bringing a touch of the Emerald Isle to Shikoku

A key source of inspiration and encouragement for Sanuki Morris was Michael Bedlow, a teacher at Shikoku Gakuin University who has played a key role in the success of the Takamatsu Ireland Festival.

Bedlow, a Dublin native, was already involved with playing traditional Irish music and had worked to create a network of people in Shikoku interested in Irish culture.

“Then in 2011, I heard that the only ‘real’ Irish pub in Takamatsu, The Craic, wanted to start a St. Patrick’s Day parade, and the Irish Network Japan (INJ) told us we could have a small grant to get things started,” Bedlow explains.

The INJ is a nonprofit organization that promotes Irish culture and coordinates most of the current Irish parades in Japan. The Irish Embassy also offered funding that year as part of a program to promote Irish PR activities.

Along with another Irishman, Shane Coughlan, Bedlow set about making the festival a reality.

“From the beginning, I was against having a solely ‘leprechaun costume and alcohol’ type of event,” Bedlow notes.

He put together a proposal for a day of Irish culture and approached the Kagawa International Exchange Center. Serving as a type of rehearsal for the St. Patrick’s Day parade in March, the day included live traditional Irish music, a cafe, an information desk about Irish tourism and a workshop for making giant puppets for the St. Paddy’s parade.

A session for people interested in dancing at Takamatsu’s first Ireland Festival in 2012 resulted in a group of 16 performing one Irish ceili dance, a type of social dancing that’s similar in style to English country dancing.

Meanwhile, musicians, both Japanese and foreign, pooled their talents and formed a parade band for the festival.

“Most of the members were from a group that played the ocarina (a small wind instrument called tsuchibue in Japanese) but we also had a few tin whistles, a fiddle and a flute,” Bedlow says.

Along with the ceili dancing, Bedlow and his supporters have since started offering workshops in various other kinds of Irish dance, and have run dancing marathons at the Ireland Festival to support a local charity.

Since Japanese tend to associate Irish dancing with the high-stepping style made popular by the “Riverdance” musical, Bedlow is pleased to have been able to introduce other styles to the community.

Like any venture that attempts to introduce something new and unusual to the community, a lot of hard work is required to sustain the Ireland Festivals. Having now seen through three festivals, Bedlow says that funding is always an issue. For the last two years the Takamatsu International Association has offered grants, and Bedlow has also arranged concerts to subsidize the event.

“It would be good if the Ireland Festival could grow to help raise up Kagawa and Shikoku in terms of self-image, and be a bigger community arts festival. There is a strong element of celebrating one’s own culture and identity in my motivation for being involved,” he says.

“Moreover, since both Ireland and Shikoku have small populations and large neighboring islands with much bigger populations and economies, I hope that Shikoku might learn something from Ireland’s successes in the world.”

Michael Bedlow will be playing traditional Irish music with local band Creel at the Flower and Garden Festival in Zentsuji, Kagawa Prefecture, on May 17 and 18. Irish Network Japan (Shikoku): www.facebook.com/groups/154769474607271.