Japanese-Peruvian dancer Elsa Hatakeda Sanchez’s introduction to salsa more than 20 years ago expanded her horizons and helped turn personal tragedy into a creative, productive life.
A salsa tape she received from a friend while mourning the death of her week-old daughter made her realize she still had a full life to look forward to.
The experience, which occurred when she was 20, helped widen her perspective on life. Later, a night out catching fireflies in Gifu Prefecture made her decide to teach salsa.
The 43-year-old native of Lima started learning to dance when she was 8.
She followed her elder brother to Japan in 1991 to work at an auto parts plant in Toyokawa, Aichi Prefecture.
The trip to Gifu with fellow factory workers took place after her Chilean husband, Luis Bustios Encina, 45, and their son, Rodrigo, 20, came to Japan to join her.
Watching innumerable fireflies hover along a river, Sanchez marveled at how they created the image of a starry sky. She suddenly recalled what her late grandfather, Keiichi Hatakeda, said when she was a little girl.
“Japanese children in days long past filled paper sacks with fireflies and used their light to study,” she remembers him saying.
Hatakeda, born in 1889 in Yamaguchi Prefecture, emigrated to Peru in the early 1900s. He married a Chinese woman and raised eight children while his wife ran a beauty parlor and he worked as a tailor.
He also reportedly told Sanchez, “Japanese are kind, safe and can do anything.” He died without returning to Japan, when she was 8.
Sanchez’s memory of his words drove her to establish closer ties with Japanese and to educate them about the Latin spirit.
She hopes to visit the town of Tabuse in Yamaguchi, from which her grandfather emigrated to Peru.
She called at Toyohashi City Hall in southern Aichi and asked for help with her plan to teach salsa. She had only three students initially, but now more than 100 take lessons from her in Nagoya and Gifu.
Many students are young women, but she has also helped police officers and firefighters learn the moves.
“I want to help Japan change,” she said. “The Japanese people’s image abroad is that they are shy and it’s hard to understand what they’re thinking. I want to change (that image) with dancing and to show they can express themselves.”
She said the salsa tape she received during her monthlong hospitalization helped her overcome her grief and expand her horizons.
“Salsa teaches the joy of living,” she added. “When you dance (to salsa) you forget everything — sickness, work and household worries.
“I think that’s why they all come to take lessons. New students look nervous. I tell them not to worry if they can’t dance, and just enjoy it.”
Salsa music became a fad in Japan about 10 years ago, and the dance took off three years ago.
Sanchez was in a Gifu studio on a recent Sunday night, dancing to the salsa rhythm, swinging her hips and stepping quickly, as if her body were filled with joy.
“I can’t stop,” she said as she bounced on the floor in front of six students. They soon followed her moves, their faces glowing and sweat running from their foreheads.
Ikuyo Ueno, 31, of Nagoya, said Sanchez is “like the sun. She transmits her enthusiasm to us.”
Ueno first came in contact with salsa six years ago on a trip to Mexico. She began studying Spanish and has been taking lessons from Sanchez for five years.
Sanchez formed the dance group Presencia Latina with some of her students in 1996 and it has performed in Tokyo, New York and Las Vegas.
In a New York performance in January last year, four dancers appeared on stage wearing traditional “yukata” summer kimono and holding fans. They suddenly stripped them off and revealed sexy dance outfits beneath.
“They had their eyes wide open,” Sanchez recalled of the audience. “They were surprised to find Japanese could dance so well. They applauded enthusiastically.”