[Part2]Variations of dance reflect timeless diversity of humanity

photo:Shinya Wake

The gymnasium reverberates with rhythmic chants of "Heave-ho, heave-ho!"

About 100 students line up in a square formation and squat low in unison. With their legs firmly planted, they repeat heaving motions as if pulling in a large fishing net. Taiko drums and shamisen play a steady, fast-tempo beat.

Next, in singsong voices, the students cry out "Soran, Soran," throwing their arms above their heads and arching backward to face up toward the ceiling, their matching blue happi coats fluttering as one.

When students enter the fifth grade at Neyagawa City East Municipal Elementary School in Osaka, they begin to practice a dance called Nanchu Soran in preparation for the school's sports festival held every fall.

"It's tough, but I feel refreshed," said one student.

"The sense of unity feels good when we give it our all and dance together," said another.

Nanchu Soran is a dance that originated in Hokkaido's Wakkanai City South Municipal Junior High School.

For a time during the 1980s, the school fell into disarray due to the unruliness of its student body. At the beginning of the 1990s, after the teachers began to regain control of the students, they tried to maintain the control by piquing student interest in dance choreographed to a rock 'n' roll beat. The Nanchu Soran dance, as it became known, helped the school re-establish its footing, and the legend of the school's comeback has spread far and wide.

In a 1999 broadcast of the popular television drama "Kinpachi Sensei" (Teacher Kinpachi), there was an episode that showed students dancing the Nanchu Soran in an effort to regain solidarity after their classroom environment had fallen into a disrupted state. After the episode aired, the dance gained immediate popularity at elementary and junior high schools throughout the country.

"Effective school management is not as simple as just working to reform disruptive students through dance," said Satoshi Okubo, a former teacher at Wakkanai City South. "However, the students found putting on long happi coats and dancing together in unison to be cool, and they gravitated toward participation."

Another teacher said, "The feeling of freedom and self-expression along with the exhilaration experienced when moving one's body in a trance-like state to a quick tempo is what makes Nanchu Soran so alluring to the students."

Teachers also hope the feeling of unity experienced by the students when dancing as a large group will instill a sense of discipline.

Dance also plays an effective role in bridging communication across multiple generations, and is being fostered in local communities as well as schools.

Katsuhiko Imamura is coach of the Kansai Kyoto Imamura Crew, a Kyoto-based dance group active at Yosakoi festivals around the country. Reflecting back on personal experience of watching normally difficult-to-handle students dancing carefree to hip hop music at school athletic festivals, the former teacher, said, "Cultural activities are effective to encourage forming groups that have discipline and goals." On the other hand, he added: "Youth want to rebel against adults and the establishment. Unreasonably forcing them to dance won't work."

photo:Shinya Wake

Imamura quit his job as a teacher seven years ago so he could pursue education through dance. Seventeen-year-old Masaki Nakata, who has been dancing with Imamura Crew since he was in fifth-grade, said: "Problems occur in the process of working to perfect the dance, which can be tiresome, but working to solve them is also fun. Everyone is always smiling and working to the max, even kids who are usually delinquent. That's kind of cool and why I am still dancing."

Regarding the Nanchu Soran dance gaining popularity in schools across the country, Tamaki Saito, who wrote a book about the societal problem of delinquency, offered this analysis: "Dancing in loud, flashy clothing fulfills a desire in youth to act antisocially, directing their energy toward dance guards against rebellious behavior. It's a good method for guiding students."

However, he added, "It can also be called a controlled dance, and generating energy and desire among youth to actively participate in society through it might prove difficult."


To date, schools in Japan have incorporated dance into programs such as physical education; however, since April 2012, it has gone from being an elective to a compulsory class for first and second-year junior high students.

It is being introduced at the same time as martial arts in order to offer students early exposure to a wide range of sporting and physical activities.

At schools, dance is now regarded to be on par with "ball sports" and "athletics." Importance is attached to the fact that dance is a form of exercise that allows students to express themselves freely while also being rich in opportunity that fosters communication. At each school, students can choose to participate in one of three categories of dance: modern dance, which stresses originality and improvisation; folk dance, such as Fukuoka Prefecture's coal miner's song and the Oklahoma Mixer from the United States; and modern rhythm dance, such as hip-hop and Hokkaido's Yosakoi Soran.

According to a survey of 940 public junior high schools across the country by the education ministry, the most popular of the three dance categories was modern rhythm dance at 66 percent, followed by modern dance at 49 percent and folk at 39 percent.


Dance has been a part of people's lives since the beginning of humanity. Cave paintings from the Stone Age depict people dancing. According to legend recorded in the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), Japan's oldest historical record, Ame-no-Uzume, the goddess of dawn, mirth and revelry, danced in front of the Celestial Rock Cave in order to draw out Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun and universe, who had hidden herself inside.

The dictionary describes dance as gesturing and moving the body in time to music. Although the dictionary provides a succinct definition, there is an infinite variety of dance styles.

From the tango in South America and the flamenco in Spain to belly dancing in the Middle East, around the world one can find a multitude of dances strongly reflecting regional characteristics and flavor.

In Japan as well, variants of dance can be found throughout the country, including the Awa dance of Tokushima and the Eisa dance of Okinawa.

In addition to these traditional dances, there exist countless modern styles as well. Dance is constantly evolving as evidenced by the hip-hop-influenced moves danced by South Korean rapper Psy or prisoners moving to the beat of Michael Jackson at a prison in the Philippines.

The functions and movements of dance are classified according to many standards, such as whether emphasis is placed on expression or communication or whether defined steps take precedence over original moves.

However, even in the same genre of dance, emphasis can switch, as is the case with social dance, where, in competition, the expressive aspect receives a stronger emphasis.

Among folk dances as well, under which Soran dance has been classified, emphasis can differ. Nanchu Soran stresses a sense of solidarity, and as such communication among the dancers is more important than expression. Because there are so many facets, it is difficult to precisely classify any one particular dance.

Dance is an activity that frees one’s body and mind, however, dance as a means to control and regulate people also exists. North Korea’s mass games is one example of dance used as a form of social control. In some instances though, like the case of the CPDRC Dancing Inmates at a Cebu prison in the Philippines, even though control is the objective, the participants are able to enjoy themselves while taking part. Yet again, this situation could be said to reflect the many faces of dance.

(This story was written by Shinya Wake of GLOBE and Ryosuke Kamba, Culture and Lifestyle News Section.)

The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE

Translated by The Asahi Shimbun AJW. More related stories available at

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