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'To Study It, I Had to Perform'

'To Study It, I Had to Perform'

UNC-Chapel Hill anthropologist Christopher T. Nelson reflects on his research into and participation in the traditional Okinawan dance eisaa.

Vincent Lim Email VincentLim

Storytelling is as much a part of eisaa as eisaa itself.

When Christopher T. Nelson first asked Okinawan eisaa performers whether he could interview them about the traditional dance, they declined and told him to join their dance troupe instead. It was exactly the response he was hoping for. For two years while he was enrolled as a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, he attended nighttime practices in Okinawa and performed alongside other eissa dancers. Anthropologists relish opportunities to actually experience what they are studying, Nelson explained by telephone.

That was a decade ago. Now an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Nelson brought up his fieldwork in Okinawa at a Mar. 5, 2007 lecture titled "Dances of Memory, Dances of Oblivion: Performance, Memory and Everyday Life in Okinawa." The Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies sponsored the colloquium, which was based on part of Nelson's forthcoming book.

"In order to study it, I had to perform," he said.

Nelson explained how eisaa provides a context for understanding modern Okinawan history and social relationships.

"Storytelling is as much a part of eisaa as eisaa itself," Nelson said.

Most eisaa dancers that Nelson encountered attended trade schools or worked as bus boys, as shop owners, or in trades like construction. Nelson explained that the dancers participated in eisaa because they longed to not to be identified by their jobs and wanted to be seen as on equal social footing as mainland Japanese and foreigners.

The dance traditionally marks the end of the Obon Festival, a three-day event celebrated in the summer when the spirits of ancestors are said to visit their families. Eisaa performances once served an important religious function, and still do to a certain extent. Today, however, they are also a form of entertainment for the public and tourists. Eisaa can also be seen as a reflection of the pride of the former Ryûkyû Kingdom, the group of islands that became Okinawa Prefecture after they were annexed in 1879.

In addition, the All-Okinawa Eisaa Festival—started in 1956 and known as the All-Island Eisaa Contest before 1977—continues to be held and attracts around 100,000 people every year. Every summer, groups of mostly young people in colorful garb come to Okinawa City to participate. Today's eisaa dancers wear a variety of brightly colored costumes with vests and leggings and colorful Ryûkyû-style knotted turbans.

Eisaa dancers normally perform in a circle to the accompaniment of singing, chanting, and drumming in a procession down the street of a community or village. Some of the performers play drums in one of three sizes: large kettledrums, medium-sized drums like those used in noh theatre, or small hand drums.

In describing how dancers feel empowered when preforming eisaa, Nelson said: "There is the sense that one is more than the way they are perceived in the daily world."