Letting Go: A Short Story

The intense and passionate dancers found in the bon odori circles (you know who we're talking about) are true obon legends. Dance on!

This is a creative short story.

I’ve always found it amusing to see people dancing at obon festivals. I’ve never been one to go out in front of the throngs of people and embarrass myself with my lack of coordination, and I’d much rather enjoy my Okinawa dango and chili rice while hanging out with friends.

I don’t have anything against the dancing – it’s a great obon tradition to celebrate our Japanese American heritage, and there are some people that really get into it. It’s just not for me; I’m uncoordinated and I don’t know any of the dances, so quite frankly, I have no problem with standing alone on the side.

Today, I find myself at the Gardena Buddhist Church Obon with some peers from work, and as we make the long trek from parking half a mile away, the tantalizing smell of familiar foods begin to fill the air. It’s late and my mind is already set on a bowl of chili rice, but my friends want to head to the main street where the bon odori is starting.

“Let’s join in! Come on, Timo, it’ll be fun!” my friends say.

My mind races as I try to come up with a plausible excuse. My leg has been hurting a little bit, so I guess I could say I don’t want to aggravate it. Or… I could say I forgot something in the car...

I’m not really feeling the dancing right now. I’m just going to watch from the side, but you guys go ahead,” I respond.

My friends nod in understanding and walk toward the crowded parade of dancers, disappearing into the sea of people. The music begins to play and as the lines of people start to move, I recognize it as the coal miners' dance. I think it’s called Tanko Bushi, and even for an outsider like me, watching people pretend to shovel coal and wipe sweat from their brow refreshes my memory of the dance.

As the song continues on, I scan the people dancing and I begin to realize the wide variety of people participating. I see multi-generational families dancing elegantly together in perfect sync and uninterested teenagers nonchalantly mimicking the movements. I spot some individuals sheepishly walking in line because they can’t pick up the dance, while others shovel coal flamboyantly and loudly add their own sound effects to the tune.

Those intense obon dancers are really in a world of their own. How can they put themselves out there like that with all of these people around them?

The song ends but my focus remains on the exuberant dancers as one song leads to another. Like many people around them, they each sport a yukata and hachimaki, but they couldn’t act more differently than the reserved families or other dancers. Don’t Japanese people try to not stand out? I could never be like them, I thought to myself.

Those intense obon dancers are really in a world of their own. How can they put themselves out there like that with all of these people around them?

After about an hour of dancing, the music stops, and everyone takes a break. As I wait to find my friends, one of the intense dancers that I was watching approaches me.

“I’ve noticed you standing around for a while. Did you dance at all?” he asks.

“No, I can’t dance and I don’t really know any of the movements either,” I reply. “It’s more fun watching people than embarrassing myself in front of everyone.”

“I know it can be overwhelming, but you should try it! You can’t worry about what other people are thinking and honestly, you’ll kind of just blend in with the crowd. Just have fun because everyone is here, dancing to celebrate our Japanese American heritage, and that’s all that really matters,” he says.

I process what he said and start to reconsider. Obon is a celebration of our culture and community, so I guess I shouldn’t be afraid to let go and participate in the dancing, regardless of how uncoordinated I may be.

“Can I ask you a question? I suppose I’m more willing to dance now, but why do you and your friends dance the way that you do? Isn’t it a little embarrassing being so animated in front of everyone?” I ask.

“At the end of the day, you don’t want to live with regrets. The more you put into it, the more you get out of it, so the more fun you put into it, the more fun you have,” he says. “I express myself how I want to because I enjoy doing so, and nobody can make me dance otherwise.”

Obon is a celebration of our culture and community, so I guess I shouldn’t be afraid to let go and participate in the dancing, regardless of how uncoordinated I may be.

The dancing resumes and the man invites me to join him in the middle of the street. I hesitate, but reluctantly follow him to his friends. An upbeat song begins to play, and as people move from side to side, spin, and clap, I stiffly follow along, but quickly lose my place and any confidence I had.

The man yells, “You’ve got this! This dance is called Ichi Tasu Ichi. Follow me!”

He shouts out the instructions for every movement, and I slowly get the hang of it. “Slide! Clap! Slide! Clap! Spin! Spin back!”

A smile begins to creep onto my face and I feel myself loosening up as I dance in sync with everyone around me. The intense obon dancers continue jumping around and yelling at the top of their lungs, and by the end of the song, I am bouncing around and yelling with them. “Woo! Woo! Woo! Woo!”

I dance my heart out for the rest of the night, and if I’m being honest, I probably look like a fool. I still don’t know all of the movements, and even though I have people to follow, it’s hard to keep up on some of the songs. Yet, it doesn’t matter to me anymore, and though I swore to never be like them, I became one of the intense obon dancers tonight. And honestly, I don’t mind at all.

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June 2020

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