Japan is increasingly embracing all kinds of dancing.

There’s everything from the long-popular ballet and social dances to Latin American salsa, samba, and tango, to Spanish flamenco, some Eastern Asian ethnic dances and even Hawaiian hula.

Exoticism is a draw. The Japanese are known to be enthusiastic travelers, and many encounter all kinds of dances abroad.

But can people really master dances based on cultural backgrounds that are completely foreign?

The answer is yes, says Miki Wakamatsu, a 67-year-old professional hoofer who teaches dance theory and history at Japan Women’s College of Physical Education. He says it’s possible when you understand the movement with your whole body, not just with your mind.

“We should not just use our brain, which is dominated by the social system and rules, when we try to understand (foreign) dances that make us feel the people’s real breath,” Wakamatsu said. “In other words, the shortcut to learn dances is to scrap such ways of thinking. Otherwise, it will be difficult to master dances.”

There are few statistics on how many people are getting into dancing, but the number is apparently increasing, say observers.

One sign is the growing number of stage performances.

According to the most recent figures by the Japan Council of Performers’ Organizations, the total number of ethnic dance performances in Japan, excluding traditional Japanese dances, was 155 in 1999, up from 99 in the previous year.

Wakamatsu said such a dancing bonanza arrives about once in 50 years, when people are experiencing anxiety over the future amid hard economic times and can express an array of emotions through dancing.

“Recently, the society has been full of uncertainty, and people don’t know what to do — banks could collapse anytime, the country is burdened with huge debts, and people fear possible terrorism,” the professor said.

Such grim circumstances can help spark a dance boom, he said.

Dancing is often a “reaction to one’s crises,” embodying painful feelings that cannot be expressed by words, he said.

“Dance comes out of people’s bodies because they are so anxious that they cannot sit still,” he said.

Leaping across borders

Even so, it may still be difficult for outsiders to learn such national dances as “nichibu” Japanese dance, Spanish flamenco or Indian dance.

“Human bodies are brought up in cultural and environmental surroundings, including climate and the concept of the race. I agree it is difficult to learn something outside of your own culture, particularly if it comes out of a people’s instinct,” said Emi Hatano, professor of Western dance history at the college of art of Nihon University in Tokyo.

“But if you take time, you can master them. It is another question, however, how well you can do it,” she said.

Many Japanese are now flocking to dance lessons and practicing hard.

“(Many) Japanese people are lacking in their sense of rhythm, but I find them striving to reach a certain level,” said Kosuke Ishii, an owner of a dance studio offering lessons in salsa, tango, social dance and hip-hop in Tokyo’s Roppongi district.

Janette Valenzuela, a Mexican American salsa dancer who appeared in the 1998 film “Dance With Me,” said many Japanese have successfully adapted the Latin dance into their lives. She visited Japan earlier in December to hold workshops.

“Salsa is not part of Japanese culture, but Japanese salsa lovers have embraced our music and culture,” she said.

Mayumi Mizumura, associate professor at Ochanomizu University in Tokyo who specializes in exercise physiology and biomechanics, said some dances fit certain types of people and some suit others.

“In that sense, you can enjoy a dance more if you feel comfortable with it,” she said.

For example, dancers are required to express everything in slow, limited movement in Japanese dance, while European and Latin dances are often more swift and dynamic, she said.

Wakamatsu of Japan Women’s College of Physical Education reckoned that the slow tempo probably stemmed from the traditional lifestyle of Japanese farmers, who were rarely exposed to the risk of foreign enemies.

In particular, the tempo of the “bon-odori” summer festival dance and village songs is slow so that old people can also enjoy it, he said.

Biological, cultural divides

Dance movements make the best use of the physical structure of each ethnic group, Mizumura of Ochanomizu University said.

In European dances such as ballet, dancers keep their waists at a high level and move their legs in broad motions. Such actions stand out with long legs.

But in the Oriental dances of Japan, Bali, India, and Thailand, as well as Hawaii, performers bend their legs to balance at a lower point and their hand movement needs to be expressive, Mizumura said.

Wakamatsu pointed out that music formation in the West is different from that in the East.

Japanese traditional music is monophonic, with different kinds of instruments playing the same tune, while European music is polyphonic, consisting of various melodies by different instruments, he said.

Besides the music structure, rhythms themselves are diverse among cultures.

Latin countries’ complex tunes, called “meshed rhythms,” are formed by a core rhythm with variations of other rhythms woven into it, making such music as salsa, samba, and flamenco starkly contrast the mechanical rhythms of European classics, Wakamatsu said.

That is why it’s not easy for non-Latin nationalities to keep up with Latin music and dances, he said. Japan used to enjoy traditional rhythms, but it has been heavily influenced by the European rhythms since the end of the isolation period in the Edo era (1603-1868), he added.

Yet, it remains unknown whether the talent of a given dancer comes from his or her ethnic background, from individual talent, or from education, Mizumura said.

“Dance is interesting because it has such immeasurable factors,” she said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.