Gaining a Foothold
Oriental Dance in Japan
By Kaylene Thompson Packeer
The art of Oriental dance is still a relatively new arrival to the dance scene in Japan, but it seems to have established a firm foothold already. However, its acceptance has been slowed down by several attitudes and circumstances.
Tokyo seems to have a long way to go before it becomes truly international. As an American living in Japan, I have had experience with some of the prevailing provincial attitudes. Just yesterday I sat down in a sushi bar with my husband, and the Japanese woman who was next to us was having a major problem about it (at least she didn’t get up and leave, something which foreigners often experience). Imagine walking down a country road when a Japanese farmer suddenly sees you, screams, drops his bundle and runs away. Some Japanese people confess that they experience real fear around foreigners, depending on the situation. Not speaking English, or the foreigner not speaking enough Japanese, also causes the Japanese person to feel like he or she is losing face – producing more anxiety and fear, leading to a strong attempt by the Japanese person to avoid talking to you. (Sometimes this is less true of people from the south of Japan.)
This prejudice towards foreigners also permeates the business community. It is important to remember that no matter how many good experiences one has of the Japanese, and those experiences can be plentiful, at any time, given a choice, the non-Japanese person can be removed, ousted, and replaced with a Japanese person or product, and that’s the end of that. I have seen more than a couple of times a creative “foreigner” hired to create a project or train some people and then be promptly replaced with a Japanese person when the system was in working order. I wouldn’t want to pass judgement on this aspect of Japanese society, since it works for them, and they will change it when they’re ready. But, it is important to know that it is not difficult to end up treading on someone’s toes and not even know it. To be fair, perhaps the same can be said for Japanese businessmen trying to do business in the U.S. for the first time, but I think business credibility is less redeemable on the western side of the Pacific.
There is a fair amount of distaste for dancers in general in Japan. There are a lot of problems with foreign girls coming to work in the clubs along with the Japanese hostesses. Some of the negativity is due to very corrupt Mafia rings or “bad business people” (as quoted by an employee of the Tokyo U.S. Embassy) which trap unsuspecting foreign girls. This means there are very few places for Japanese belly dancers to perform because clubs that normally offer dance shows are held in very low esteem by the general public. Restaurants are only for eating and conversation, with blaring lights and no atmosphere, and no room for a dancer to perform without the clientele going into shock. Space and area is super precious. Just the spot where the dancer may sit between shows costs the proprietor money in lost table space. What dancer wants this taken out of her salary? Middle Eastern restaurants, the few that exist, have to walk the “straight and narrow.” This means the owner may be sponsored and tied-up with a Japanese guarantor who may oversee the restaurant finances and the Middle Eastern owner’s visa. Bringing in a belly dancer doesn’t fit in with the restaurant owner’s survival. Dancers are on their own and need to create their own opportunities. I suspect that this situation may change over time as some owners gain stability and wise dancers win the confidence of better-established restaurants that have the right conditions to do a good show.
Student shows done in concert style in city ward halls is one way Oriental dance studios are currently going about presenting Oriental dance to the public. A couple of dance troupes or group of dancers have sprung up who favor mostly Egyptian choreographies. I expect it is possible for dancing here in Japan to take on special twists to suit the lack of resources and lack of elbow room. There are three major Oriental dance studios in Tokyo, run by Ebihara, Koureika, and Kaoru. The latter two studios have just recently opened within the last year and a half.
So far, the only Middle Eastern musicians I have seen working with Japanese dancers is a small amateur group of four Egyptian businessmen who want to share their music and help educate the Japanese in Arabic music. Their group is called El Ons, and their first concert was held in January, 1995, at the Meguro ward hall in Tokyo. The Japanese Oriental dancers performed later in the program sans band to taped Egyptian music, performing Reda choreography. An Arabic poetry reading with Japanese translation concluded the concert. There was also a questionnaire for the audience to fill out after the concert to give feedback on what the viewer felt about the show. I have seen these questionnaires at other shows as well.
In general, though, most Japanese people can only see Oriental dance if they travel outside of Japan, or catch a glimpse of a dancer slipped into a televised tour of Egypt. There are other alternatives, however. I spent some time searching around Tokyo to see if I could find an Oriental dance show like the shows I’ve seen in the U.S. One such place is a Turkish restaurant called Asena. Here you will find Kaoru Komatsu, professionally known as Karima, wowing the diners. She has had the opportunity to travel abroad to study and train for several years in the Egyptian style.
After one of her captivating shows, I talked to Kaoru about how she came to be attracted to Oriental dance, and about her goals for expanding the knowledge about the dance in Japan. I asked her if she had seen Oriental dance in Japan before she started studying abroad. She remembered seeing an Egyptian troupe perform in a Tokyo club, which sparked her curiosity. But it wasn’t until she travelled to New York City to study computer science that she learned she had a talent for dance. Her enthusiasm led her to take several types of dance classes, including classes from the Alvin Alley School. After diligent study with Ibrahim Farrah and Yousry Sharif, her adventures in New York led to her performing at the nightclub “The Nile.”
Realizing that her true motive was to be a real artist and dancer, and “not just a show girl,” she aspired to better understand the workings of Middle Eastern music. This naturally led her to Cairo, Egypt, to study with Farida Fahmy and Mahmoud Reda. After spending some time studying the Arabic language, and with the help of an Egyptian woman friend, Kaoru was able to secure a contract to dance at one of the clubs in Cairo called Maxims. I imagined the late nights and cantankerous musicians might have been an arduous experience, but Kaoru seemed to take it all in stride, probably aided by the knowledge that few foreign, non-Egyptian dancers have the opportunity to study Oriental dance at its source, let alone a dancer of Japanese birth.
I asked Kaoru if she missed the live music she had while dancing at Maxim’s, since no Middle Eastern culture exists throughout Japan. Her answer was a resounding “Yes!” Upon her return to Japan she did think of importing musicians to Tokyo, but because of the recession and its affect on the club scene, the great expense of housing and travel, plus the difficulties involved in getting an entertainer’s visa, she decided it was nearly impossible. It would be nice to see a class of Middle Eastern musicians of truly high calibre in Tokyo.
Kaoru estimates that currently only about one in one-hundred Japanese people know what Oriental dance is. She says that she would like to improve that ratio to ten in one hundred. I asked Kaoru why it seemed that dance forms like flamenco and ballroom dancing are so popular in Japan, but Oriental dance seems to leave the audience in a state of astonishment. Kaoru explained that there is very little Middle Eastern culture in Japan. There is nothing for the public to relate to or give reference to. In addition, it is a matter of taste as to whether an individual becomes interested in Oriental dance and music. The Japanese do not seem to have ‘a taste’ for Oriental dance at this time. If enthusiasm should develop in the future, Kaoru hopes that it would not turn into a fad, a temporary infatuation drummed up by the media. However, even though fads are temporary, there is always the possibility of a few good dancers resulting from a “fad” who are truly enthusiastic and are willing to work and study hard.
This is what I saw in Kaoru’s students when I visited her school in the Gotunda area south of Tokyo. Far from being infatuated, these students sweated and stretched and strove to do their best to match the tightly-knit Reda-style choreography of arabesques, combination grapevine steps mixed with turns and aptly-timed hip drops. I was impressed with the dedication and noticed several of the students had much previous dance training, as shown by the ease with which they picked up the elaborate choreography. Since many students often must travel long distances, I imagined I was looking at future Oriental dance instructors, who may eventually qualify as instructors to teach in their own area.
It was quite a pleasant surprise for me to find the famous Mahmoud Reda making an appearance in Tokyo on December 3 and 4, 1995, to teach a two-day workshop sponsored by Kaoru Komatsu in conjunction with Kaoru’s concert on November 30. Four Reda dancers performed along with her accomplished students, who are looking more like real professionals every day. As a surprise, Mr. Reda himself, who had just returned to Cairo after spending nearly two months instructing in Europe, was able to make the sudden trip in time for the concert. Arriving in Tokyo just four days before the concert left very little time for rehearsals, yet the show and workshop went off without snagging a sequin.
Since Kaoru has had the luxury of studying with Mr. Reda in Cairo for a couple of years, she was able to pass on many of his works and her own choreographies for display in her first theater concert, which I presume was produced at a pretty nippy price considering Tokyo’s rollicking charges for nearly every kind of thing and service. Even the costumes were top notch and appeared to be imported from Egypt, though it turns out many were made by hand by the dancers themselves, especially many of the beledi dresses. I found that pretty amazing since beads and sequins are astronomically high in all of Japan, even though China and Korea are right next door.
I was most impressed with the trio dance, with Kaoru in a dreamy light turquoise beledi dress with streams of horizontal gold fringe, accompanied by two Reda troupe dancers Eshamu Mohammed and Atef Osuman. I also enjoyed Kaoru’s performance of a Farida Fahmy choreography, where she wore a blue dress and rhinestone tiara. Mr. Reda’s two female dancers were also a lively addition to the affair, and a real help as guides in Mr. Reda’s workshop, where they also helped to vend a few costumes, skirts, and accessories from Egypt.
Because Mr. Reda is such a world famous choreographer within the world of Oriental dance, it was a special treat to have him visit such a far away place on such short notice. Hopefully in the future there will be more opportunity for improving the environment for Oriental dance, not just in Tokyo, but in the rest of Japan as well. It is hoped that the Japanese audiences will be a little less astonished each time they see Oriental dance, due to the understanding and education that Kaoru and others like her have helped to foster.
Kaylene Thompson Packeer has been studying Oriental dance, Flamenco and costume design for ten years. She has performed for one year at the Adonis in Mexico City, and performed and taught in Sao Paolo, Brazil for three months. She gained first hand experience of an unsavory element in Japanese club life when she contracted for a dance job in Yokohama. This actually turned out to be fortuitous as she met her husband at that time, who helped her to locate legal help to sue her corrupt Japanese agent. They live in Tokyo where Kaylene studies Japanese language, seamstressing, and costume design.