The dancer enters the stage slowly, her feet sliding across the polished wood of the stage. With silent, measured movements she opens her paper fan, one fold at a time, turns her back and waits for the strum of the shamisen to fill the theater. Holding her fan above her head with one hand, her other hand tucked into the armhole opening of her kimono, she slowly tilts her left shoulder down towards the stage and with nearly imperceptible movements turns her head to gaze behind her. The fan she holds aloft is a moon, a misty moon, the moon of a spring night. The dancer enacts the moment the woman, alone under the pale light of the spring moon, turns to catch her shadow. And now the dancer pulls her fan down as she twists to face the audience. The fan has become a mirror. The dancer mimes the woman gently touching her hair. The face in the mirror has aged.

Rebecca Copeland holding her prized dancing fan, Fukuoka, Japan, 1977

In Nihon buyō, or traditional Japanese dance, the fan is the most important accoutrement. It performs the roles of various objects, from the moon, to a mirror, to a sake cup. In some dances it is the sail of a boat, in others a fluttering cherry blossom. The fan creates the mood of the dance, the spirit, the elegance, and carries the emotion of the dancer. Throughout the dance the dancer may open the fan half way, all the way, or keep it closed. When a dancer first begins her lessons, her instructor, or sensei, provides her with a fan. My first fan was emblazoned with silver and gold cherry blossom petals on a bright red background. The dancing fan is made of thick paper attached to ten thin sticks, usually bamboo, that are connected at the base with a pin or pivot. The fan is designed to open and close. My sensei taught me how to do so properly. “The outside sticks are known as our parents. Hold one with the thumb and finger of your left hand while you push the other with your right.” It took me awhile before I got the hang of it.

I still have my first fan. The paper has grown soft in places, and the color has worn here and there. The folds that once were stiff are now pliable and easily fall open. This fan is one of my prized possessions. Like many things that have known the touch of human hands over the ages, the fan now embodies a tactile sense of memory. It carries with it the dance steps I have long forgotten.

The mai ōgi or dancing fan is treated with respect. It is only used for dancing and never for fanning—a fact I learned the hard way. (I learned a lot of facts the hard way in Japan. And by that I mean, I made the mistake of doing it wrong and was swiftly corrected.) When she is not dancing, a dancer carries her fan in the space between her obi and her kimono. Often she keeps the fan tucked inside a narrow carrying case made of silk. Before each lesson, the pupil kneels on the floor before the sensei and places the fan (folded) parallel to her knees—between herself and her sensei—and she bows.

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