I had my first experience with Japanese dance, or Nihon buyō, in 1976. I was 19 and living in Fukuoka with my missionary parents. It was my third trip to Japan, but the first one I really remembered. My first trip was in 1956, when I was born on the kitchen table in Hoshiguma, an area of Fukuoka, on the southern island of Kyushu. My parents were then just completing an eight-year tenure as missionaries and were preparing their return to the United States. In three weeks I was on the road with my mother and sisters and Japan was not even so much as a memory.

The second trip to Japan was in 1964 when I was eight. We were on our way back to the United States after a year in Benares (Varanarsi), India. I remember very little about that visit to Japan, except we stayed with other missionary families and in one of the houses the young daughter (several years older than me) was showing us her pet parakeet. She took it out of the cage to let it fly. I screamed when it swooped over my head. The girl fell as she tried to catch it and landed on the bird, killing it. She was inconsolable. To this day I am terrified of birds, particularly when they fly freely inside a room.

But this third trip was long—lasting for one year—and I was on the brink of adulthood. It made a lasting impression. And tied to that impression is my experience with buyō. Lydia Barrows introduced me to dance. She was a “journeyman missionary,” newly graduated from college and sent to the mission field for a two-year term. Lydia was enthusiastic about taking part in all aspects of Japanese life. When a space opened up in the class where she was enrolled, she invited me to join, and I began taking lessons from the young dancer Yuko Ura.

When a space opened up in the class where she was enrolled, she invited me to join, and I began taking lessons from the young dancer Yuko Ura.

We met in her aunt’s house, and after lessons often stayed for tea, sweets, and gossip. Ura Sensei was an accomplished dancer in the Hanayagi School of buyō, the largest of the five schools of dance. Normally, she would not have been allowed to take on students (until she had earned a particular license after considerable time and expense.) But the headmaster of Ura Sensei’s school allowed her to teach us. We were gaijin, after all. Foreigners. It was unlikely that we would ever rise in the rigid hierarchy of the traditional performing arts. No, it was impossible. So, teaching us as a side hobby was not a threat.

As long as Ura Sensei retained her perspective in the matter, she was allowed to “teach” us. Like so many of her generation, she was genuinely sincere in her wish to share her culture and her talents with those from other countries. Taking lessons from Ura Sensei was the highlight of my year.


Photo by Mitchell Luo on Unsplash