There was nothing familiar about the dances, however. They were baffling and immensely frustrating: we were always on the wrong foot, turning at the wrong times, going the wrong way, and putting our hands up when they should be down. The worst part was that as soon as we sort of began to understand the sequence of movements, the dance would end, and as we quickly discovered, the musicians only played each song once. The entire set of fourteen songs took an hour, but it went by in a blur of confusion and left us feeling just as ignorant as we were in the beginning—except that now we knew how much we didn’t know. But we were hooked.
And so it went on, every Tuesday and Thursday evening, for the next five weeks. Some dances were simpler than others, like the “Kudaka” that was second in the sequence of songs. Others were fun, like the always-popular dance with the bamboo castanets on our fingers clicking in tandem with our feet. Even the “backwards dances” became easier with time. We acquired accessories: folding fans, castanets that we called “kachi-kachi,” red-and-white-striped sticks with red and white fabric flags hanging from the ends. Mel gave names to the dance moves to help us remember better. One move she called “throwing the sun up into the sky” while another was the “thump-thump” dance. We got to know the ladies better, who all seemed to know whose granddaughter I was without my telling them. Still, certain dances remained frustratingly incomprehensible, like the “mystery dance” (which was mysterious because we had no clue what we were doing), or the graceful turn of hand and wrist that Mel called the “serpent swan.” So when a flyer arrived in the mail, advertising a class in Okinawan dance to be held at the Maui Okinawan Cultural Center, I thought it was a good idea. “Maybe we can learn more about the dances,” I said to Mel, and she agreed. It was August of 2002, a fateful day that would change the direction of our lives forever.
Since Mel had no idea where the Okinawan Cultural Center was, we met up at MCC and I gave her directions to Paukukalo, which lies on the windy side of the island, just past the harbor and off of Beach Road. We pulled into the parking lot a little before 10:30 am and walked up the wide steps to the front porch that was set under a sweeping red-tiled roof. We were a little nervous, but not as much as at that first Bon dance practice. This time we came with our hard-won accessories, and we recognized and said hello to a few of the ladies: Mrs. Isagawa, the mother of my high school classmate; Mrs. Konno, who had shiny lacquered hair and the most graceful hands; and Mrs. Nishihara, whose brown bouffant hairdo made her look positively statuesque among the petite Okinawans.
The inside of the center was a wide, high-ceilinged space, a cool dimness compared to the glare of hot morning sun outside. To one side was the stage with its own mini-roof jutting out, covered with authentic terra-cotta tiles from Okinawa. Along the other walls were glass cabinets containing pictures, scrolls, dolls, kimono, books, musical instruments, and other things. The floor was covered in shiny, polished tiles that reflected the lights far overhead, rippling where the concrete slab underneath had settled unevenly. There was a bustle of voices coming from the kitchen off to our right, and we walked over to the row of white plastic chairs set up in front of the cabinets, perching uneasily on the edge of our seats.
Mrs. Konno called the practice to order and introduced the sensei, a slender, smiling woman with wavy black hair and glasses.
“We so happy because Cheryl Nakasone Sensei come all the way from Honolulu for teach us,” Mrs. Konno announced, beaming. “Please, everybody, practice hard!”
We all bowed and mumbled, “Yoroshiku onegai shimasu!” The ritual of greeting was familiar to me from my experiences with aikido, but I slid a quick sideways glance to check on Mel. Her knowledge of Japanese was limited to “neko” (cat) and “andagi” (which didn’t really count as Japanese). But our sensei was stepping forward, introducing herself with a warm smile and speaking in a low, clear voice.
“I’ve been dancing for forty-five years,” she said. (This was clearly impossible since she looked about forty years old at the most, as Mel and I agreed later.) “I strongly believe that everyone should have fun while dancing. You’re here to learn, but you’re also here to enjoy yourselves, so don’t worry if you’re not perfect or if you feel awkward. Just follow and eventually you’ll learn the dance. Okay, let’s start with the basics: walking.”
The speech was simultaneously reassuring and terrifying: on the one hand, she clearly wanted us to feel comfortable, but on the other, she just as clearly expected us to screw up. A lot. But how much could we screw up something like walking, which we did every day?
As we soon found out, quite a bit. She started the music, a slow, solemn plucking of sanshin and koto, and demonstrated the women’s walk: an ineffably graceful glide with an interesting upward toe-flick when she moved her weight forward. It looked easy, but it wasn’t—and this would turn out to be a recurring theme in our future studies with Sensei. When I tried it, my body felt stiff, tense with anxiety, and I wobbled alarmingly from side to side. “Bend your knees,” Sensei advised cheerfully, “and if you feel like you’re losing your balance, just tap the tips of your fingers against your upper thighs.”