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Ryukyuan Dance

By: Ruth Ann Keyso

Date Posted: 1998-02-21

Ryubu, or classical Ryukyuan dance, is a performing art that symbolizes the beauty and spirit of the Ryukyu Islands. Both visually and aurally, Ryubu captures the essence of the island's traditions and evokes a feeling of national pride.

One of the island's best known and respected instructors of Ryubu, Tatsuko Yamada, shared with me one afternoon her feelings regarding Ryubu and its role in contemporary Okinawan society. A sophisticated woman with a round face, high cheekbones and a beaming smile, Yamada owns and operates a dojo (training hall). The dojo is located behind her family's flower shop in Futenma, the town in which she was raised. There she teaches dance, to all ages of people, from elementary school students to middle-aged women. She herself continues to practice classical dance faithfully with her instructor of 37 years, Yoshiko Majikina.

"In the immediate postwar years we Okinawans were fascinated with dances from the United States and Europe," Yamada admitted as she sipped her green tea slowly. "The Okinawan performing arts," she confessed, "held little allure for us. Perhaps we were suffering from an inferiority complex in those years.

In other words, we wanted so much to be like westerners. Our customs, traditions and language had been disparaged for so long, that maybe it was natural for us to try to adopt the culture of someone else?"

As the years passed and conditions on the island improved, the art of Ryubu gained popularity. Interestingly, it was the Americans on the island that recognized the value and beauty of Ryukyuan dance and expressed a keen interest in fostering its continuation. Once the Americans exhibited enthusiasm toward Ryukyuan dance, the Okinawans, too, began to look again at their traditional arts and realize the beauty inherent in them.

"I started Ryubu lessons when I was 16 years old,": Yamada informed me. "Originally I had dreamed of being a ballerina," she recalled nostalgically. "Unfortunately I wasn't very good. My father was convinced that ballet was made for Westerners, not Japanese. "So I switched to Ryubu and have been performing ever since."

These days there are many female instructors of Ryukyuan dance on the island, unlike the prewar period when women were forbidden from performing classical dance. At that time it was a profession for males only. The poor economic situation in the postwar propelled women into positions as teachers of Ryukyuan dance.

"Many of the men in the island had died in the war, or were busy working many labor jobs for the US military government at the time. so, naturally women had to support their families. That's when many of them began teaching dance," Yamada said.

These days many Okinawan men and women are studying Ryubu as a way of getting in touch with their roots, a chance to keep the island's ancient tradition and culture alive. Performing classical dance, they admit, is a channel through which they can express pride in their island's artistic heritage, and ensure that the arts will continue to flourish in future years.

"Ryubu is a wonderful art," Yamada insists enthusiastically. "With one glance you can tell instantly what it is all about. The colorful bingata costumes, the bright floral headdresses, and the soothing sound of the sanshin (three-stringed musical instrument) are so traditionally Okinawan. Aesthetically speaking." Yamada declared confidently, "It is Okinawa."

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