Even so, the simple walk across the shiny tile floor and back seemed endless as I shuffled and awkwardly attempted the graceful toe-flick in my borrowed green booties (I had forgotten to bring socks). Sensei told us to drop our shoulders and to lean forward a little at the hips. She also told us to try to emulate a wave’s up-and-down motion when our weight moved forward, but this proved impossible for most of us at the moment.
“Okay, what shall we do next? Hamachidori?” Sensei asked. Most of the ladies nodded and smiled in agreement. Mel and I were trying to drift inconspicuously toward the plastic chairs when Sensei caught us. “You’ll join us, won’t you? Just follow!” Dubious, we joined the tail end of a line of ladies. “What dance is this?” Mel whispered to me. “I don’t know,” I whispered back, “but I don’t think it’s a Bon dance.”
If we had thought the Bon dances were frustrating, this was exponentially more so: a graceful, wandering dance that seemed to have no discernable sequence of motions. That is, certain motions were repeated, but to no pattern that we could detect. Yet when we watched Sensei dance, it all seemed completely natural and inevitable, each turn of hand leading to the next, her body dipping and rising to some beat we couldn’t hear. Mel declared later that it was the most graceful thing she had ever seen, but for me, besides its beauty, the dance seemed to express a deep joy in simply being. It also focused for me the sensation of coming home to a culture and history that I had barely begun to learn. While I had spent my formative adult years soaking up a different kind of knowledge and the challenging learning style of academia, and while I had happily devoured books about English literature and European languages, I had never given much thought to what made me an Okinawan American. Odori, and Sensei, have given me the opportunity to discover another kind of life.
Of course, just as we had been hooked with the Bon dances, we were completely smitten by Sensei and odori. Rashly, we committed ourselves to practices with the ladies every Sunday afternoon, and a full-day practice when Sensei came over once a month. We even committed ourselves to bringing a dish to the potluck lunch that was held whenever Sensei visited—no small feat for English teachers with stacks of papers to grade, and it wasn’t like we were good cooks or anything. What I didn’t realize until much later was how completely Mel and I had given our hearts and souls to Sensei and the art of the dance.
I grew to know Hamachidori very well, although I still cannot say I have mastered it completely. I think this is one of the things I love about odori: it is not a subject to master or dominate or perfect, but an art to take to one’s heart, to attempt to inhabit and live in. When I study the videotapes of Sensei dancing, or when I copy her moves in practice, I am not trying to become Sensei herself, but to get a little closer to that ephemeral moment when the dancer is the same as the dance, becoming one with the music, the words, the melody, the time, and the space.
Yes, it’s all Mel’s fault–and I owe her a debt of gratitude that I can never repay for bringing odori into my life. Thanks to her desire to try something new, and her bravery in taking risks, I have found something that I love that resonates with the deepest part of my soul.
This past March, I performed my first solo dance at the Maui Okinawan Association’s lunar New Year’s party (on Hawai‘i time, a month late as usual). The dance, Kajadifu, was the first on the program of entertainment since it is traditionally performed on auspicious occasions and, some believe, to bring good luck for the coming year. I was dressed in borrowed finery: Mrs. Konno’s gold-colored hat sat lightly but firmly on my head, hiding my flattened bun of too-long hair; Mrs. Nishihara’s silky polyester kimono, a dusty gold color, slithered over my arms, the sleeves a little too long; around my hips was Sensei’s stiff brocade obi (sash), pre-tied in a large, elaborate knot and fastened with safety pins. Strapped inside my kimono was a folded towel, meant to give me the bulkier body silhouette for a man’s dance. In my right hand was my open dancing fan, gold on one side, silver on the other, with black-lacquered sticks. The crimson curtains opened, and the music began, a slow melody of sanshin, flute, and drum that I had long ago internalized. Behind me, Sensei hovered anxiously. “Okay,” she whispered, and I stepped up onto the stage, fan lightly poised in right hand, left holding the edge of my sleeve, knees flexed and body tilted forward a little at the hips. My white tabi-covered feet slid out on the brown parquet floor with the toe flick, and I flowed into the music, that moment of time and space that welcomed me home.
Charlene Gima and her sensei, Cheryl Nakasone, appear in a beautiful video produced and directed by Stuart Yamane for Insightfilms. The segment originally aired as part of the Hawaii Public Television series Artist.