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by Martha Ogasawara (2/97)


Dancing in a foreign language. Hmmm. I'd never thought about that... But wait a minute, you don't need language to dance. It should be the same in any language. That's true.

As far as the actual dancing goes, it is the same in any language. When I bring groups of Japanese dancers to dance Events in the U.S., one of the things that's most exciting to them is the fact that they can freely interact on the dance floor despite any language barriers. They can even take workshops and get most of what's being taught because dancing is so visual. As long as you're a fairly experienced dancer, language is not really a problem.

However, when you're first learning to dance, it's another story. Sure, a kick ball change is a kick ball change no matter what you call it. However, for most people, you need some kind of verbal explanation in order to first learn how to do one. That's where language becomes part of dancing. Instructors must use verbal explanations as well as visual explanations when teaching. This becomes especially important when the room is crowded and not everyone can see well.

In order to learn C/W dancing, not understanding English is definitely a handicap. When we teach C/W dancing here in Japan, we explain how to do the movement in Japanese but keep the name of the movement the same. Rather than try to translate "kick ball change" into Japanese, it's still called a kick ball change. (Actually, it becomes something more like "keeku bohru chainjee" because we don't have all the same phonetic sounds.) There are of course words for "kick" and "ball" and "change" in Japanese, but it would be very unwieldy to use them as dance terms. Not that a non-dancing English speaker would know what a kick ball change was just by hearing the words either, but at least it would give them an idea. Also, it would be easier for them to remember the name once they learned the movement.

Japanese has the added disadvantage of not even using the same alphabet. English is mandatory in the schools here. It's part of the required courses for all 6 years of junior high and high school. However, most people never become comfortable in it. They can read it to a certain degree if they have to, but shy away from it when they can. At our club we pass out all of our step descriptions in English, the originals when possible. Not only would translating them into Japanese be both difficult and time-consuming, but a lot would be lost in the translation as well. Most people who get used to reading the step descriptions find it's easier in English. Of course learning to easily read a step description is an acquired art no matter what language you speak. The more you do it, the easier it gets. But for Japanese dancers, a lot of people don't even try because they're intimidated by the English.

And so we have the problem of how to disseminate information. With our own club members it's not such a problem. However, C/W dancing is just beginning to catch on in various places all over Japan and we have lots of requests for information. For people just getting started, information in Japanese is much more accesible than information in English. There are a lot of excellent videos and informative magazines already available in English, but most beginning dancers never get past the fact that they're in English. If it was just one or two people teaching themselves to dance at home, they could probably pick it up from a video. But then to have to go out and teach someone else that information would be next to impossible without the use of a common dance language. Imagine if you were sent a video tape of a Russian folk dance from a friend in Leningrad. If the dance was being instructed on the video, you could probably pick it up even if you couldn't understand what they're saying. With practice, you could probably even get pretty good at the dance. But then imagine trying to teach it to other people when you didn't know the names for any of the steps. ("Well, your arms kind of go like this. It's like a clap, but not really. And at the same time your right foot is bent back while your left leg is going around ...") It would be possible, but you couldn't do it very efficiently. So as you can see, language actually is an important part of dancing. And English is definitely the language of C/W dancing.

This month I have told you about some of the difficulties of learning to dance in a foreign language. Next month I will tell you about some of the projects our club has come up with to help alleviate this problem. Dancing in a foreign language is not impossible, just a little more difficult. And it's definitely just as much fun!!