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How Sansei Dances Revived the Asian American Cover Band Era of the '60s and '70s

The Sansei dances that many Japanese American parents in Southern California enjoy today hark back to a period in the 1960s and 1970s known as the Los Angeles Asian American dance scene.

I’ll never forget the time my coworkers asked if I wanted to volunteer at what they described as a "community dance."

I’d just started working at a nonprofit in Little Tokyo and was receiving a crash course on the Japanese American community in Southern California. They’d mentioned it was for people our parents’ age, but I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew is that it was a fundraiser for a local organization and that we’d be running the registration table and cleaning up the venue – Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, just a few minutes away from where I worked.

When I arrived, I felt like I stepped into a time machine…kind of. All the attendees were, as my coworkers said, our parents’ age – Sanseis, or third-generation Japanese Americans, baby boomers – but in this environment, they seemed younger. A hired band was performing live music from the '60s and '70s, including songs like Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger” and lots of Earth, Wind & Fire, while attendees congregated in groups, hollered when they saw an old friend from across the room, and rushed to the dance floor every chance they had to perform the electric slide.

Standing off to the side and observing everyone with my coworkers, it felt like we were chaperones at prom for parents, like some Freaky Friday spin-off.

Courtesy of Carol Tanita

Known simply as “Sansei dances,” I learned that these events are a popular way to fundraise for local organizations and are typically held in Little Tokyo, Gardena, Torrance, and other cities with a strong Japanese and Asian American presence. According to Carol Tanita, the owner of a well-known Little Tokyo gift shop called Rafu Bussan, Sansei dances never really stopped, though they resurged within the last 20 years.

“Around 2000, casino nights and gala-style dinners were the go-to fundraiser idea for schools and organizations,” said Tanita. “But they became so expensive to host because of the cost of renting hotel dining rooms, and less people were coming because the events got boring.”

Standing off to the side and observing everyone with my coworkers, it felt like we were chaperones at prom for parents, like some Freaky Friday spin-off.

Tanita hosted her first Sansei dance in 2000 to raise money for her children’s high school in Alhambra, utilizing her skills and resources as a longtime PTA member and former finance chair on the Boy Scout Council. The turnout was better than she expected.

“We saw huge groups people coming out, and it wasn’t just the parents of the high school students,” Tanita recalled. “There were people outside the school district attending just so they could hang out with their old friends.”

It was then that she realized she found something special in this type of fundraiser. Sanseis had an additional incentive to donate when they attended these dances: an opportunity to relive their favorite memories of their youth for a night.

For many Japanese Americans who came of age in the '60s and '70s, Sansei dances hark back to more than just prom memories – they’re a revival of what is known as the Los Angeles Asian American dance scene. Those decades were a period of Asian pride following the Civil Rights Movement and the establishment of Asian American Studies curriculum at universities, and from this pride came various garage bands comprised of Asian Americans in LA, though there were also dance scenes in places with larger populations of Asians like San Francisco, Sacramento, and Hawai’i.

While some bands would compose and perform their own music, like Hiroshima, who went on to sell more than four million albums worldwide, most bands performed covers of popular songs of the era, including Motown music, soul, jazz, and all the latest Michael Jackson hits. Teens and young adults could pay just two to five dollars to get into venues like the Elk’s Club, Surfrider, and Parkview – places that may not ring a bell to younger generations but are iconic in the minds of Asian American baby boomers.

Sansei dance photo courtesy of Jerry Fukui (second from left).

Sharon Nagasaki, who grew up in the South Bay and attended USC in the late '70s, has fond memories of dressing up with college friends and driving to dance venues to watch bands including Carry On and Windfield Summit.

“My group of friends and I would have fun talking about what we were going to wear to the dance and who would be there,” said Nagasaki, who now has three adult children of her own. She also remembers that “September” was released in her senior year of high school in 1978, and that she and her friends used to wear their Ditto jeans and Sbicca platform wedge sandals to dances – vivid recollections that show just how special that time was for her and others.

The LA dance scene was also memorable for Jerry Fukui, who’d frequent venues like Blarney’s Castle and the Roger Young Auditorium with his USC fraternity to dance and listen to live bands. Though Fukui is known in the community due to his family business, Fukui Mortuary, as well as for his slick cha-cha moves on the dance floor at Sansei dances today, he described himself as being shy as a college student.

“I was extremely introverted and didn’t know how to dress,” Fukui laughed, recalling wearing a purple shirt with a scarf tied around his neck to one of the dances. “I was also only thinking of girls at that time, but I had no courage to ask them to dance. I’d always tell myself, ‘oh, I’ll just ask someone when the next song plays.’”

For Fukui, the dances played an integral role in convincing him to come out of his shell and take risks.

Teens and young adults could pay just two to five dollars to get into venues like the Elk’s Club, Surfrider, and Parkview – places that may not ring a bell to younger generations but are iconic in the minds of Asian American baby boomers.

Sanseis can now recreate the LA dance scene numerous times a year, as organizations like the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC), Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute (GVJCI), and the Orange Coast Optimists (OCO), among others, host annual fundraiser dances that serve local Hawaiian and Japanese food as well as alcohol. Carol Tanita, who is often recruited by organizations to run logistics and hire bands, organizes six to eight dances a year around Southern California.

Some bands from the '70s still perform and are comprised of their original members; others, like Kokoro, are more recently formed but still have members who remember the dance scene. Lauren Kinkade-Wong, the former lead singer for Kokoro as well as the 2001 queen of Little Tokyo’s annual cultural celebration, Nisei Week, is too young to have participated in the LA dance scene, but she’s done her research with the band to make their performances as authentic as possible.

“Typically if you sing in front of a Japanese American crowd, it’s not an interactive experience and there’s not much cheering involved,” said Kinkade-Wong, who is a professional singer and has sung backup for artists including Gladys Knight. “So when we started performing at these dances, it was refreshing to see how excited people got. It’s a completely different feeling from other community events.I’d go out onto the dance floor and dance along with them.”

Kokoro performing at the Orange County Sansei Singles dance in 2016. Photo by J.K. Yamamoto for the Rafu Shimpo.

Beyond community events, some individuals will book Asian cover bands directly for company parties and high school reunions. Sharon Nagasaki hired the band Elemental Funk to perform at her sister’s 60th birthday.

“My sister and I are kind of like groupies to this band,” she said of Elemental Funk. “We go to the dances without our husbands and dance with each other and other friends.”

Aging is becoming more of an issue in the Sansei community as well-known band members and dance goers pass away. The third generation is now in their 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. But many continue to buy their tickets and look forward to the next dance, where they can reunite with old friends under the disco ball and relive old memories as well as create new ones to the music of Tower of Power and Chicago.

“When I go to these dances I think, ‘you’re 17 and you think you know everything, but you don’t know shit,’” Jerry Fukui said. “I’m reminded of a time where I had absolutely no worries at all and had a lot to look forward to. And I feel free.”

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Article featured in this issue:
Heritage, Heirlooms, and Hand-me-downs
May 20, 2020

Because May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we wanted to shed light on some distinct "JA" topics that allow us to explore our heritage. From heirlooms to fundraiser dances to Japanese middle names, we're celebrating the things that make us proud to be Japanese American.

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