The word for traditional dance in Japanese, buyō 舞踊、combines the character mai, 舞, with that of odori, 踊, and suggests the syncretic nature of the art form. Whereas dance has been omnipresent in Japan since the beginning of time, the word buyō is a relatively modern invention, coined in the late nineteenth century to distinguish what was then believed to be indigenous to Japan from what was rapidly rushing into the country from the West, such as ballet and ballroom dancing. The two words combine the stately elegance of Noh dance (mai) with the more mimetic dances familiar to the Kabuki stage (odori).

But in truth, buyō is even more complex. It serves as a container for various dance traditions: field and folk celebrations, religious ritual, and the more confined (and refined) performances of the geisha, to name a few. Today there are five major schools of dance: Nishikawa, Fujima, Bando, Hanayagi, and Wakayagi.

Today there are five major schools of dance: Nishikawa, Fujima, Bando, Hanayagi, and Wakayagi.

And although most of the students of buyō are women, the headmasters of the schools are almost invariably male. The schools share most of the same repertoire but approach the dances differently. Their performance styles vary. For example, the Hanayagi school prefers a more vigorous style, with more dramatic interpretations of the set movements, while the Fujima school specializes in movements that are more subtle and suggestive. It was my good fortune to have the opportunity to study with both the Hanayagi and the Nishikawa schools of dance, in training experiences that were over 30 years apart.


For more on Nihon buyō see:

Dehorah S. Klens, “Nihon Buyō in the Kabuki Training Program at Japan’s National Theatre,” Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 231-241.

Gunji Masakatsu, Buyo: the Classical Dance (Tokyo: Walker/Weatherhill 1960).


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