NEW YORK — The name Okinawa can conjure up an image of islands scattered between Japan proper and Taiwan, or a picturesque blue sea and white beaches, or U.S. military bases surrounded by protesters.
These images are all very common, but Okinawa has much more to offer, says Junko Fisher, a New York-based performer specializing in traditional dances from her native prefecture.
Since last summer, Fisher has been teaching a workshop on traditional Okinawan dance in Queens Library in New York. A rare program focusing exclusively on Okinawa’s culture, it combines dance performances with talks on the prefecture’s history.
Fisher says she used to perform traditional Okinawa dances at Japanese and American events, such as cherry blossom festivals, but about two years ago she started to feel that “something was missing.”
“I would typically perform a piece for about 10 to 20 minutes and that was it. People will only remember it as a ‘Japanese dance.’ But I felt I needed to interact with the audience to tell them about Okinawa,” she says, recalling her motivation to start the workshop.
Now part of the library’s Adult Services program aimed at encouraging continued learning, the workshop is being offered at branches throughout the borough of Queens.
Doris Jones, the library’s programs assistant, said the library has offered a number of Japanese performances in the past, but Fisher’s workshop is unique because the performer doubles as history teacher.
“It allows for a very intimate learning experience,” Jones said.
The Okinawa dance is also known as the Ryukyu dance, after the name of the independent kingdom that ruled the region from the 15th to the 19th century. Old European maps sometimes refer to the kingdom as Lequeo Grande or the Great Ryukyu, as a distinct entity from Japan.
With China and Japan both restricting their maritime activities, the kingdom prospered through intermediary trade. It did business with a diverse group of areas across Asia, including the powerful Malacca Sultanate in Southeast Asia.
Reflecting this history, the 90-minute program opens with a demonstration of a dainty court dance called “Yotsutake.” Two pairs of bamboo pieces are used as castanets by a performer in a bright yellow kimono known as “bingata” and red footwear that was only worn at court.
The dance was developed to entertain Chinese envoys who visited the kingdom to approve its new ruler.
This piece is followed by “Nubui Kuduchi,” which depicts a journey of a young Ryukyu official visiting feudal Japan’s Satsuma domain, which roughly corresponds to today’s Kagoshima Prefecture.
Fisher tells the audience about the evolution of these dances — from sumptuous pieces for entertaining ambassadors to those that are more pleasing to common people. She then demonstrates a joyous piece called “Kanayo” (“My Dear One”), depicting a young couple’s courtship in which a red woven towel is used as a symbol of affection.
“I didn’t know that performing arts in Okinawa were so closely related to its history, for example its trade relations with China,” said Susan Hamaker, a freelance writer who recently attended the workshop. “It’s great that you can have a history lesson while learning to dance.”
Another participant, Jasmine Akhter of Bangladesh, said she was amazed how similar some of the movements were to those of her home country’s dances.
“There is something universal about dancers’ emotional expressions,” she said.
Born Junko Nagahama in the village of Yomitan, Fisher grew up in a family of dancers — both her mother and uncle are accomplished Ryukyu dance performers.
Fisher came to New York in 1988 to polish her Japanese-English interpreting skills, her career back then, but ended up settling in the Big Apple after meeting her American husband at a publisher where she worked.
Fisher continued her interpreting work after the couple’s marriage in 1991, but the amount of work plummeted following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
She says the sudden drop in her workload put her into a psychological slump. “Day after day, I kept asking myself ‘Who am I?.’ “
After about two years, Fisher says, she discovered her true calling. “I came to realize that I really wanted to dance. And that’s what saved me.”
She says she gets inspiration from her fellow New Yorkers from all over the world who keep their cultural heritage alive in the American melting pot.
“I meet people talking passionately about their cultural traditions, such as Argentine tango and Chinese Peking opera. They speak with such a passion that I can visualize everything like a movie. I strive to be like them.”