For years, my holiday calendar contained a reference to the silent, gliding dances of the Bon Odori perfomed during the O-Bon festival in Japan. The image always seemed marvelous to me, and even more so, when I read this fantastic description of the dances written by Lafcadio Hearn, in 1894:
And at another tap of the drum begins a performance impossible to picture in words, something unimaginable, phantasmal—a dance, an astonishment. All together glide the right foot forward one pace, without lifting the sandal from the ground, and extend both hands to the right, with a strange, floating motion and a smiling, mysterious obeisance. Then the right foot is drawn back with a repetition of the waving of hands and the mysterious bow. Then all advance the left foot and repeat the previous movements, half-turning to the left. Then all take two gliding paces forward, with a single simultaneous soft clap of the hands, and the first performance is reiterated, alternately to right and left; all the sandaled feet gliding together, all the supple hands waving together, all the pliant bodies bowing and swaying together. And so slowly, weirdly, the processional movement changes into a great round, circling about the moonlit court and around the voiceless crowd of spectators.
The Bon Odori dances are part of the O-Bon festival honoring the dead, who return to visit their families at this time of the year. The festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the 7th month in Japan (July 15; although in some parts of Japan it’s celebrated on August 15), but it used to be celebrated on the full moon of the seventh lunation in the Chinese calendar, which would be the full moon of August in 2016).
Like our Western festival of the dead, Halloween, this holiday mingles several elements: the traditional end of the summer retreat for Buddhist monks, the Full Moon of the Hungry Ghosts, and a midsummer lantern festival. The dances were designed to welcome and honor the spirits of the ancestors; one can see that reverent and otherworldly aspect of the dances in Hearn’s description.
A few years ago, my friend, Susan told me about the O-Bon festival held at the Betusin Buddhist Temple in Seattle. And I finally got a chance to see the dances. My first impression was that they were not particularly gliding. And they are not silent: each is accompanied by recorded music, which is played on a loudspeaker, accompanied by a drummer. The crowd gathers in the street and makes a long shuffling circle around the yagura, a temporary stage set in the middle of the street, from which the dances are announced and where the drum is placed. In Seattle, everyone is invited to participate, even if you don’t know the dances, and so the crowd is diverse, with people dressed in traditional summer kimonos and people in jeans and flipflops, some who perform the dance elegantly, others who look lost and are always off the beat. Some of the dances are quite playful and whimsical.
The Wikipedia article on Bon Odori describes some the various dances, some of which are quite old and others which come from popular culture, for instsance, the Pokemon ondo. Another website, which calls the Bon Odori dances, the spiritual dance in the midsummer night (I love that phrase), describes and provides videos of several types of bon odori dances.
I was a little disappointed in my first Bon Odori, although I enjoyed the friendly crowd, the camaraderie of the dancers, and the generosity of the Buddhist temple which opens its doors to make this festival possible. It has the atmosphere of any small community event, complete with princesses (beautiful young women wearing tiaras and kimonos), food booths, a beer garden, a display of crafts (including ikebana arrangements and bonsai trees), and little kids sitting on the curb to watch the dancers lining the street.
But the following year, I attended the festival again with my niece, Shayla, and this time I really did see the gliding dances of my fantasy. Perhaps this was because the temple sponsored practice sessions during the weeks before the event (you can see one in this You Tube video) and more of the dancers knew what they were doing ahead of time. Perhaps it was because of the elegant grace of the dance leaders, women in pink kimonos who walked alongside the dancers, demonstrating the movements. But suddenly, I could see how the gestures were intended to welcome and honor the spirits. I watched the dancers move slowly along the street, in a gliding, undulating line. And I saw all the elements Hearn saw in 1895: the swaying, the supple hands, and most of all, that sense of otherworldliness. No silence, but the beat of the drum and the repetition of the movements that began to have a trance-like, hypnotic effect. I even got up and danced to one song and felt I had truly honored the ancestors.
This video was not taken in Seattle but at the Bon Odori at the Senshin Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles. I think it gives you the feel of the dancing. In LA, they were dancing in concentric circles, which creates an interesting effect. Several of the dancers are very elegant and attentive to what they are doing; others have that dazed look of people just trying to keep up. And from time to time, passers by, oblivious to the camera wander by, making you feel like you are there.
First published 7/20/2010.