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Shaking up Shibuya:

Farasha by Nam

“Farasha, featuring a belt that I made! My biggest pet peeve about Bellydance Japan Magazine
is that they have yet to have a Japanese cover girl and
we have such lovely dancers.”

The Belly Dance Scene in Japan

by Ozma
posted February 23, 2011
A previous version was published in Spring of 2008, by Nada Magazine in the UK
under the title  "Belly Dance in a Cold Climate"
Author’s updates will be coming soon

I started learning belly dance in Japan. This surprises people. English-language press about the Japanese scene is rare. Moreover, there are internationally-held notions of Japan as an insulated country that isn’t physically expressive and values group consensus over individual expression.  These ideas don’t seem to mentally mesh with a dynamic solo-improvisational dance form with foreign origins. I’m here to say that the individuals of Japan are more diverse than any one idea about them and that belly dance, like the desert sand, finds its way into everything.

Popularity

Belly dance is well-established in larger cities like Osaka and Nagoya and is spreading to smaller cities, but Tokyo is still the place to be. It’s increasing in popularity and shows no signs of slowing down. For the last few years, belly dance has been rated in the top three hobbies for Tokyo women in their 20’s and 30’s, jostling for position against with hula, flamenco, and yoga.

Signs of its growth are everywhere. It’s popping up on TV, in gyms, and in print magazines. Last year NHK, the national public broadcasting channel of Japan (which has a reputation for being conservative) hired Maki, a local instructor and performer, to do a series of brief instructional clips for TV aimed towards older viewers and released a companion magazine to go along with it. Maki has since released a DVD for the dance community addressing fundamental issues of movement, posture, and practice for the beginning and intermediate dancer. In major bookstores and on-line you can now buy Belly Dance Japan, a quarterly glossy magazine offering articles on the dance scene here and abroad, explanations on the various histories of the dance and dance styles, and tips on combinations, costumes, and make-up. One can find imported and domestic instructional and performance DVDs and CDs at Tower Records, Amazon.co.jp, or specialty shops. Costumes?  Go on-line to Japanese vendors selling everything from the painful budget costumes to high-end Bellas.

If you have an unlimited budget, you can see a few events every weekend, and that’s outside of the restaurants shows. We’ve lost count of the number of studios in the area.

For local dancers, instruction from dancers from "over there" is accessible. Studios such as Karima’s Arabian Dance Company and Mishaal’s Devidasi Studio are bringing over 10-15 major names from America, Egypt, Turkey and other countries each year. Other instructors are increasingly getting involved in sponsoring teachers. Karima can boast of bringing over names such as Yousry Sharif, Mona Mustafa, Madam Raqia, Jehan, and Aida Nour over the years.  Mishaals studio has hosted the likes of Bellydance Superstars: Ansuya Rathor, Rachel Brice, Mardi Love, Sharon Kihara, Tamalyn Dallal, and Kaeshi Chai, as well as Delilah and Sirocco, Artemis Mourat, Meera, Hadia, Eli Segal, Ahmet Luleci, Lulu Sabongi, Lily of Tribalkenesis, Hannan Sultan and Sema Yildiz to name a few. But all the influences from abroad wouldn’t amount to anything if Japan didn’t have the dedicated core of performers and instructors that it does.

TanishqLineage

The lineage of dance in the Tokyo area is usually traced back to two women, Miyoko Ebihara and Kaoru Komatsu (better known by her stage name Karima). Miyoko Ebihara studied the dance in Los Angeles between 1979 to 1985 and Kaoru Komatsu encountered the dance when she moved to New York to study modern dance in 1988. Both women set up studios when they returned to Japan and went on to study in Egypt while maintaining their studios.

While belly dance in Japan originally came from American roots, it quickly grew to include Egyptian, Turkish Oriental, Turkish Roma, and various Tribal styles.

Ms. Ebihara and Karima continue to teach and from their first students came a second wave of instructors: locally well known names like Ainy Studio, Noel, Maha, Miho, Barbee and Luna, who then begat a third wave of students and instructors. Musical inspiration for the dance is as diverse as the current range of dancers: from traditional Egyptian and Turkish music to pop music, to folk, modern world, techno, Baltic fusion, Japanese folk music and ambient music.

My own teacher, Mishaal, moved to Japan in the early 90’s when the scene was still relatively young. She already had experience dancing in America, Turkey and a wide range of countries. She started off in Japan literally dancing in the streets of Tokyo with a few musicians and her drummer and husband Goro, which led to her meeting other dancers, Japanese and foreign, and getting gigs in night clubs, art events, and music events. Because of a lack of distinctly Arab or Turkish music groups here when she first arrived, her personal style became more fusion-oriented because the musicians she had the chance to work with were a mix of world music styles. She didn’t initially connect with the dance scene here.

Dance studios existed, but they didn’t interact with each other. Choreographies were (and still are) the primary method of teaching in Japan.

She started teaching in 1997, brought together and directed SAMANYOLU Oriental Dance Ensemble in 2000, and has been the owner and director of Devadasi Studio, since 2004.

When she started she was one of the first teachers to focus exclusively on teaching improvisational skills and since has produced her own wave of improvisation-oriented teachers.

The Next 20 Years

A lot can happen over 20 years. Dancers and instructors made yearly pilgrimages to Rakkasah in America and brought back what they learned, including ATS (American Tribal Style) videos. Ahlan Wa Sahlan started up in Egypt and usurped Rakkasah as the place to go, but both events have a loyal following from Japan. Dancers interested in specific styles of belly dance went to Egypt, Turkey and America to study. Japanese students studying in colleges, universities, and dance troupes abroad encountered the dance and came back wanting more.

Politics and the economy also created change. In the 90’s, Japan launched large travel promotions for Turkey, and later Egypt.

Japan also experienced a tremendous influx of Turkish workers on visas (and later as residents), resulting in the number of Turkish restaurants quadrupling in a few years.

Later, the economic bubble grew and burst, and this brought an increased number of foreigners to Japan (many of whom studied and performed the dance) to teach English and work in Japan. Foreign DJs took root and night clubs began featuring belly dance and alternative belly dance as a cool thing to do.

Zizi of JapanIn a move that brought together all the changes and influences over these years and galvanized the local scene, in 2000 Masumi Matsumoto founded Maharajan, Japan’s first belly dance festival. Maharajan started with nine dancers and grew to be the event of the year that many studios and dancers prepare for. Maharajan brought together studios and dancers in a way that increased a sense of community, and spurred the spread of information, inspiration and troupe and solo cross-pollination. Last year Majarajan took a well deserved break, but we’re anxiously awaiting news of its return.

Trends

Japan’s scene mirrors many trends in America. It has an American Cabaret base but tends to hold Egyptian style in higher esteem as a more "pure" form of the dance. Turkish style has experienced a recent surge in popularity including a strong interest in Turkish Rom styles, but there’s still a lot of misinformation and fantasy surrounding what "gypsy style" is. Tribal style is growing every year. A variety of dance styles are fused and what constitutes good and bad fusion is always up for debate.

Dancers perform in Turkish and Middle-Eastern restaurants. Nightclub shows and weekend evening events are a major part of the scene, as are art and world-music events. Increasingly, dancers are taking financial and directorial control of their shows. A handful of dancers support themselves solely on dance, with teaching being necessary for financial survival. A larger amount of professional-level dancers supplement their incomes with a second job. The vast majority of dancers are amateurs and hobbyists.

Like everywhere else, Japan also has the problems of dancers who teach too soon, but the demand for teachers is so great that it supports them. The same can be said for performers who debut too early and don’t have a firm grasp of posture, movement, and musicality. Issues of underpayment and dancers who undercut others can also be encountered, but such problems are found in any belly dance community that reaches a certain size.

There are differences from the western scenes. The general public is becoming increasingly aware of what belly dance is.

There are some general ideas of it being "a sexy dance" but dancers rarely encounter people who think it is interchangeable with stripping or burlesque.

The general age range is between 18-50, with the majority of the scene falling between the 25 and 35. In keeping with the idea that Japan is a culture that values group consensus, group and solo choreographies and drills are the way by which most students first access the dance. Choreographies are the primary way of learning and performing here and it’s easy for outsiders with limited exposure to the scene to think that the dance ends there.  However, there is an increasingly diverse range of professionals, soloists and groups who approach the dance through improvisation or a combination of improvisation and choreography.

When guest instructors come to Japan, it isn’t as part of a festival because the overhead of bringing multiple dancers to Japan and hosting them is too high.

Instead, they usually come by themselves (or with a troupe member/family member) for a weekend of workshops and the weekend concludes with a performance with opening dancers of a similar style provided by the host studio. You can find performances of all levels (including studio showcases) in restaurants, cafes, art shows, and clubs, but all-inclusive haflas aren’t part of the scene here. Maharajan, our major festival, functions more like a well-regulated hafla with the addition of vendors and the sort of mad, scrambling call-in day to reserve your solo or troupe performance spot that you’ll find in major UK or US festivals.

Musicians

Over the last 20 years, the number of musicians who play Arabic and Turkish music hasn’t grown as quickly as the number of dancers who need them, but it has grown some. In the Tokyo area, the group to know, and hopefully work with, is Tabla Kawaeisa. Tabla Kawaeisa came into existence in 2001 when its two founding members, Tomohisa Ueda and Daisuke Jinushi met each other while traveling and studying music in Egypt. They returned to Japan determined to introduce more Japanese to the music and culture of Egypt through live concerts, lectures, and music lessons. Currently they have a twelve active members in Tokyo, six more spread out over the rest of Japan, and have given lessons to hundreds of students and dancers in Japan. They are primarily percussion players, but most members dabble in other instruments, as well. Their debut CD, Blowfa, is available in major music stores in Tokyo and over the last year they have started planning large events with dancers and full orchestras inspired by shows they saw in Egypt. 

Along side Tabla Kawaiesa is Alladeen, a group specializing in Turkish Rom music, and a handful of talented drummers, oud players, accordion players, and folks who dabble in many forms of world music. Unfortunately, the supply of live music is still nowhere near the number of dancers. Because the number of venues with live music is limited, DJs who create club events featuring belly dance wield more power over dancers than they otherwise might have. CDs are, unfortunately, the normal form of accompaniment.

Alladeen

Conclusion


Author Ozma at Rakuya with Alladeen

Japanese culture and tradition has definitely influenced some belly dance in Japan. All those that I interviewed mentioned dancers they knew who integrate some Japanese music, dance, and traditional aesthetics into their vision of the dance or use Japanese textiles and designs to create original costumes. Milla and E-chan, a duo with their own performance DVD who fuse Oriental dance with hip-hop styles, Okinawan beats, and more, are inevitably cited when the topic arises.  Nevertheless, the range of fusion is wider than just those two and spans tribal, oriental and folk styles.

Tribal style in Japan is a complicated issue. It’s increasing in popularity each year, but there is constant debate as to the "purity" of tribal in Japan, as there is elsewhere. Mishaal spoke of dancers who brought ATS back from Rakkasah in the mid 90’s but stated that the form was initially met by resistance by many who found it to be "too scary" or physically demanding in a way they were not yet ready for. The improvisational aspect of it also caused difficulty for the overwhelming number of dancers more comfortable with choreography. Tribal style remained an interest and a source of inspiration among a few dancers in Japan.  As ATS and related styles grew in America, Japanese interested was eventually re-awakened. A new wave of students turned to re-examine tribal style, including Misato of Sharashukra Tokyo.

Farasha by Nam

Misato became interested in ATS tribal style five or six years ago, but felt that she couldn’t find a proper instructor for it in Japan. She looked into it and came to the conclusion that she needed to be in San Francisco. She moved to America and studied with FatChance BellyDance from November 2004 to December 2005. She has since gone back for follow up weeks of lessons in between teaching here in Japan, forming a troupe, and exploring her own unique answer to American Gothic Bellydance by fusing tribal styles with costuming and aesthetics lifted from Japan’s gothic-lolita scene.

When I corresponded with her, Misato admitted that she has mixed feelings about the current scene. She is happy about its popularity and about the fact that tribal performers coming to Japan get a large turn-out, but she feels that most of the dancers here are copying the surface appearance of the dance, costuming and posture, while continuing to perform oriental-style belly dance. Mishaal suggests a slightly different view of the situation. She feels that Japan creates more solo-oriented tribal style because it fills a different need here than it does abroad. In America, she postulates, there is greater cultural emphasis on the individual, so coming together as a troupe and surrendering the individual to the collective was and is a revolutionary and powerful idea to America’s more solo-oriented dancers. Yet because group work is such a fundamental part of Japanese society, it simply isn’t the same sort of challenge to most dancers. Instead, some Japanese dancers find power in the costumes, posture, movement, and attitude of tribal style and use that power to come out as solo performers. There are, of course, exceptions to this. There are groups within Japan that work hard at ATS/ troupe improvisational dance: Misato’s Sharashukra and other groups like Harissa. And for some dancers who may feel like they hold a position outside of general Japanese society, or just feel different from the Oriental style dance scene, coming together as a group/community is powerful.

Japan is no different from any other country that embraces belly dance – people find their own reasons and ways to relate to the dance. Belly dance as a dance form is accessible to a wide range of body types and fitness levels. It isn’t easy, but there are many levels of proficiency at which one can enjoy it. Japan, Tokyo especially, places a great importance on women’s outward appearance: being stylish, well-dressed, well-accessorized and desirable. The desire to be in better shape, to be more desirable or sexy or to relieve stress from society’s pressures is what gets many women in the door, but the reason that many women stay is because the dance gives them so much more than that.  Women find their own reasons to love the dance, be it connecting to the music and history, the resonance of goddess mythology taught by some teachers, or just the joy of movement. It’s human nature to create and express oneself. When people express surprise that belly dance thrives here in Japan, I always wonder, “Why wouldn’t it?”

 

 

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