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Welcoming the spring with gracious Japanese folk art

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My unsuccessful attempt to blend in with the harmonious group!
but don’t be discouraged by my two left feet!

In May 2005, back from two years in Tokyo and looking for the bits of Japan scattered in NY, I head to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, thrilled to celebrate spring under the sakura trees. Walking on the soft grass, I am hypnotized by the shades of pink every petal offers. One thing only drags me out of the trees: a few yards away, on stage, the delicate dance of the flower hat mesmerizes the audience. Those 8 minutes go like a dream and I decide to pursue the experience beyond the garden.

The New York Hanagasa Kai (Flower Hat Dance Group) gathers every week, on the Lower East Side, around teacher-artist-friend Momo Suzuki. A “hanagasa” is a hat decorated with artificial safflowers. In 1992, Ms. Suzuki founded the Japanese Folk Dance Institute of NY to promote and preserve traditional folk dances of Japan.  For the past 17 years, an eclectic group of people slip into their colorful yukatas (”summer kimonos”) to keep the customs alive. Speaking Japanese is not a requirement, but you will definitely learn some useful commands “Migi, Hidari, Mune o akete” (“right, left, open the chest”) and blend into the joyful group. Stepping in without even knowing how to fold my kimono, I was instantly relieved to see how helpful and welcoming the group was. Three generations of Japanese ladies around me, I was all bundled up and ready to enter the march.

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Always graceful and smiling, Momo Suzuki leads her troupe.

Ms. Suzuki explains that despite the obscure origin of the dances, they usually symbolize the hard work of countryside people: construction workers cheering each other in intense labor or blowing a soothing breeze with their hats; harvesters playing with their large umbrellas to implore the rain… The song is just another way of strengthening people’s spirits by joining steps and voices: “Yassho, Makkasho!”

The original festival is held, since 1964, in Japan’s Yamagata prefecture and sees an annual attendance of over a million visitors. Last year, our NY dancers traveled to Yamagata to participate in the jovial beat of the drums and the merry mood of the festival. The popularity of the troupe has earned them a celebrity status that the local news never missed in their reports!

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Positioning of the arms and hands are keys to becoming an expert Japanese Folk dancer.

The eclectic group of New York dancers came to Hanagasa Odori for various reasons. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden performance is a major catalyst for the youngest members eager to discover a century-old tradition. Other members came to the group for more personal reasons: “I am a breast cancer survivor and I would never have imagined being able to dance in front of a crowd before. When I wear a kimono and participate in the dance, I feel stronger and healthier, I feel purified with life all over again. I want to dance for the cure”. Everyone can enjoy the experience at a comfortable level: smaller children would probably prefer playing with the hats, where an experienced dancer will carefully adjust the angle of their umbrella and strike the most delicate pose.

As a tribute to the capital of the world, Ms. Shizuko Kato whispered the idea of spicing up the end of the performance with Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” tune. What a beautiful setting, to see the flower-hats and umbrellas swinging in the air, and showing the audience that if they can swing it there, they can swing anywhere!

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The Hanagasa top performers are ready to enchant you at the BBG on May 3rd.

The ladies who gather every week are not running after fame or perfection. Each member finds deep well-being in the experience, and shines with inspiration over their fellow dancers. With an open-mind and a tight kimono, it could also be up to you “Hanagasa New York, New York”!

——– Reported by Ruth Berdah-Canet

New York Hanagasa Kai
New York Hanagasa Kai will perform at Sakura Matsuri at Brooklyn Botanic Garden in May 2nd and 3rd.

Manhattan Class: Every Saturday from 12pm-1pm (intermediate) and 1pm-2pm (beginner) at Teatro LA TEA at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center (107 Suffolk Street, 2nd Floor, Room 203)
Queens Class (children): Every Thursday from 4:30pm to 5:30pm at The Arts Cure Center (33-24 Northern Blvd., 3rd Floor).
Info: www.japanesefolkdance.org
TEL: 212-982-695