Elizabeth Smith: Dancing- Ballet and Nihon Buyou

For my CIP, I’ve taken ballet classes at K.Classic Ballet, and private lessons in Nihon Buyou- classical Japanese dance. It has definitely been a highlight of my time in Japan!

I had no idea how much ballet would make Kyoto feel like home. Throughout my life, ballet has followed me everywhere I’ve gone- I’ve been dancing seriously since I was about eight, helped direct my college’s ballet company, and have also studied a ballet academy in Paris. Ballet classes are remarkably similar all over the world- so enrolling at K.Classic ballet felt less like being the “new kid,” and more like re-joining a community where I’ve always belonged. Additionally, I’m so lucky to have found such an inspiring place to take class- several students from the school have placed in internationally-known competitions, and last week, the class was visited by a recent alumni- who is now dancing professionally at American Ballet Theatre!

Being in the ballet studio has really helped me learn to pick up on small social cues and cultural differences. The atmosphere in most good ballet schools (anywhere in the world) ranges from disciplined to strict, and K.Classic Ballet is no different. On my first day, I remember the teacher making a speech to her students (in somewhat difficult to understand Kansai-ben) about the importance of working hard, and not wasting valuable time in the studio. As the semester has passed, I’ve noticed that the students here seem to define hard work differently than I have in the U.S. At home, there are often clear times when it is and is not appropriate to practice on the sides of the floor, (for example, when the teacher is working with another student, it is considered polite to stop dancing and watch.) Here, the students spend a much larger percentage of the time practicing on their own. They are constantly tweaking their technique and working to apply corrections, through repetition in every free moment, especially at times when in my past experience, it would be customary to be still and observant. Additionally, when Sensei gives her students a correction, I’ve noticed that in comparison with most American teachers, she leaves about twice as long for students to practice applying it. In order to fit in, I’ve had to carefully pick up on these different cues, and adjust my working style to match the other students.

Nihon Buyou has also been an incredible experience. I originally started Nihon Buyou in the U.S., when I was about four, and continued until I was about twelve. I had the opportunity to take it up again over the summer in Hokkaido, and was lucky that my sensei from then was able to put me in touch with a sensei in Kyoto. I absolutely adore my sensei here- she is one of the warmest, most understanding people that I’ve met. She spends a lot of time making sure that I understand the technical vocabulary that she uses, but has a sense of humor when things become confusing or difficult. Furthermore, something that has surprised me about Nihon Buyou here is the slight emphasis on developing a personal relationship with the teacher. In every lesson, the two of us start and end the lesson with a cup of tea, where we discuss everything from my host sister’s undoukais to her recent trip to Tokyo. I’ve taken private lessons in ballet before, and music as well, and although I’ve always gotten to know my teachers very well, there has never been an established time to stop and pause and talk with each other.  For me, especially with the occasional language barrier, taking time to drink tea together has helped me to better communicate with my teacher during the lessons themselves.

Overall, dancing in Kyoto has enriched my experience in two ways. Ballet has helped me find a place where a shared interest has helped me find a sense of belonging, while Nihon Buyou has helped me make the most of my time by helping me learn something that is incredibly difficult to pursue in the U.S. I’m incredibly grateful for the experiences I’ve had this semester, and can’t wait to see what the next will bring!

6 thoughts on “Elizabeth Smith: Dancing- Ballet and Nihon Buyou

  1. It’s great that you were able to continue ballet dance and Nihon Buyou here in Japan! Not only were you able to pursue an activities you’re so passionate about, but you were also able to gain a broader perspective on how people from another culture enjoy the same activities, which I think is a very valuable experience.

    You mentioned being able to connect with your Nihon Buyou sensei and developing a relationship with her, and I had a similar experience with my calligraphy sensei. Frequently, I end up talking with her for quite a long time even after class ends, and she’s always been interested in my life and study abroad experience.

    For next semester, are you planning to participate in any new extracurricular activities? If so, what kinds of activities are you considering? If you plan to continue with dance, what new insights do you hope to discover?

  2. Heya Elizabeth,

    You did two CIPs? Very impressive. I’m sure you were extremely busy, but it sounds like these are both activities that have meant a lot to you for a long time, so it’s heartwarming that you got a chance to continue them while in Japan.

    It’s interesting to note the subtle differences in teaching and practice styles. Do you think there’s any way to take what you learned and bring it to the classes you take while in America or elsewhere? Has your approach to learning changed at all because of this experience?

    • Hi Jaime! Thanks for commenting!

      That’s a really good question! I think that watching the persistence that the dancers have here is definitely something that would be transferable to the US. They work so hard on little details, and I think they make a more time-efficient use of their time than dancers in the US. That being said, I don’t think that I could totally transplant the way that they work here to the US, because much of what they do here is not exactly socially acceptable in the US. For example, they are really diligent about practicing full-sized jumps in breaks between combinations, even though the studio is fairly small. Doing this in the US would be considered disrespectful of other people’s space, since there’s rarely room for everyone to be jumping full out. So I guess I’d say that while I can definitely bring back the attitude that I saw (and found incredibly inspiring) I don’t think the exact behaviors would transfer as well.

  3. Hi Elizabeth! It’s really wonderful that you were able to find CIPs that helped you feel at home, but which were also culturally and technically enriching!

    I wonder how you think the two styles of dance compare. I imagine that they require significantly different skill sets. Do you think that your experience dancing ballet has informed how you approach Nihon Buyou? Is it ever difficult to switch between styles of dance? Also, you mentioned that you started Nihon Buyou at a young age and then stopped for a number of years. Do you think that someone who had only danced ballet would be able to start Nihon Buyou at your age and be successful?

    I’m also interested in any differences you might have noticed between how Nihon Buyou is taught in the US vs in Japan. Before I heard about your CIP, I had never even thought about the fact that Japanese dance might be taught in the US. Ballet, on the other hand, is a pretty globalized art form, as you mentioned. Even so, you were able to notice some differences between how ballet classes function in the US vs in Japan. When it comes to Nihon Buyou, have you found that pedagogical techniques differ significantly between the two countries?

    • Hi Maeve! Thanks for commenting!!

      Honestly, I think that the two styles are different enough to not really conflict, and it’s never hard to switch between. At the same time, however, they don’t necessarily help each other much, either. Nihon Buyou is much less physically strenuous, so it doesn’t necessarily build muscle memory that would conflict with ballet training. That being said, I do think that the experience of knowing how to learn choreography/pick up movement is incredibly helpful in learning any style of dance. Ballet is also generally considered the baseline for most forms of dance in the west, because it builds a strong foundation in techniques (things like pointed feet, flexibility, etc) that are useful in pretty much anything. A lot of this technique doesn’t transfer into Nihon Buyou, but ideas like posture, musicality, etc definitely do. So in that sense, I guess ballet indirectly does help with Nihon Buyou!

      As far as Nihon Buyou in the US vs. in Japan- my classes in the US were taught by a teacher who lived in Tokyo and came to the US a few times a year. She would teach a new dance to me, and coach me intensely in an old one for a week or so, and then there would be a performance, and she would go back to Japan. I’d spend the next six months practicing the new dance from the video, and then when she came back to the US, she’s repeat the process- but coaching the one that I’d just learned, and then teaching something new. So my training in the US was probably fairly comparable with what would happen in Japan, other than the weird and untraditional format and teacher that lived on the other side of the world. I would think though, that since it is really hard to get a teaching certification in Nihon Buyou, that the only people who are teaching it in the US must be people who learned in Japan and then moved to the US.

  4. Hi Alan! Thanks for commenting!

    That’s awesome that you built a relationship with your calligraphy sensei! I think Dylan also had a similar experience- I think this is a cultural difference that I might not have noticed if I hadn’t realized how common of an experience it’s been for so many of us!

    I think I’m definitely going to keep working on these two activities. With Nihon Buyou, I’m excited to learn a bigger variety of dances- I got a bit of a late start, so I’ve mostly been working on one piece so far, but I started a new one right before I left, which is really exciting. The first uses a fan as a prop, which is fairly standard and very fun. The second one, though, uses a giant stick with flowers!! It’s so fun and different! As far as ballet, I’m hoping that I can get to know the other students a little better on a more personal note. Only a few of them are in college- a lot of them are younger, and some of the ones who are older have internship positions with the school, which makes them somewhat of an authority figure to me. I will probably start staying after class to wear pointe shoes, though, and hopefully will eventually get the chance to get coffee with some of the older students!

    As far as other extra-curriculars- I think I’m mostly going to stick to these two for now. I would love to take on something like a martial art, but I just don’t think I could manage it, time wise!