KYOTO - "Dontsu, tenshin, tentsururon. Bring your elbows closer to your body, make your belly button point downward by bending forward slightly. Keep training until the music saturates your body. Your older sisters dance even more than this!"
In early March, in a 50-tatami-mat practice hall for singing and dancing in Miyagawacho, Kyoto, the forceful voice of Yumiji Wakayagi, 66, a teacher of traditional Japanese dance, filled the room. Wakayagi teaches the Wakayagi style of dance.
One by one, she checks the movements of Toshiemi, 16, and seven other maiko who will debut this year, as they practice the "Miyagawa Ondo" dance, which they will perform for the finale of their first show.
Maiko must learn etiquette and many traditional arts, including dance, musical instruments, nagauta (long epic songs with shamisen accompaniment) and tea ceremony.
Wakayagi teaches them such points as how to conduct themselves while wearing a kimono, the correct angle of bowing, how to hold a fan and how to turn their necks.
Many of the girls come to the entertainment quarter without any familiarity with traditional dance. To get them interested in the dances, Wakayagi struggles to make them understand the meaning of the songs.
For example, a verse from the Kyoto-based song "Washi ga Zaisho" goes: "I pull an ox through the Yase and Ohara districts. I put on my head a bundle of firewood and a folding stool or a board on which to hit laundry using a wooden stick to make the clothes soft. Would you like a ladder? How about some lumber stripped of its bark?"
The song describes a scene in which a woman peddler from Ohara visits a town to sell her goods.
Wakayagi makes her students take notes about the song's lyrics and explains the song's meanings and scenes to them.
"Since I was a little girl, I would put my hands on my hips and say, 'Do you need a ladder?' as I peddled my goods. Like this." She puts her fan on her head and imitates the motions in an easy-to-understand manner.
"In the old days, the teachers or seniors were always harping at us trainees," Wakayagi said, "but these days, some girls don't understand why they're scolded. I'm trying to get them to like dancing."
Toshiemi, whose body is accustomed to hip-hop movements, unconsciously moves up and down, so she could not get the unique shuffling motion of traditional Japanese dance at first. She was scolded over and over until she was able to maintain her hips at a certain height while still lifting her knees up high.
"It's hard to change old habits," Toshiemi said. "But when I could understand the various meanings of the dances and songs, practice time becomes fun."
Compulsory dances include those to match the songs "Gion Kouta" and "Kyo no Shiki" (The Four Seasons of Kyoto). Before they become maiko, the trainees must take an about 30-minute exam that includes demonstrating how to walk and bow. This January, Toshiemi danced in front of a line of officials from the ochaya (teahouse) association.
She tried to recall all that she had learned in her training, but she became so nervous that her mind went blank.
"Your dance is getting better."
When Toshiemi heard the proprietress of Komaya, Fumie Komai, 70, say this after watching her dance, she felt as if she had lost all her strength.
The head of the Miyagawacho geiko association, Fukuha, explains the importance of amassing practice time.
"By practicing until you tell yourself, 'I can't practice anymore,' you can build confidence," Fukuha said. "If you do that, then you give yourself some leeway no matter where you are, whether it be on stage or at a party, and you can see the whole picture."
While the "Kyo Odori" stage performance continued in Miyagawacho until April 19, the sounds of the "Miyagawa Ondo" echoed throughout the town. Miyagawacho is extremely busy throughout the year, but this was an especially busy time.
While she danced in the back row on the stage, Toshiemi felt exhilarated.
"I want to be able to stand on this stage even more," she said.
She will live in this town from here on out.
New programs every season
In each entertainment quarter in Kyoto, there are places where geiko and maiko learn dance and Japanese music. In Miyagawacho, this place is "Higashiyama Women's Academy."
Maiko basically learn dance, musical instruments (kozutsumi drums and taiko drums), nagauta, and tea ceremony. In the case of dancing, they practice different subjects at four levels depending on their abilities - maiko of the first year, maiko of the second and third year, maiko of fourth year and more, and geiko.
To be able to dance in a programme matching the seasons, they must memorize one or two new songs per month. Before the public spring and autumn stage performances, they must strive to practice even more than usual.