Nearly two years I’ve lived in Hawaii, and had never been to a bon dance. To some, this misfortune ranked right up with my having never been to Haunama Bay, or not having tried malassadas (the former I’ve not, though the latter I have). In truth, my lack of bon dance attendance is not for lack of want; I’d simply never found the opportunity. Luckily, over the years I’ve made friends with a group of enthusiasts known as the Bon Dance Posse, or affectionately, the Dancing Fools, and it is with their enthusiasm and encouragement that I finally made it to my first Obon Celebration.
In Japan, the Obon lasts a long weekend, but in true Hawaii fashion Bon Dance season here stretches the entire summer, with sometimes multiple celebrations held in the same night. There were two Bon Dances held to kick off 2010; the more famous Hawaii Plantation Village event, in Waipahu, as well as one at Iolani Palace in downtown Honolulu. Although most of the Bon Dance Posse headed to Waipahu, I chose the one closer to home.
Living in Hawaii so long, I’ve gotten used to being a minority among minorities, but when I first arrived at the festival, happi coat tucked under one arm, I couldn’t help but feel out of place. The roots of Obon being what they are, the demographic at this event was highly shifted toward the Japanese. More than anything what I felt was an uncertainty at trying something new for the first time, but that uncertainty was soon quelled; it’s hard to be nervous with the aroma of food on the air. Aside from the dancing, Obon celebrations are most known from the food, and the selection here didn’t fail to please. I had andagi, an okinawan donut, fresh and crispy from the frying pan; and a waffle dog, celebrated in Hawaii, lighter and crisper than a corn dog. A full stomach gave a new perspective, and meeting up with friends made me feel right at home.
The dancing began a little before dark. Dressed in casual wear, happi coats, yukatas or kimonos, people sprawled on the grass in a large circle around the yagura, a freestanding tower on which the musicians were staged. After a brief introduction and dedication, the music began. I remained on my blanket, watching in wonder as the dancers made a slow loop around the yagura, spinning and waving their arms in a complicated choreography. It wasn’t long before my friends were encouraging me to join. By glancing at the people around me, I was able to pick up the motions. One- hands to the left. Two – hands to the right. Three – hands in front of you. Four – Palms out. Five – arms spread wide, clap on six, and then repeat! It was deceptively simple. Occasionally I would lose my rhythm and would just wait for the clap and start again. Everyone moved slightly differently, but it didn’t matter. By the end of the song I was exhausted and dripping sweat. I sat out the next round, but soon jumped back again. The enthusiasm was contagious.
The dance was still in full swing a few hours later as, exhausted, I made my way home. According to my friends, my first taste of Obon was just a small affair. I know I’ll have a chance to see a full scale Obon; one of the celebrations will be held just outside my home. My happi coat, the short kimono I received at a festival a few years back, hangs ready and waiting for the next dance. I have become a convert.
Hawaii bon dance schedules, photos, videos and more can be found at http://www.bondance.com/