story by Liza Simon
photo by Ann Cecil
A blond ponytail or two in Gertrude Tsutsumi’s classical Japanese dance class serves notice that not everyone here has a native’s grasp of the plaintive lyrics and shamisen notes floating from the boom box. Never mind. Novices though they are, the dancers glide on their feet as they flick their hand fans in exquisite unison—testament to Tsutsumi’s gift for making ancient court and country dances seem as streamlined as iPod technology. A professor of Japanese dance at the University of Hawai‘i and a founder of Honolulu’s pre-eminent traditional Japanese dance company, Tsutsumi has been at it for fifty years; her dance partner and co-teacher Howard Asao says she is the very model of patience, reflecting a love of natural order that is inherent in the Japanese aesthetic.
“In Japanese dance, there is an organic quality,” Tsutsumi says. “The beauty comes from the fact that nothing is wasted. Everything is done for a reason.” The septuagenarian duo smile and finish each other’s sentences as they opine that art—like life—can never be perfect. “Therefore I tell my students, ‘Be excited about the prospect of always going further every day,’” she says.
Tsutsumi grew up in Honolulu studying classical Japanese dance; an avid fan of the art form, she was soon off to Japan to study and, in 1958, was bestowed with her professional name, Onoe Kikunobu, for which her dance troupe is named. Though she still makes an annual pilgrimage to Japan, Tsutsumi, with Asao’s assistance, has also taken some highly innovative steps of late, including using traditional Japanese dance to interpret ancient Hawaiian mythology.
Plans are in the works for another trans-Pacific showcase next year. Meanwhile, the stream of students through Tsutsumi’s UH classes and dance company continues unabated, and now includes an increasing number of Japanese-Americans seeking to rediscover their roots. Tsutsumi assures them—and all others—that there is a key to Japanese dance in each of us: “Listen with all your senses and breathe with the music. This will tell you where you want to go with the movement.”