Several weeks ago, in a lecture discussion by Kumu Hula Kaha`i Topolinski of Ka Pa Hula Hawai`i, Topolinski commented on words being essential in hula, or it would not be hula at all, or at least through tradition. He then asked me if it is true with Okinawan dance. I thought about it and realized that “yes!”, all dances which we would call Ryukyu Buyo, or Okinawan dance traditionally, have words. Some may begin with an introduction of music, or “dan mono”, but it is always followed by another selection with words.
In looking more into this situation, and using hula as an example, we found that traditionally words had power and use in expressing emotion and celebration. If used in the right context, word were powerful enough to call or stop the rains, or to kill. When dance becomes connected, then the story or emotions become three dimensional, and if understood right, draws in the onlooker to the realm of the song and dance. It basically tells a story, and leaves out room to guess. In Hawai`i, chants and mele can stand alone, because of the words. But as for hula, it cannot be done without words. “An instrumental performance with hula may seem innovative, but it is definitely Western and cannot be called ‘hula’,” commented Topolinski. The same goes true for Okinawan dance. In looking at the numerous traditional numbers, there has always been words. The chants and sung music can stand alone because the words hold a certain kind of power or emotion that can still be expressed through the uta sanshin or chanter. Within the past 20 years however, the influence of Western ideas have also crept into the Okinawan dance world as we see numerous dances being done to only instrumentals. Many at times are used in convention openings with hundreds of dancers used to create a dramatic effect to the audience. This was not needed before as many people understood the dances or at least could figure out the feeling through the words. The result is more and more “sosaku” or new choreographed pieces have begun to stray farther away from what is recognizable as Okinawan.
In another observation, Ryukyuan dance seems to have a more polynesian aspect when it comes to using words in dances. Although Ryukyu has taken the influence of the many countries surrounding it, its dances have more relation to the Polynesian roots of presentation through chant and uta sanshin. All the other surrounding countries have many dances which are instrumental, but Ryukyu did not pick this character up.
If we look at the culture as a whole, in today’s eyes, we see a “happy” island people, who have been influenced by sudden recognition of Okinawa through the modern media, and also academia. The roots to tradition are slipping away, as the deep connection and in grown connection to the culture is being replaced by exhibition and entertainment. Many things are being taken for face value, and even the audience is becoming used to being entertained instead of being part of the story. For the true Okinawan traditions to live on, we must begin to live it and embark on much more research and present information to educate about a culture that is slowly losing its core.