Japanese traditions in American dance schools preserve culture and promote awareness
By Lisa Okuhn
Dance is big in Japan. Ballet was introduced in Japan in the 1910s by Russian émigrés, and in the 1920s and ’30s Japanese dancers brought German expressionist modern dance back from Europe. After World War II, American modern dance influences took hold in Japan; more recently hip-hop has folded itself comfortably into Japanese culture.
As Western dance forms took root in Japan, those forms mostly retained their Western flavor and traditions. But the crisscrossing of the arts across continents inevitably brings a commingling of cultures, so it’s hardly surprising that Japanese dancers and teachers in the United States bring a distinctively Japanese approach to their work. Several have founded dance schools that incorporate aspects of Japanese culture in various ways.
Hariyama Ballet New York
Growing up with two musician parents and two ballerina sisters, Mami Hariyama studied ballet and piano, becoming serious about dance at age 10. She studied Vaganova technique in St. Petersburg, Russia, and trained with Irina Kolpakova (now a ballet master at American Ballet Theatre) in Indiana at Ballet Internationale’s Clara R. Noyes Academy. But when Hariyama moved to the U.S. in 2004 at age 20, she had given up her dance career.
“I wanted to reset my life and start again in New York,” she says. She made a living playing piano for ballet classes at Steps on Broadway, Broadway Dance Center, Ailey, and other schools, but “playing piano for dancers made me want to dance again,” she says. “I realized I wanted to make my living doing ballet.” She started teaching in rented studios in New York City. Word spread, she got busier, and in 2010 she opened a school in midtown Manhattan.
Discipline and respect are lynchpins of her studio ethos. “Japanese schools are very strict about discipline and manners,” says Hariyama. About 90 percent of her school’s population is of Japanese descent. Students greet each person who enters the studio, individually thank teachers after class, refrain from leaning on the barre while the teacher is talking, and drink water at designated times only. Students and faculty also clean the studio together. “We teach that you have to appreciate that you can take ballet classes here. So we all clean together,” Hariyama says.
Some of her students are children whose parents’ Japanese corporate jobs have landed them in New York; others are second- and third-generation Japanese Americans. These families want their children to maintain ties to their Japanese heritage, so in addition to imposing a Japanese sense of discipline in the classroom, Hariyama creates choreography that reflects that heritage. One recent ballet was set to taiko music; another, The Grateful Crane, is based on a Japanese folktale and uses Japanese music and costumes. “I gave homework, to read and understand and think and feel what the story is about,” she says.
Hariyama still accompanies company class at American Ballet Theatre, and has recorded six ballet CDs; three, released last October, are official Disney titles for kids’ classes. In her spare time she gives lectures about ballet at The Nippon Club. “I want people to enjoy watching ballet. I pick one or two ballets and describe the story, what to watch, where to watch, what the dancers are actually doing. I explain mime, which parts not to miss, which steps are really difficult. People come to the lectures and then go see ballet, and I get word that they enjoy it twice as much,” she says.
The Arts Cure Center
Eri Misaki began teaching, like she started dancing, as an act of both love and will. When the young Misaki expressed a desire to dance, her mother vetoed the idea. “My mother thought ballet was sexually oriented,” Misaki says. “She saw dancers in tutus raising their legs very high and didn’t like it. Instead she threw me into tea ceremonies and flower arrangement.”
After seeing adults taking dance classes during an English-study stint at the University of California–Berkeley, Misaki returned to Tokyo and, at age 24, began studying contemporary ballet and modern dance. Five years later, in 1982, she moved to New York, studied at the Martha Graham School, joined Martha Graham Ensemble, and performed with Eleo Pomare’s modern dance company for close to four years.
When the company disbanded, Misaki began publishing New York Dance Fax, a Japanese dance newsletter, aimed at Japanese readership in the U.S. and Japan. With funding from New York State, the newsletter became bilingual and ran reviews, interviews, and feature stories.
Then came September 11. “It became a crazy situation in New York City,” says Misaki. Perusing the Japanese version of Craigslist, she saw notices like “I need to move my body,”—messages in which she discerned anxiety and disconnection. So she organized dance classes in rented studios around the city, advertising for instructors in the newsletter. “I wanted to give a space for people to release their feelings from the distress after the terrorist attacks.”
Misaki never meant to run classes specifically for Japanese dancers, but most of the teaching candidates who responded to the ads were Japanese. “Maybe it was because most of my readership was Japanese and at the same time Japanese dancers didn’t have any place to teach,” she says. And most of the students were Japanese. “There were a lot of dance studios in New York City, but none run by Japanese,” she says. Japanese-speaking dancers in the U.S. “don’t always understand what the instructor is saying. The language is important.”
In 2005 Misaki opened The Arts Cure Center in Long Island City, New York. Ballet, hip-hop, creative movement, and voice classes for children and adults are held almost entirely in Japanese, helping to relieve some parents’ worry about their children losing touch with their language and culture.
She also started what she calls the “Japanese parents’ gathering project”—not a formal organization, but “a gathering to connect parents in the Japanese community. Some young parents come here and have language barrier problems; they don’t how to organize things or how to do things.” These information-sharing sessions have proved valuable for parents and children, who enjoy having group playdates with their studio friends.
Arts Cure’s folktale performance projects grew out of the sessions. One day Misaki was entertaining the kids by telling folktales, illustrating them with hand-drawn pictures. “People liked it,” she says, and since the teaching staff comprises a group of diverse performing artists, she realized “we could do this with ballet, hip-hop, modern dance, and singing.” Arts Cure has presented two productions, Urashima Taro and Kaguya-Hime, based on Japanese folktales.
The purpose and grit Misaki has demonstrated throughout her life and career were recently tested by an unaffordable raise in rent. Forced to close the school at the end of December, Misaki is determined to continue the parent gatherings and hold classes in rented space at least through June’s recital.
MoBu Dance Studio
Takami Craddock, founder and director of San Francisco’s MoBu (the Japanese character means “true dance”) Dance Studio, studied ballet and modern dance in her hometown of Numazu City and, in the U.S., Limón, Horton, improvisation, and Isadora Duncan dance. A turning point in her training was her introduction to butoh. She co-founded San Francisco Butoh Festival in 1995, learning from masters like Akira Kasai and Setsuko Yamada, and she uses many butoh principles in her classes for students ages 3 to 18.
Craddock starts many of her modern and contemporary classes with improvisation exercises, some of them based on butoh principles, and throughout class occasionally asks students to consider movement with those principles in mind. For example, she says, “In butoh there is a walking technique. We practice past, future, and present walking. When you walk, you can think about the past, so that your intention goes to the back. When you think about the future, walking forward, you feel the intention of the front body. When walking in the present, you have the center. I teach this philosophy to the advanced kids, so that when they walk on the stage they have those different ways to walk.”
Craddock also tries to convey the idea of ma, which comes from Noh and Kabuki theater. “The Japanese character means ‘the space between,’ ” Craddock explains. “Essentially, in Japan we have a different sense of time. We wait in the moment. Whether you wait and breathe or you go for it, you create a completely different dynamic. You have your own time zone, I like to say.” This applies to choreography as well as improvisation. “The students who have been with me for a while understand this, how the timing of the movement expresses the meaning of the dances.”
Combining butoh principles and creative dance training she received working with the late dance-education pioneer Gloria Unti at Performing Arts Workshop (which brings professional artists into inner-city schools and community centers) works well with young children, Craddock says. “Butoh is becoming something. When you do it with little ones, you become bumblebees together, or butterflies, or little bugs. You give them many different images.”
Since 2004, MoBu has participated in an exchange program with Sanae Hara Dance Academy in Shizuoka, Japan. Every year—visiting each another on alternating years—5 to 10 students from the respective studios (fifth grade and up) train together and perform at each other’s annual performances. This year five of MoBu’s dancers (and their families) visited the Shizuoka studio, and during their last visit, three Japanese dancers performed with the MoBu dancers at San Francisco’s Cowell Theater.
Craddock describes a notable cultural difference: “In the Japanese culture we don’t do ‘Yay!’ when you see a show. When the Japanese dancers performed here, all the families were clapping and yelling, and the dancers were tearing up because they had never gotten that response from an audience. They felt so good, and they went back feeling so enthusiastic.”
Misako Ballet Studio
Misako Ballet Studio in Columbia, Maryland, enrolls close to 120 students. Artistic Director Misako Aoki trained and danced with Matsuyama Ballet, one of the country’s most prominent ballet companies. After teaching ballet in Japan, Aoki moved to Philadelphia in 1993 with her young family and taught in a church basement there. She continued teaching throughout subsequent moves to Charlottesville, Virginia, and then Columbia, and opened her own studio in 2003.
The Maryland school’s teaching style stresses a strong classical foundation, informed by Aoki’s own training with instructors like Taneo Ishida, who came out of the Russian tradition, and by her three years at The Royal Ballet School.
In describing her teaching philosophy, Aoki notes a characteristic she believes is entrenched in her native culture: “Japanese are calm and gentle but have strong feelings inside.” She lives by a tenet that she absorbed in her ballet training as well as through her Japanese background: “If you keep doing the right thing, it leads to a good outcome in the long term,” she says.
The school’s productions incorporate aspects of Japanese culture. “We do ‘classical with a Japanese twist,’ ” Aoki says. Misako Ballet Company performs selections from works like Le Corsaire and Swan Lake, along with a one-act version of The Grateful Crane. A recent new production, The Undersea Palace, is based on the folktale “Urashima Taro.” For these ballets, she says, “I use some movement from Japanese dance and coordinate ballet steps,” she says.
With only two Japanese American students in the school, Aoki’s aims in presenting these Japanese-inflected works are not intended to connect students to their culture. “We don’t have a huge community here,” she says. “But I want to show aspects of my culture using dance, to help us understand and appreciate each other.
“My original ballet teacher, Kiyoshi Hamuro, has a name in Japanese traditional dance, and also in ballet,” she continues. “When I went to London he said I should know Japanese dance, so I learned some. I think as Japanese we should be proud of our traditions, should look into ourselves first. You have to look back at who you are, that’s what I think he meant.”
Lisa Okuhn is a writer and former DSL associate editor, and a former dancer with Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians, ODC/Dance, and others. She founded arts-focused Okuhn Public Relations.