DANCING THROUGH LIFE / Aoi Okamoto

Who would have expected a little girl who is barely mimicking the teacher’s movements to become a passionate dancer who always can’t help herself from thinking of the next dance class a few days ahead? She did really hate the uncomfortable and somewhat ugly clothes, tiny booty pants and shrieked T-shirts, which her mother made her wear just because it looked “cute”. But by following the teacher doing some poses, jumps, stretches, and flows, she found herself completely forgetting about what she was wearing and fully enjoyed what she was doing. The very first day of my journey had started like this, when I was at the age of four.

The studio I left more than six years ago was in the middle of the city of Sendai, among office buildings. Walking into a small narrow street with square tiles lining on tenaciously surrounded by plants and ivy made me feel a kind of sacredness. It was a very small studio with only one room for dancing with wooden smooth floor waxed by older students and teachers in the winter every single year. I loved the big windows taking soft bright natural light into the dance floor, so the lesson in the noon was my absolute favorite. Starting with holding the bar with both hands, following the rhythm of a tambourine, we repeated bending legs and straightening ours backs to the initial position a few times with different feet positions, which is called plié. We gradually warmed up our bodies by expanding the movement working on legs, feet, arms, lower back. The bar lesson was quite similar to classical ballet, but since what I did there was modern ballet, cross floor, where we actually start dancing, was very active and powerful. What I loved about modern ballet was that there was no constraint of movement. In classical ballet, there are a lot of terms for movements, whereas in modern ballet, there are movements which cannot be represented by any words. As I look back on myself now, what really mattered to me was performing in front of the audience. I remember, every year, it was around four months before that we started to learn new choreography for the annual performance. I was so excited for the new numbers because the music, movements, and the titles given to me or my group were all very special to me. They were essential for me to think about what I should become on stage, how I should dance, what role I should take part in. When I was asked to participate in a dance competition by teachers, the fact that I was asked made me happy enough because that means I was good enough to compete against someone. It sounds like I’m such a showing-off type of person. But really, even though I loved dancing in the studio, I could not keep dancing in a situation being corrected by teachers hundreds of times without any goals or purposes. That was a part of the reason why I moved to another studio and began to learn new styles like jazz and theater.

However, as I explored more and more, it gradually made me realize the emptiness of looking at very superficial and external aspects of this art form; how you look on stage and how you are seen by the audience mattered. Dancing on a fast beat and making up a happy face to entertain the audience seemed like a gorgeous box with nothing inside. However, as I moved to Tokyo to go to university, these thoughts were wiped from my mind with a hectic, busy, stressful life.

But it all came back to me after I saw my friend’s performance on stage. Even though I became distant from the dance world, since my friend was from the same hometown and I knew that she seriously sought a career as a dancer, I wanted to support her. She was one of the dancers in a contemporary piece. They were wearing very simple and minimal costumes, black tank tops with black long pants, and the lightings on the stage were also very simple with only blurry white lights and occasional spot lights. Yet their powerful and elegant movements using their full bodies with great control from head to toe impressed me so much. It was like the dancers were moving the air. As they moved around very quickly, I saw the pressure of the wave in the air created by their arms and legs, and as they stopped moving and posed in the stillness, I saw ripples from the wave they were just creating. I thought, “This is it. This is what I want to do.”

Now, every Tuesday afternoon is an essential part of my life, stepping into the studio, opening light blue colored door which goes to the underground of one of the tall office buildings in the city, leaving behind the noise of cars and smell of the restaurants. Even though there is no window to take in the sunshine, the dim orangish lights are as soft as the moonlight. In a room with giant mirrors in every direction and the white squishy linoleum floor, I hold a bar and do plié following the light sounds of the teacher’s small drum. After finishing the warm-up, I face myself thinking about the flow of my body; how and which part of my body is responding to the movements given by the teacher; is it soft; is it strong; is it fast; is it slow. What about my breath; got enough inhaling; or exhaling. It does not always go as I want. Sometimes my core and legs are weak to grab the floor to stay on balance supporting my upper body; sometimes my chest and shoulders are not flexible enough to move freely; sometimes I forget the combination and mess up the whole thing. These notions come up as I see myself in the mirror and sense how my body goes, which was what I was not conscious of when I was small.

Interestingly enough, what I do as a dancer right now is not as different as what I did in my childhood; modern dance and contemporary is almost the same thing; the routine starts with warming up at a bar and then dancing on the floor freely. After a short detour of six years, I feel like I came back to how I used to be, except for how I see the world through dancing, which has been expanded drastically. Started off me finding the purpose of dance to practice my technique to perform in front of the audience, I eventually came to think of dance as almost my ritual to reflect myself making sure my body and mind are connected. Maybe, after all, the detour was inevitable and essential part of my life to reach to this point. And today, as always, I dance with all the gratitude and joy of finding the meaning of my life through this journey.

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