Tanabata dancers entertain bilateral relations

  • Published
  • By Jennifer Hensley
  • Fuji Flyer contributor
It's common knowledge that Japan is a country rich in culture and founded on tradition. More often than, the backbone of this culture - its customs - is kept as a closely guarded secret. One group at Yokota is unlocking the mystery of an ancient Japanese art form - and getting a little exercise, too.

The Tanabata Dancers have been an institution at Yokota for more than 34 years. While the participants may come and go the dance always remains the same.

Masako Collins founded the group in 1973 as a means to bridge the gap between Americans and Japanese in the Fussa area. Although it required a bit more negotiating than some private organizations, the end result was a club dedicated to the art of Japanese dance, as well as to promoting goodwill and friendship to local residents.

The first group of dancers consisted of 19 members, but by the mid-1980's membership soared to 90. Even though membership has dwindled to a mere 15 members in 2007, the enthusiasm shared by the Tanabata Dancers is contagious.

Janet Kokosinski, the group's treasurer, knows a little about the infectious energy of the organization. She first joined the group as an active-duty officer in the late 1970's. Now, as a returning civilian, she's joined the group for a second time.
"Not only is it a fun experience, it's a real opportunity to learn more about the culture and customs in Japan," she said with a smile. "I liked it back then and I love it now."

It's a sentiment shared by fellow dancer Teresa Negley, who also serves as the group's interpreter.

"Learning the dances is so much fun and we get to experience so much culture," she said.

For the Tanabata Dancers, learning the routines is more than memorizing steps.

Each dance involves intricate moves, precise choreography and observing customs is the key to performing. Fans must be held by the correct hand, speaking loudly while dancing is considered rude and the yukata, or cotton kimono uniform word by the dancers, must be worn properly. "Each step is critical," said Ms. Kokosinski. "It's important to know which fans to use and how to accessorize the yukata. The costume, the steps - it's all part of the dance."

Even though dancers range in age from 7 to 65, the generation gap isn't an issue for the club. Although the uniforms differ with age, each dancer must learn the same steps and customs for each routine. The only thing club members have to work at distinguishing is each dance. Some dances are specific to festivals, while others are reserved solely for stage performances.

"Festival dances have repetitive movements but it's easier to make mistakes," describes Ms. Negley. "Stage dances are definitely more complicated, more like a 'real performance'. Festivals are all about fun."

Typically, the Tanabata Dancers perform during the spring and summer months, although they also occasionally dance in the fall. They travel as far as Camp Zama to dance for audiences and the response is usually the same, no matter where they are: positive and grateful.

"Audiences are so encouraging," said Ms. Negley. "They really motivate us when we're performing."

Perhaps the biggest motivator for the group is its instructor, Hanayagi Sensei. Not only is Ms. Hanayagi certified to teach dance, she is considered by the group and community members to be an expert in her field.

Although she charges customers to take classes in her studio, she leads the Yokota group free of charge.

"She has been a driving force for the group since the late 1980's," said Ms. Kokosinski passionately. "She has dedicated so much of her free time to share her knowledge with us. It's such a privilege to be allowed to learn from her."

It's easy to see that the group agrees. Each photo of the group performing features smiling dancers and happy faces in the crowd.

"Traditionally Tanabata Dancers aren't allowed to smile," said Ms. Negley. "But how could you not? It's so much fun - smiling has become our trademark."

The Tanabata Dancers meet weekly on Wednesdays at 6 p.m. at the Fussa Sakura Kaikan. A carpool leaves the bank area parking lot at 5:45 p.m. No experience is necessary to join the club and it is open to both male and female dancers.

To find our more about the Tanabata Dancers, contact Vice President Tess Dengler at 1-443-524-6505 or Teresa Negley at 225-9381.