How To Dance The Tanko Bushi

by Katie Cunningham

Left, left

        The plans are to meet at the Bon Odori at 2:00. This is a soft time: when your uncle set it, he actually didn’t mean it. Get there at 2:00 means leave the house at 2:00. That’s what all the cool kids do.

        The Bon Odori’s at a Buddhist temple downtown, but you and your family are not noobs to this gathering, so you know the secrets. There’s really only one secret. The secret is that you are always late, and thus will never, ever be able to find parking. There is, however, this really nice high school with curbside parking about seven blocks away from the Bon Odori, and your dad knows to go straight there. He glides left, left through the neighborhoods, and secures the parking space. It is an optimal space, except for the fact that it is seven long blocks uphill from where you want to be.

Right, right

        That just means it’s time to walk down Seattle hills like a boss. You know exactly where to go. The neighborhood has a thumping heartbeat, and in the hot and sticky air it’s like something’s alive, pulling you into the center. Into the Bon Odori. You can tell you’re getting closer when the neighborhood starts to wheeze, a high-pitched tinny recording of Japanese women singing “miyaaama koe a yoi yoi!” The heartbeat punctuates the downbeat of every measure, a thumping that gets inside you and reminds you of last year and the year before. You’re almost there—just right down this block and right again, and it’s in front of you. The Bon Odori.

Over the shoulder, over the shoulder

        The number of people at the Bon Odori, for some reason, never ceases to surprise you. The festival takes place smack dab in the middle of a street, and people set up on either side of it with their black-and-red blankets and lawn chairs. At first it’s just a trickle: one little girl playing on a lamp post, an older couple holding hands in adjacent lawn chairs. As you walk past, however, the crowd thickens: towards the middle, people are stacked shoulder to shoulder, and you have to grab the back of your mom’s purse to make sure you don’t lose her. Towards the middle of the crowd, you give a double take over the shoulder. Everyone is pretty much a sweaty mob of T-shirts and shorts, but there was an unexpected flash of color—a woman wearing a sakura kimono. In fact, there are a few women and men who come in kimonos every year. The awkward part? They’re always white.

        But that’s cool—today’s a celebration of culture, anyway, and it’s nice to see people enjoying it in all the ways you can. You hear your name over the shoulder, and you turn around to see your cousin Ciara running at you.

Back (wipe off the sweat), back (wipe off the sweat)

        Ciara gestures over at the rest of your family, gathered up at the very top of the opposite street’s hillside because no one got here early enough to claim a coveted streetside position. However, the sitting space isn’t at the top of anyone’s list of priorities. Instead, everyone’s hungry, and it’s time to get somen.

        Even though the Emerald City generally has cool and temperate summers, there’s always one day that is obnoxiously hot and feels the need to make it up to the nineties. That day will be the day that you are at the Bon Odori. Luckily, there’s a remedy. If you go back, back, behind the Buddhist temple, wiping off the sweat as you go, you’ll find yourself at a food stand that sells the only thing for a hot day: somen. Somen is a thin Japanese noodle, made of wheat flour, that is served in a cold tsuyu sauce with green onions, and as it slips down your throat it cools you off and refreshes you better than sticky ice cream (two booths over) or a blast of water in the face (your dad, when he gets bored).

        Because the heat makes you hungry, you’ll have more than one bowl of somen. More than two. Probably more than three. It’s good stuff, okay?

Push the cart, push the cart, push the cart

        There are a ton of things to do at the Bon Odori after you have acquired your somen—you can peruse shops, skip rocks at the park above the temple, or even go inside the temple and meditate for awhile. But there’s one reason you go the Bon Odori, and that’s this: to dance.

        The Bon Odori’s dances happen in big circles in the street, with about twenty or so experts who teach the hundreds of other people who decide to join in. Your family’s favorite dance is the tanko bushi, or the Coalminer’s Dance, which is always left for last because it’s easy and everybody knows it. This year, like every year, you try to convince the party poopers to join in on the fun. You push your dad and Ciara’s dad, trying to bribe them with games of golf or an ice cream run.


        However, the fathers remind you that they are the rides home. Your father reminds you that he just bought you not one, not two, not three, but four bowls of somen. He offers to take pictures from the sidelines. He refuses to dance.

        They’re good points, and he knows it. He’s safe.

Clap clap, clap

        So you, your uncle, Ciara, and the rest of the gang run to the street to join the circle. You’re ready to dance the tanko bushi, which you’ve done so many times and for so many years that the steps have become a mantra in your head. Left, left, right, right, over the shoulder, over the shoulder—that’s the digging, to your left side, your right, and then two big shovelfuls behind you. Back, back. When you were younger, your uncle used to explain that the sweeping-across-the-brow movement was supposed to be wiping off the sweat, because it could get hot in the mines. You found out last year that he was wrong. You’re supposed to be making an “O” with your fingers across your forehead, like a coal miner’s lamp. Push the cart, push the cart, push the cart—the day’s done, and you’re taking the ores up the perilous paths out of the mines. Safe! This step’s always funny—left foot forward, you pull into a quick squat and sweep apart your forearms an umpire’s sign for a safe play. Clap clap, clap. The dance is over, everyone is laughing, your dad’s smiling from the sidelines, and everyone on the sidewalk and in the street is clapping, high off of the excitement of the last dance, happy from the somen and glad to have taken part, for one more year, in the Bon Odori.

Katie Cunningham is a sophomore English major at Whitworth University. When she’s not busting a move at the Bon Odori, she can usually be found reading, writing, or eating somen.

Photo credit: The Seattle Times

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