Studying an `Alien' Art Form With Tokyo's Dance Disciples

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`PUSH your oheso into your back,'' said the teacher. I knew most of the simple body parts. Senaka for back, ashi for leg, te for hand, and even hiji for elbow. But oheso stumped me for weeks. Finally I figured out that the ``o'' wasn't part of the dictionary word. I should have looked up heso instead of oheso. Japanese attach ``o'' to a word to honor it. Heso meant belly button; oheso, honorable belly button. But why did we honor the belly button and not the leg or hand? This was one of the puzzles I bumped into when I studied modern dance in a Tokyo suburb.

Adachi-san, the administrative assistant at my intensive Japanese language program, helped me find the dance school a few months into the first semester. I had just learned how to make a phone call in Japanese under the watchful eye of Mizutani-sensei, one of the senior teachers. That prepared me to brave a solo phone call to the Akiko Kanda Dansu Kyoshitsu (Akiko Kanda Dance Studio) and they mailed me information.

What was the nyukaikin listed on the pale green information sheet? Adachi-san explained to me that I would have to pay a special fee, equal to perhaps the tuition for a month of classes, for the privilege of joining the studio. This wasn't like taking classes at a dance studio in Cambridge, Mass. I couldn't just drop by and take a class to check out the teacher. I was committing myself to a school, just as a student of a traditional art would pick one school and not hop around be tween, say, different styles of flower arranging. Akiko Kanda would be the big sensei or teacher in my dance life.

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Akiko-sensei stood between tradition and modernity. Sure, her school was organized traditionally, but she was teaching an alien art form. Modern dance's freedom of expression and form contradicted the Japanese approach to art. The very fact that she called herself Akiko Kanda, putting her family name last in the Western style rather than first, called attention to her difference. She had studied and performed modern dance with Martha Graham in the United States. That made her teaching attrac tive to me. In high school, I wanted to grow up as a combination of Martha Graham, chef Julia Child, and Japan scholar Edwin Reischauer.

It must have been tough for Akiko-sensei to make it in Japan. Though I smarted at paying that nyukaikin, I doubt that she made much money from her dance school. The big bucks probably came from her choreography for Takarazuka. Takarazuka is an all-female dance theater where women play men's roles in a kind of cross between the Rockettes and opera. I saw one Takarazuka performance and it wasn't high art.

I'm not sure if Akiko-sensei's modern dance deshi - her disciples - ever had anything to do with the world of Takarazuka, but three of them taught most of her modern dance classes. We greeted Akiko-sensei's rare appearances in the classroom with excitement. The deshi scurried to anticipate the sensei's needs. During the winter the long narrow classroom was cold, but there was always a heater at Akiko-sensei's feet.

Classes met at a kindergarten way out in the suburbs. Just like in the United States, the school had the resilient wooden floor essential for a studio. I changed trains once or twice to reach the well-to-do Kaminoge section of Setagaya Ward. From the station I walked through narrow streets flanked by cement block walls which hid the houses from my eyes.

At the school I opened the sliding door and kicked off my shoes in the cement- floored entry. Of course I didn't leave them where they fell. Like a good Japanese girl I lined them up neatly facing the door.

``Ohayoo gozaimasu, ohayoo gozaimasu.'' The ``good morning'' greeting shocked my ears at three in the afternoon. Adachi-san later explained that dancers belong to the nighttime world of entertainment, so they aren't bound by the usual definition of morning.

Everyone wore black leotards and tights with bare feet. At Cambridge's Institute for Contemporary Dance, my favorite outfit was a red leotard topped by an old flowered blouse. I never trotted that out in Tokyo.

The first few weeks I couldn't follow the instructions in Japanese very well, so I watched the student in front of me. The scariest part was dancing in the lines across the floor. I worried that I'd twirl into another student when I missed ``stop'' or ``turn left.'' But the deshi were great. When they saw I was lost, they'd gently push my body into shape.

I assumed I'd take the Japanese class by storm once I got over the language barrier. After all, my American teachers singled me out as gifted, and Tokyo was a backwater of modern dance compared to Cambridge. But that never happened. Though the pace of class was much slower than I was used to, the deshi stressed doing the movements exactly as they demonstrated. My American impatience got in my way.

I lasted for almost a year in the class. I enjoyed it, but when I graduated from my language school, I moved to a new apartment four train lines away. That ended my experiment with Japanese modern dance. I've taken dance classes since I returned to the US, but nowhere have I found the gentle care the deshi gave me in Tokyo.

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