Dances with Spirits

“First you dig,” Noa motioned driving a shovel into the dirt. “Then you wipe your sweat.” His little hand reached up to mock wiping sweat from his brow. My dance instructor was a five year old. He knew every step to the dance that symbolized working the harvest (or mining coal-I’m not sure which) but he refused to join the circle. He preferred watching the Bon Dance from the sidelines.

 

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Noa watching from the sidelines with his mom

This Japanese festival was my first. The Bon Festival, or Bon Odori, is a Buddhist festival that honors the deceased ancestors of one’s family. The event takes place in the summer and varies by different regions, but one thing that remains the same is the dancing. I got to experience my first Obon season in O’ahu where Hawaiians take the event very seriously.

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Celebrants wear summer kimonos, yukatas, and move in a type of line dance formation, shuffling in one large circle around the yagura, or tower, in the center of the circle.

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Getting ready for the festival to begin

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Some dances use sticks, fans or clappers, and everyone seems to have their favorite, jumping from their seats and joining the ladies who demonstrate each dance in their beautiful kimonos.

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Young or old, everyone gets into the spirit of the dance.

The event is like a summer fair replete with fried food, more sweets than you can shake a tenugui at and plenty of kids and old folks mingling together. Rather than games (though some Bon Dances have them) the main event is the dancing itself. The dances are slow, long and repeat twice, but it doesn’t stop anyone from participating. In fact, the simplicity of them is what keeps everyone on the dance floor, young and old. A newbie like myself could pick up the movements by the second time the song started up and feel like a rockstar when the electric slide comes on.

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Some homemade goods for sale
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Food stands stay busy all night

The whole evening is kicked off by a monk making offerings to the deceased. 

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Our Bon Dance was capped off by a performance of Japanese drum players, or a taiko group, which seems to be more a mixture of dance and music than pure instrument recital.

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As the three day festival comes to an end, the spirits are guided back home with a fire ceremony, putting them to rest until we welcome them back with a dance the next year. As summer comes to it’s own end and autumn falls around us, Halloween nipping at it’s heels and Dia de los Muertos not far behind, ponder the Bon Dance and its festive celebration of the living honoring the dead through song, dance and food. Think about how you honor your ancestors and consider participating in another cultural event to bring mirth and merry into your ancestral remembrances. Try something new or light a candle. Visit a church or pray with a monk. Join a parade or decorate with marigolds. Find a way to enjoy life while you are part of the living.

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