Photo by David Toshiyuki
Awa Odori, dating back over four-hundred years, is one of Japan’s most beloved annual festivals and is a vibrant part of the Bay Area arts community. Artistic director Rimiko Berreman of SF Awakko Ren, a Tokushima City native where Awa Odori originated, founded the organization in 2011 with the intention of reuniting those from her region with the art form, carrying on the tradition locally, and growing its audience.
Fittingly, Berreman was visiting Tokushima City, located on Shikoku island in Japan, during the writing of this article, making this telling about the founding of her Awa Odori music and dance troupe SF Awakko Ren and synopsis on the history of the art form especially personal.
“I love my hometown,” shares Berreman, “and I hoped to feel connected to Japan in California. I wanted to bring that cheerful and inclusive spirit of Awa Odori to my community and kids in the Bay Area.”
Traditionally, Awa Odori is spelled as one word in Japanese – Awaodori. Awa refers to the former name of Tokushima Prefecture (a subdivision of the region) and Odori means dance.
As one of the biggest dance festivals in Japan, Awa Odori celebrations are both social and spiritual. The tradition is rooted in the Japanese Buddhist observance of Obon (the Festival of The Dead), held annually between August 12 and 15; a sacred time when people welcome the return of their ancestors’ spirits.
Several theories on the origin of the Awa Odori art form have been passed down through the ages. Among the most popular involves the celebration of the completion of Tokushima Castle in 1587 (approximately), when partygoers were rumored to have consumed excessive amounts of sake, motivating celebrators to break into song, dance, and uproarious laughter. As the story goes, the celebration inspired what is known as the Dance of the Fools, along with a famous quote that says, “It’s a fool who dances and a fool who watches! If both are fools, you might as well have fun dancing.”
Limits to the duration of the event were set long ago, to circumvent disorderly conduct, which explains the reason festivities could not exceed three days. Samurais were also forbidden from partaking and could not carry their weapons or wear masks.
Over the last century, both Awa Odori and Tokushima City have become synonymous with community involvement. Berreman recalls the avid participation being so far reaching that schools, parks, gyms, and most business offices were involved.
“Awa Odori was the highlight of every summer up until I moved to the United States,” says Berreman. “I grew up participating in Awa Odori as a spectator, musician, and occasionally a dancer. And in college, my friends and I formed a student group.”
SF Awakko Ren (ren – meaning a group of dancers and musicians) is comprised of members from both the United States as well as Japan. Among those from Japan is a specific group within the group, inspired by fond memories and a profound longing to unite people from Tokushima. This devout group from Tokushima is called Tokushima Kenjin-Kai.
Exceedingly proud of her native land, Berreman wants to share with the Bay Area community all that makes Tokushima City beautiful and distinct, even the native fruit – namely the Sudachi, a type of citrus widely sold in Japan; and sold in particularly large numbers during Awa Odori festivities in August. The Sudachi fruit is no doubt the subject of an expansive Awa Odori music and dance repertoire.
Sheer numbers vividly demonstrate the magnet effect Awa Odori has in Japan. More than 1.3 million attendees partake in the festivities in Tokushima City each year, serving as a certain economic stimulus Tokushima City can count on annually.
Here at home in San Francisco, all 30 SF Awakko Ren dancers and musicians are volunteers, some of whom occasionally partake in Tokushima City events. Members who visit Tokushima in August often return to dance with their former groups; a few have even gone on to join some of Japan’s most prominent Awa Odori dance groups.
“Our group is special because we keep in touch and continue our relationships outside the group,” says Berreman. “Because the majority of our members are so young, their plans are quickly evolving. Despite moving to other countries, raising families, and getting jobs, we have stayed connected with everyone, even getting together in foreign countries. Although our members leave the Bay Area, I still consider them members of a growing Awakko Ren.”
Anyone can join SF Awakko Ren. No skills or experience are required. While most members are in their 20s and 30s, some members are children under age ten.
“People start from all ages,” says Berreman. “Some begin as young as 3. The members of our group range from 3 to 70. And men and women participate equally, however, the female dance is strictly for females, whereas females can dance in the men’s style.”
Berreman adds, “Awa Odori is open for interpretation. The dance is driven by the beat of the Kane bell and Taiko drum. A Shinobue flute and Shamisen lute provide lyrical composition. Different groups take different variations on the dance. While some dance at the most basic level, others will choreograph more intricate routines.”
She continues, “There are two styles of dance, one feminine and one masculine. Female dancers can partake in both the male and female dances. The basic rule of this dance is to move your right arm forward with your right leg and your left arm forward with your left leg in turns to the two-beat rhythm.”
Over the years, Awa Odori music and dance has evolved and become increasingly popular throughout Japan. Dance skill levels have advanced, choreographic repertoires have expanded and become more elaborate and refined. Stage performances have become more regular, and costume styles have changed. Some groups have even transitioned to less traditional music.
Though audience participation in the dancing is less frequent, SF Awakko Ren hopes to revive this part of the tradition by encouraging its audience to join-in with the dancing after their performances.
SF Awakko Ren offers lectures and workshops and performs year-round throughout the Bay Area. The group is an annual participant in the San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival, which includes stage performances as well as participation in the Grand Parade. Other venues where SF Awakko Ren has performed includes the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, and the Cupertino Cherry Blossom Festival. SF Awakko-Ren has also participated in the Osaka Matsuri Festival in Japantown and the Japanese Cultural Community Center of Northern California’s Tabemasho fundraiser.
SF Awakko Ren is always looking for enthusiastic new members, particularly during the Cherry Blossom Festival Grand Parade. While their rehearsal space varies, SF Awakko Ren is currently using rehearsal space at the Japanese Cultural Community Center of Northern California.
The group will be offering a workshop in the Spring, before the 2020 San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival. Dates will be announced on the SF Awakko Ren Facebook page.
Dance enthusiasts – mark your calendars. SF Awakko Ren is delighted to be offering a free performance inside San Francisco’s City Hall at noon on October 11, 2019. Performing for the first time in Dancers’ Group and World Arts West’s monthly Rotunda Dance Series, six dancers will perform a collection of small pieces, along with one ten-minute piece to live traditional music by seven musicians; two Shamisen among them (a three stringed instrument). Audience participation in the dancing is expressly encouraged.
This article appeared in the October 2019 issue of In Dance.