Elizabeth Smith: Nihon Buyou and Ballet


This semester, I have continued with both of my CIP activities: Ballet and Nihon Buyou. Unlike last semester, when I was primarily focused on acclimating into a new environment, I started this semester feeling comfortable with both of my CIPs. This allowed me to delve deeper into both communitiesscreen-shot-2017-03-31-at-19-57-45

In Nihon Buyou, I am now able to pick up on details that largely escaped me at the beginning. This is in part because my language skills have improved dramatically. Last semester was essentially survival mode: I was only focused on understanding the gist of what my teacher had to say, and had little room to pick up on details or nuance. This semester, I know her better and am more familiar with the repertory that I am studying. This has allowed me to learn more about the history of Nihon Buyou, its links to the Kabuki tradition, and the different schools. For example, both last semester and this semester, my teacher has given me tickets to see Nihon Buyou performed in Pontocho. (This semester, I got to see her dance with her sister!) Compared to last semester I was much more aware of the context what I was seeing, and was able to ask better questions afterwards.

In terms of ballet, I feel like I have become a much more involved member of the community. Last semester, due to a minor injury and the process of adjusting to life in a foreign country, I typically went home right after classes. This semester, because I was more comfortable with life in Kyoto and my injury has healed, I have started staying to wear pointe shoes for an extra half hour after one of my two classes every week. This has given me a better opportunity to get to know the other girls much better. Whereas girls that dance together for several days in a week in America tend to become very close, I at first thought that the atmosphere at K.Classic ballet was much less social. However, spending more time around the girls, I’ve realized that while the dressing room is too small to talk much before and after class, they do have a strong community. They have been incredibly inclusive towards me as well! For example, when one of the girls brought Valentines’ chocolate for everyone, she included me as well! Additionally, girls who I was once intimidated to speak to have approached me to start conversations about my pointe shoes or my training in the US. Little gestures like these have made me increasingly like I have become part of a community.

4 thoughts on “Elizabeth Smith: Nihon Buyou and Ballet

  1. Elizabeth–

    It’s so interesting to read your thoughts about how more Japanese study has refined your approach to studying Nihon Buyo. Since, as you know, classical ballet is focused so intensely on combining virtuosity with limited narrative scenes and taught in a context without a lot of historical background and cultural grounding, it is enlightening to see how a deeper understanding of Nihon Buyou–and presumably then steps towards mastering it–hinge to an extent on language skills which allow for the required historical understanding. Thanks for sharing!


    • Hi Trevor!!

      Thanks so much for reading my post!
      Honestly, I think that the difference is less severe than it may seem. It’s true that the format of a ballet class and a nihon buyou lesson are very different. (For anyone reading this who might not know, ballet classes are built on a series of exercises that build upon each other. While sometimes a teacher will use a combination of steps from a famous ballet, usually these are exercises that are designed for the classroom, not the stage. In contrast, Nihon Buyou lessons focus solely on learning repertory- everything that I have learned in the classroom is the same choreography that someone -probably my teacher- has performed on a stage) However, I think that a lot of the way that language helped me was less that it helped me master steps or choreography, and more that it helped me understand where the steps came from and what they mean. For example, I think a lot of this background is important for ballet as well- for example, knowing if you’re training in the English tradition or the Russian tradition, or understanding the basic historical contexts through which ballets are choreographed, can really help aid understanding.

  2. Elizabeth,

    It’s wonderful to hear you have felt so much more included in the ballet community and become so much more comfortable with and informed about Boyou. I am wondering about the differences between the two styles of dance and if there are any particular differences that make Boyou much harder to pick up, not only because of the linguistic barrier!

    I’m so glad you get to continue doing what you love here in Japan.

    • Hi Thyra! Thanks for commenting!

      Ballet and Nihon Buyou are basically polar opposites. Unlike ballet, which focuses dually on virtuosity and artistry, Nihon Buyou does not have the virtuosity component. While there are still technical concerns to think about, the focus of the training is very much on learning to express the ideas in the song. That being said, I don’t mean to place a value judgement on either, or to imply that one is harder. There is a subtlety in nihon buyou that takes years of training to pick up- and no other style of dance can substitute as preparation. I think one concrete difference that I’ve struggled with, however, has been the music. I’ve been studying nihon buyou (off and on and never at a pre-professional level) since I was a kid, so I have a decent amount of exposure to traditional Japanese music. Even so, I’ve had a really hard time learning where choreography fits in the music. Unlike western music, I find Japanese music more difficult to count. It seems to have a less regular rhythm, and different recordings of the same pieces of music can be extremely different. Additionally, it’s hard for me to rely on the lyrics as well; maybe a native speaker could decipher most of the lyrics into words, but I can only catch a little bit here and there.