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Discover the Cultural Heritage of Okinawa : Ryukyu Dance

“Kagiyadefu” is one of the most formal Okinawan court dances
and it celebrates the spirit of longevity and the hopes for an abundant harvest.

Okinawa, formerly called Ryukyu, is the southernmost territory of Japan and has been a land of mixed cultural influences for centuries. Amongst those influences a myriad of art forms flourished and have now become the trademarks and pride of the area. Most of these arts are referred to as Folk Performing Arts.  The Ryukyuan dance represents the crystallization of Okinawan culture. Song and sanshin (three-stringed lute) draw on and speak to literature and music. The colorful costumes both reflect and develop the weavers’ and dyers’ arts.

Okinawa native, Junko Fisher, a Ryukyuan dancer and performer, has numerous performance experiences since she was a little child. She has carried the dance tradition of her homeland all over the world, and is now based in NY, where she offers lectures, workshops and other educational programs in public forums. She is a member of the famous Miyagi Ryu Nosho-kai Ryukyu Dance and Music School.  Ms. Fisher believes that dance and history are deeply intricate and takes a particular interest in researching, in depth, the most authentic details about each dance, making sure costumes, accessories and makeup, are faithful to her traditional heritage.

Dexterity, balance and elegance are key skills for the Ryukyuan dancer.

I was lucky enough to have her demonstrate and teach me a few basic steps of the classical Ryukyuan dance, also called Court Dance. The “Rojin Odori (elders’ dances),” “Wakashu Odori (young boy’s dances)” and “Onna Odori (women’s dances)” were performed mainly for the Chinese envoys, while the “Nisai Odori (young man’s dances)” were reserved primarily for the entertainment of officials. The dancers were exclusively men from the elite ranks of society. Unlike other Japanese dances, the feet are turned towards the outside and the arms are positioned in an elegant arch very similarly to a Western ballet.

Today, I am slipping in the skins of an Okinawan dancer and my several personalities take turns to embody a senior, a delicate woman or a lively young man!  For the Onna Odori the dance starts with a Noh-style walking movement, so subtle you can see the dancer gliding on the stage in a fluid yet controlled movement of the lower body. Most of the songs convey the universal themes of love: impossible, lost, faded… This dance is an “art of stillness” where movement is minimal and slowly executed to reveal powerful emotions. The face and neck remain still, but the eyes convey the weight of sadness and can even draw the tears of the performer himself. The arm movements are delicate and inspired by Buddhist praying gestures.

The vibrant colors of the Young boy’s is attire symbolizes the coming of age and youthfulness.

On the contrary, the “Nisai Odori” is based on more realistic movements, which contrasts with the stillness of the women’s characters. This dance is seen as a ritual for young men and an opportunity to show their livelihood. The postures are inspired by Okinawan karate forms and the pride in youthfulness and strength.

So many dances, so little time… The music stops and I am far from mastering any of the steps… but I feel a little closer to an art form that is usually explored only by natives from the region.

——– Reported by Ruth Berdah-Canet



Miyagi Ryu Nosho-kai Ryukyu Dance School
The school offers Okinawan dance and singing classes in both traditional and folk styles. With her 28 years of experience and as a member of the school, Junko Fisher holds lectures and workshops on the dance and music.  She also teaches Okinawan dialect and how to play sanshin.  Contact her for setting up lessons.
TEL: 718-631-2637
junko@junkofisher.com

Upcoming Workshop
3 sessions on Saturdays from Sep.25-Oct.9
Three-day intensive dance class for beginners will be taught by Junko Fisher.  See details in the Happenings section on page 60.
Location: Lotus Music & Dance
109 W. 27th St., 8th Fl.
New York, NY 10001
TEL: 212-627-1076
www.lotusmusicanddance.org