“These are not the classes you are looking for.” A hand waved in front of my face in an attempt to erase my memory. “No!” I insisted, “I had plans to dance with Kite and Gucchon!” “…These are not the classes you are looking for.” Hand wave. “Dammit! Stop waving at me!” Japan frowned and looked at its hands, puzzled. Japan’s forehead wrinkles got deeper and more numerous with increased concentration as its stance widened. Some serious shit was about to happen. Its hands were glowing now, fingers curled and aiming at me. “HAAAAAAAAA!” Japan screamed at the top of its lungs as it formed a house-shaped ball of light and hurled it at my chest. “OUCH! WTF?” The little house fell to to floor and settled at my feet. I picked it up, and as I brought it nearer to my face for inspection I felt compelled to take a bite of it. My eyes glazed over and my mouth went slack. “It tastes amaaaaaaazing…”
So… I’ve learned something over the past several months. Dancers are very similar to visual artists: it’s like herding cats. They have schedules that they see more as “guidelines” and are easily distracted by shiny things. Trying to maintain regularity with these guys is challenging but worth it. Let’s pile a couple more scheduling challenges on there. How about a foreign country and language that you can’t read or speak. Cool. I have burned just as many calories walking around from studio to studio trying to get into a class as I have burned actually dancing. This is the story of my first few dance classes in Japan.
First there was Tokyo. Tokyo is home to one of Japan’s most famous poppers, Kite. I found his email and asked him where he taught so that I could try to catch him. He answered quickly and kindly so I went ahead and got a hotel nearby the studio. The day after I arrived in Tokyo I figured I’d better find the studio and make sure he would be there. I had a really hard time finding it and I was tired and hungry but I did finally manage. Well. Kite was not on the schedule. Even with my advanced planning there are just too many unknown factors at play. In this case Kite was performing in China. He’s an amazing dancer and called all around the world regularly.
I asked the girls behind the counter at Studio Mission which instructors taught technique based classes. This is always the first question out of my mouth because a choreography class would be a waste of money with the way my brain shuts down at the first struggle. They directed me to Shuho, the house dance instructor. Now, “house” dance instructor here does not imply that Shuho is a like a mysterious bottle of wine that needs to be cleared out of the cellar to make room for new wine: it means that he teaches a form of dance called house. Here’s some info on it.
After doing the shoe shuffle, I sat and waited in some seats with a range of people. There were kids, hipsters, and a couple of older ladies. One woman, who had to be in her mid 60’s donned adidas sweatpants, a cool shirt, and a cool baseball cap pulled low. And obviously, by the way she was dressed, the older woman was not merely waiting for some grandkids to get out of tap. She was waiting for Shuho too. Soon, a guy with bleached blonde hair and a brightly colored patterned shirt showed up and sat and waited too. This would turn out to be the instructor, Shuho.
All of the classes I have taken have been taught in Japanese and I wouldn’t expect it any other way. It’s totally ok too. I may miss some of the finer points but dance in itself is a language and I happen to speak a few of its dialects. Shuho is very animated and charismatic. He uses a lot of physical examples of what happens to movements if you are tight versus if you are loose. He mimed swinging a baseball bat tightly and I laughed when the rest of the class laughed. We worked on making very exaggerated and loose movements with our whole bodies. He kept saying the word “oki” which means big or large. I know this because of how I order my coffee.
Next came my least favorite part of any class, the choreography. (And Shuho, if you’re reading: it’s not your choreography that was a problem, it’s my memory and my instant frustration with myself that is a problem.) But you know it wasn’t too bad. I was able to follow most of it until the faster footwork came in. Shuho could see I was having trouble with the “house shuffle” movement and very subtly came over to my side of the room and slowed down the movement a bit without calling attention to me. Very much appreciated. I didn’t manage to nail the move but I am familiar with it and have something to work on. I cannot stress how much of a fabulous teacher Shuho is. I told him that I wish I could take 1000 classes from him. It was a great experience. Oh yeah, the older ladies in the class? All bad asses. Every one of them. It was only after I got home and started researching him that I realized he’s one of the top house dancers in Japan. Just look at this!
Here’s where to find Shuho: Instagram. There are LOTS of great videos of him doing his thing on youtube. Let me tell you, Shuho is an animal. I’ve seen him waack, pop, and house brilliantly. I’d imagine there isn’t anything he can’t do with his body. He’s been dancing for 20 years regularly. Go look. You will not be disappointed. Shuho dances with House of Ninja and Tokyo Footworkz.
Osaka… Osaka… I’m going to have to write a separate post about my feelings towards Osaka. I came to Osaka because it’s strong with urban street styles and nearby is a dancer named Gucchon: another famous Japanese popper. I had plans to take his class and sent an email ahead asking if he’d be there on the day I planned to go. No one ever responded. I thought I might have a concierge call and see if he would be there but I never followed through. In the meantime I had a few days before Gucchon would be teaching so I looked around locally. (Gucchon’s class is an hour train ride from where I was staying.) There weren’t any classes on the first night that I wanted to take but I saw a popping class scheduled for the next day and went to the studio to make sure everything was lined up. It was. Next night I go and I am SO READY to take a class. The girl at the front desk was having a hard time communicating something to me though. Oh! There’s the instructor now! Oh. He’s having a special session and class is closed. Shit.
Ok, let’s look at this other studio. Alley Oop seems to be very popular. Let me go there and ask if there are any instructors who focus on technique rather than choreography. It was a cool studio with several girls at the front desk. I break out the translator and start my round of questions but none of the girls knew the instructors well enough to be able to tell me how they teach. I left. Alright. One more chance at a class tonight. One more studio and this one is 30 minutes walk. I’m determined.
I finally landed a class at Camuro and Tatsuya Watanabe was my awesome instructor. Tatsuya a.k.a Tacchan is cool. He is the epitome of cool. He could be walking down the sidewalk with ice cream in one hand and bubble tea in the other hand and trip over a stray cat and land on his face and he would make it look really cool. Here. Just look at how cool he is.
His beginner class was exactly what I needed. There were two ladies, maybe my age or a few years younger, and one other guy who was probably in his 20’s. They are all Tacchan’s regular students! The other students in Tacchan’s class came over to me during breaks to communicate and learn who I was and what I was doing in Japan. I know that each time I turn up for a class I am a total surprise. Imagine it flipped around. A Japanese person with barely any English skills turns up to Fenton’s or DFC and breaks out their phone to translate that they wish to take a technique based class. Now make it an older Japanese woman. Pretty unusual right? It’s not something I really thought about too much until the most recent house class I took. At any rate, I am unusual and I piqued everyone’s curiosity. I really enjoyed talking with the other students during the breaks. We each knew enough basics in each language to get by and even laugh at a few things. Here’s a video of his students killin’ it on the dance floor! (The ladies in the class with me are two of the dancers in the video!)
Tacchan’s teaching style was delightful. When class began he projected a clear voice with lessons and instructions. Our warmup was great. I love the warmups! This is when we just do house movements over and over and this is where I get to dance without struggling to remember a choreography. I think my ultimate class would be a house aerobics class. (I’m looking at you Hamza!) Tacchan taught me a basic house move called jacking. SHUT UP IT’S CALLED JACKING! It’s where you bend at the knees and lean ba… shut up. It’s where you lean back and then when you go forwar… shut up! Sigh. (Japanese readers: jacking is slang for masturbation over here.) Anyway, it’s a simple move that absolutely must be done right. I will have to practice. We did a little footwork too. Then… the dreaded choreo. Finally: a choreography that was taught slowly enough that I didn’t cry. At the end there was a move that I struggled with but I don’t mind struggling a little. That means you’re learning right?! It’s when I’m struggling with everything and I look around and see no one else struggling that causes a total shut down. It’s embarrassing. I am going to have to devise a plan to get over myself.
Tatsuya tried to shift to English as much as he could for me which was really sweet. I felt a little bad for his struggle but at the end of class when I thanked him and told him that I learned SO MUCH, he laughed and said he did too! I absolutely loved this class, the other students, and Tacchan. I dug deep on the internet and even found some of his house playlists. I’m listening to one as I type this. Do you even have to ask if they’re cool? They are. I hope to cross paths with Tacchan in the future but that could be difficult with my sour feelings about that city. Tatsuya, you were the very best thing that happened to me in Osaka. Thank you. Here’s how you find Tacchan: Instagram. Tacchan dances with a crew called Uomo & Oceans.
I never ended up dancing with Gucchon. With the numerous hassles I had trying to find a suitable class and as tired as I was from that struggle, I decided I didn’t want to take the chance that something would go wrong with a 2 hour round trip ahead of me. I left my dance experience in Osaka on a positive note at least!
This is YaS. YaS (short for Yasuhiro Kawabata) is a dancer in the smaller city of Takamatsu, the place I am now writing from. So here’s how I find these dance classes: I get on google maps, I search for “Dance Studio,” and then I go to each and every website and dig through kanji, hiragana, and katakana looking for class schedules. I can hover my photo translator over the site and find the words I am looking for and then I search for the dance style I want. That is typically popping, hip hop, and now, house. I’ve been avoiding hip hop here though because it looks like every hip hop class involves a very complicated choreography. I found YaS at a dance studio called studioTIARA. It was pretty easy to get to: a couple of train stops and a short walk totaling about 20 minutes or so. After I stepped off the train and started walking though, I began to question whether or not there really was a dance studio out here because it was in the middle of nowhere. In the distance I could see a larger building with a lit sign (regrettably I didn’t take a photo while the sign was on).
I entered, shuffled my shoes, and headed upstairs. A dance class was going on but no one was at the front window to take my money. YaS’s class would be the last one of the evening from 8:15 to 9:15. I did hear a little noise from behind a closed door so I tapped on it lightly. YaS opened the door and was truly puzzled to see me. Remember the above scenario involving a foreign stranger? Now imagine that an older Japanese woman who doesn’t speak English and has to use a translator turns up at a dance school in Lubbock, Texas. Unheard of, right? I’m starting to understand that my turning up unannounced to these schools might not be as great and fun for an instructor as it is for me.
YaS used his translator to ask me a few questions and try to tell me what his class would be like. He was preparing his students for a summer festival and had been working on a choreography with them. He invited me to take part in the class but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to keep up for very long, especially when I heard how fast the song was. Deciding I would “hide” in the back of a room full of mirrors once it got too complicated for me to remember somehow helped me to participate in this class without my usual mental malfunction.
But first, the warm up. Loved it. I learned three new stretches including one insane sideways core strengthening move. When I saw what everyone was doing I pushed my body to do the same thing as best as I could. It was very difficult. I’m going to keep doing it. Then came the house steps to get in some cardio and break a sweat. Loved it. After the warm up he told us to grab some water and that’s when the students all came over to me. This was a younger class (I’m guessing mostly junior high) plus one man who may have been in his late 20’s, early 30’s. The kids enjoyed telling me hello in English and asking me where I was from. They were pretty cute. I enjoyed how respectful they were of YaS because it’s a different story back home. The other adult came over and asked me how long I’d been dancing. He seemed impressed with what I was able to do in the warmup for my third-ever house class. I told him 12 years but that doesn’t really paint a complete picture and there wasn’t time to run it all through the translator so I left it at that. I’m sure he was confused about my length of time as a dancer once I started stumbling through the choreography and eventually gave up. Ultimately in these urban styles I’ve only been dancing since November.
Yasuhiro has a great relationship with his class and you can tell he enjoys what he does. He was very kind to me and apologized at the end of class. It was at this moment that I realized that my presence in class can be a bit of a burden when the instructor is not only wanting me to have a good time, succeed, and grow but at the same time needing to fulfill the demands of the regular students. I’m glad he ran the class the way he did because I wouldn’t want him to slow it down on my account. While I didn’t really dance a in the second half of class, I did very much enjoy watching YaS at work in his element. Arigato gozaimasu, Yasuhiro-san! YaS dances with a crew called Cattle Mutilation. I didn’t have much luck pulling up information on YaS or his crew but I did find quite a few images and websites with dead cows and speculation about aliens.
Three very different class experiences in three very different cites, all good. I’m hoping to find a regular class to attend in Fukuoka so there will definitely be a part two to the Japanese edition of My Life in Sweats.
Thank you all so much for reading! Love, Furaidochikin.