Bon Odori and a person who taught me how to dance

In Japan, every August, there is a three-day festivity called bon. According to what I was taught, it is an occasion when our ancestors’ spirits come to visit us to spend the three days with us, and people celebrate it with a special dance festival in each local community. This dance is called bon odori (odori means dance in Japanese).

When I was five and lived in the community of tiny half-dilapidated apartments, our neighbouhood also hosted a small bon odori festival at a park near the local shinto shrine. One evening, my mother took me and my little brother to the festival. It was our first time to participate in our community’s bon odori festival since we usually celebrated our bon at our maternal grandmother’s place. At my grandmother’s place, they also had their own bon odori festival, and I had danced with my elder cousin a few times before, and I really liked it. So, I was looking forward to dancing at our own neighbourhood’s bon odori festival that evening.

There was a pop-up tower in the middle of the park where the singer and the drummers played the music. When we arrived, people were dancing around the tower in a circle. I immediately joined the circle excited to participate in the dance while my mother and brother followed me on the side.

10 seconds into the dance, however, my mood was no longer merry. I didn’t know the steps. The music and the dance of this bon odori festival was very different from the one I had experienced at my grandmother’s place. I tried to mimic the move of others around me, but it was too fast and I couldn’t catch up with them. Soon, I was in tears.

“I can’t do it! I can’t do it!”

I started to whine as I stomped on the ground in frustration. It was my typical expression of panic and stress, and my mother used to hate seeing it.

“Don’t stress, sweetie, just follow others!”

“I can’t do it! I can’t do it! They are too fast!” I cried, stomping on the ground.

My mother tried to cheer me up, but after some unsuccessful attempts, she scolded me.

“We came here to enjoy the festival. If you keep whining like that, we are going home!”

This only made my whining louder.

“No, I’m not going home! I want to dance!”

“Then do it without whining!”

“But they are too fast! I can’t follow the steps!”

Just when my mother was about to give up and grab me out of the circle, an elder lady came in front of me. In a kind and calm voice, she told me to follow her move. She showed me each step, watched me follow her move, nodded if I did it right and showed me the move again if I didn’t get it. I stopped crying and became quiet. I concentrated all my attention on following this lady’s move and I forgot about everything else. My mother and brother quietly followed us on the side.

After a few rounds, I finally memorized the steps and could dance in tune with everybody else around me. I felt wonderful. Seeing that I was now fine on my own, the lady left us telling me how well I had learned and wishing me good luck. My mother thanked her with a deep bow.

I had great fun dancing around with other people that night. On our way back home, I kept telling my mother how well I danced and how happy I was. My face was glowing with excitement and not a sign of the earlier whining and stomping could be seen. Holding my brother’s hand in one hand and mine in the other, my mother listened to me rather quietly, with a smile and reflective look on her face.