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Dance Notes: teaching the traditions of nihon buyo



Inside his second-floor studio at Links Hall, Fujima Shunojo is talking to a student. He is sitting Japanese style (on his knees) and reminding the student, a nine-year-old Japanese-American girl in a pink-and-white kimono, to bend her knees. "Even if it hurts you've got to bend," he tells her.

Fujima, a practitioner of nihon buyo, or traditional Japanese dance, is teaching the girl a dance called "Sakura," which celebrates the springtime coming of cherry blossoms. Nihon buyo is a dance form little known outside Japan, but Fujima professionally trained in it for seven years in Tokyo, his hometown. Then when he moved here 19 years ago, he founded the Fujima Shunojo Classical Dance Group as a way of passing on his art. He teaches students of all ages, mostly of Japanese descent. "Before the student opens the door here it's America," he says of his studio. "When they walk in here, it's Japan."

Fujima tries to follow the tradition of the strict sensei (teacher) but admits that he is not as strict with his students as his teacher was with him. "My teacher never gave any explanation. You just watched him and learned by yourself. His thinking was 'Just follow me, no questions.' But you can't do this here. Students need explanation. In Japanese schools students don't ask questions. There's no discussion. In the United States, whatever you want to say, you say. That is what I have learned."

In Buyo: The Classical Dance, author Masakatsu Gunji writes, "The student of nihon buyo is taught a complete dance from beginning to end," while the student of Western dance "is first taught the basic steps . . . and only later are the steps put together into a complete dance.

"While Western Dance aspires toward the heavens," Gunji writes, "Eastern Dance shows great love for the earth. In Western Dance the arms are raised high above the head, the body is lifted up on the tips of the toes, and there are many bounds and leaps." Japanese dance, on the other hand, involves "pressing the hips downward to make the body appear shorter and in close contact with the ground."

Twelve-year-old Rina Lin, who has been studying at the Fujima school for a year and three months, explains, "You don't come to just learn how to dance. It's more like expressing feelings. In life there are many characters. In the dance you express each character . . . It can get very tiring."

When Lin's 18-year-old sister began studying nihon buyo, she found herself comparing it to karate. "In karate, there are kara, or forms. You watch the teacher demonstrate a form and then you do it. In the beginning I told myself buyo was just like doing the forms, except with music." Eventually, though, she admitted to herself that it wasn't quite like karate. "In karate, you don't act like you're a warrior or a geisha."

All of Fujima's students take part of his name, just as he took part of his teacher's name. In Tokyo Fujima studied at the Fujima school, and at the end of his training the name was "awarded" to him by teacher Fujima Shusai. "My teacher was Shusai so he gave me Shu, one syllable of his name, and I became Shunojo. Then, all of my students take nojo, for example, Yukinojo, Ikunojo, Sadanojo."

Fujima received his name when he was 19. Two years later he opened up his own school in Tokyo with his parents' help.

He came to Chicago in 1971 to visit an American friend he had known in Tokyo. "During my visit, a woman asked me what I did in Japan. When I told her I was a dancer she said, why don't you dance here? Then she set everything up." Several people who saw him dance here suggested that he teach, and in 1977 he opened his school.

Fujima enjoys the challenge of getting Americans to appreciate a foreign art form, though his goal, he says, is to teach more than just dance. "Everything goes together--dancing, behavior, and manners," he says. At Fujima's school studying the art of nihon buyo is meant to train the mind. As D.T. Suzuki explains in the introduction to Eugen Herrigal's book Zen in the Art of Archery, archery in Japan is not practiced "solely for hitting the target," nor is the purpose of dance "just to perform certain rhythmical movements of the body. The mind has first to be attuned to the unconscious."

Fujima tries to teach his students attention to detail, something he was taught to take very seriously. In Japan, students who are studying a traditional art often live under the same roof as their teacher, and one of the things Fujima learned at his teacher's house was the art of putting on makeup. "Putting on the makeup is very important because it is part of becoming the character."

Fujima tries to avoid mixing nihon on buyo with Western dance, though he once performed to Beatles music played on a koto, a long Japanese zither with 13 strings. He is critical of teachers of other traditional Japanese arts, such as flower arranging or the tea ceremony, who change their art to make it more appealing to Americans.

But he admits there are differences between buyo in Japan and the buyo performed by his school here. "Our costumes are more colorful. The music is also different. It's faster and has a stronger beat."

The essence of the art, however, remains unchanged. "We bring to America our culture, our traditions. It doesn't matter, good or bad we have to do it that way. Some people ask me, 'Fujima why do you only do traditional dance? Why don't you do something more modern?' I tell them it's because if I have to do that I don't want to teach. It's not worth it to me."

The Fujima School's next public performance is June 30 at the Buddhist Temple of Chicago, 1151 W. Leland. Tickets are $10, $5 for seniors and children. Fujima's students will also perform in August, as part of the Ginza Festival. For more information on the school or upcoming performances, call 871-5018 or 929-3500.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.

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