Ryūkyū Dance - the unique performing arts of Okinawa
Before formally becoming a part of Japan in the 19th century, Okinawa was the independent Ryūkyū Kingdom (1429-1879 CE). The Ryūkyū islanders benefitted from extensive interactions with Japan, China, and Southeast Asia which, combined with the indigenous customs of the islands, generated a cultural diversity which is still cherished to the present day.
One expression of this diversity is Okinawa’s rich performing arts culture and, more specifically, its many distinct dances which are deeply routed in its Ryūkyū heritage.
The island’s reverence for dance goes back to the days of the kingdom, which even saw the appointment of a dance minister. At the time, a court dance known as kumi-odori was popular. Mixing music and dialogue, and including slow movements inspired by Japan’s ancient Noh theatre, kumi-odori can be considered a form of musical theatre. The dance is still performed today and, since 2010, is part of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage.
Originally, dance developed in the Ryūkyū Kingdom as a form of prayer to the gods. These religious rituals weren’t exclusive to the main island but also developed on smaller neighbouring islands such as Miyako and Yaeyama.
The dances eventually evolved into folk and court performances, which form the basis of classic Okinawan dance today.
In addition to kumi-odori, yotsudake is a popular celebratory dance. It is named after the handheld percussive instruments, made of two pieces of bamboo, which are rhythmically clapped together by dancers. The performers also wear a two-coloured hanagasa (flower hat) representing both the red petals of the lotus flower and the waves of the blue sea. The dance is accompanied by a celebratory song with lyrics expressing the honour of dancing for this occasion.
After the fall of the kingdom, former court dancers popularised another style of dance, zo-odori, which spread among the common people and came to represent life in ordinary rural villages.
Another common dance in Okinawa today, eisa (or paarankuu), has been performed for more than 400 years. In paarankuu, dancers use small, tambour-like instruments of the same name to welcome the ghosts of ancestors during the period of the Obon festival and, on the final night, to guide them back to the afterlife. In the first half of this dance, the dancers boldly demonstrate their physical agility while in the second half they beat the paarankuu as they dance vigorously.
In addition to drums, the banjo-like sanshin, a three-stringed instrument made of lacquered wood and python skin, and the percussion instrument sanba are commonly used in all these dances. Though it is not just the music but the lyrics in the language of the ancient Ryūkyū Kingdom that give Okinawan dance music its distinct character.
Even today, dance is woven into the fabric of Okinawan life, with folk dances such as kachashi being performed in everyday situations. The word kachashi means ‘stirring’: in kachashi, the dancersʼ hands are moved in unison, alternately to the left and to the right, with the fingers of each hand stirring the air. The form of this dance is highly individualistic, and for Okinawans, this is a natural, personal expression of joy and happiness.
Other Okinawan dances include:
Umi no chinbora
Umi no chinbora was initially a leisurely-paced folk song, but it has become widely recognized following new arrangements for its faster tempo. The lyrics describe the spiral shells (chinbora in Okinawan) on the island. To represent spiral shells playing on the beach, the dancers display comical gestures and facial expressions.
Performed as a duet by a couple from the fishing village of Tancha (now within Onna Village), with the man holding an oar and the woman a basket, this upbeat dance depicts a fisherman about to go to sea and his wife hawking the catch of the day.
Over her shoulder, the female dancer carries a garland of red and white flowers to express her feelings for the man she loves. The exposure of her shoulder, bared from her kasuri-fabric kimono, indicates that she is at work and the lyrics describe the purity of her love. This dance was first performed in theatres during the Meiji period (1868-1912 CE).
Some of the moves in Ryūkyūan dances are recognizably derived from karate forms. This performance presents a medley of karate and other ancient martial arts.
This folk song describes life on idyllic Kurushima, an island blessed with bountiful nature and a plentiful harvest. The dance is structured so that the dancers sing in reply to the song of the chorus. During their cheerful performance, the dancers imitate animals of the island, such as cats and crabs.