Sunday, June 11, 2006

Yosakoi Soran

In 1991, a student at the University of Hokkaido went to the southern island of Shikoku during his summer vacation where he saw the Yosakoi Festival. Yosakoi is a form of traditional dance from Kochi prefecture in Shikoku. The student was so impressed that he wanted to bring the dance back to Hokkaido and combine it with elements of modern dance and the traditional Soran Bushi fishing folksongs from Hokkaido. He formed a group of 100 like-minded students who next year put on the first Yosakoi Soran in Sapporo, featuring 1,000 dancers in 10 teams watched by over 200,000 spectators. The festival now draws over two million spectators, who watch over 40,000 dancers in more than 300 teams at 30 different venues. Like anything so successful, it has attracted corporate attention, and there are now advertisements from sponsors broadcast over loudspeakers between performances on the bigger stages, and a few teams even have corporate sponsorship. Most, however, are entirely volunteers, laborers of love including everyone from students to office workers who often pay for their own costumes and travel expenses. The teams usually consist of 40 to 150 dancers, and many practice multiple times per week for the entire year leading up to the festival.

It rained on Friday night and Saturday morning, but if that slightly thinned the crowds and made some mascara run, it had no visible effect on the dancers' spirits. Sprayed hair glistened and bright costumes glistened in the rain, the music blared, the taiko drums pounded and the soaked dancers jumped and twirled under the glow of the light stands and their own 1000-watt smiles. Even when the final team dance of the evening had finished, the band played one more song and dancers from several different teams circled the elevated stage in euphoric celebration of artistic expression.