Trivial Things: Sword Dancing (Kenbu)

Every once in awhile, it’s helpful to look back on times when you were foolish. Out of your element in every way, but going for it anyway, and continuing to go for it, just a little longer than maybe was healthy for you.

Which brings me to today’s story.

I am often complimented — by peers, managers, lovers — on having an above-average level of self-awareness. This pleases me, because I do, in fact, spend a significant amount of time analyzing where I shine (so I can lean heavily into those attributes) and where I undergo an inordinate amount of stress just to pass as “okay” (so I can quietly avoid having to do too much of that). My hope is that at the end of the day, this increases the probability that I have a decent understanding of the various aspects of Me.

That said, when I was just out of college, in my first “real job” overseas as an Assistant Language Teacher in Japan? Hoo boy, how do I put this delicately …

I was basically self-blind.

Willfully ignorant of who I was, what I wanted, how my needs would be met. Determined that I could do anything, be anything, take my life anywhere, and all I needed to do was dedicate enough time and energy to it. Screw “maximize strengths” and “follow your ambition”. I wanted to be a Renaissance woman, flexible and capable and competent.

Meanwhile, my actual, flawed (but kind of groovy) self was jumping up and down in the front row, and I deliberately turned around and stared upstage, in the wings, at the ceiling — everywhere but where my inner soul was waving and smiling, hoping against hope that she might someday be recognized, or even just, acknowledged. She would be seen, eventually (I think?) but my past self was a wee bit silly. A wee bit, resistant.

Nowhere was this more obvious than when I chose sword dancing as an after-school hobby.

I didn’t seek out learning how to sword dance. I didn’t even know it existed (and would later find out, most modern day Japanese don’t know about it either — it’s a bit of a lost art). It found me, pretty soon after I started my position at the high school. My supervisor there was very excited to tell me about one of my predecessors, who enjoyed learning this art. He suggested that he could set me up at the same dojo.

It struck me as the universe doing a very good job putting something cool in my path. Costumes, swords, and a dojo? Oh my! I’d romanticized all of these things for years. I was beyond excited for the opportunity.

Despite the fact that I had two left feet.

Somewhere, deep inside, I was more than slightly nervous about doing something that was essentially a derivative of an activity that I’d already learned during my years of attempting musical theatre, school dances, and night clubbing, I rather sucked at. But that feeling was buried under layers of voices whispering: do it anyway.

So, that’s what I did.

Sword dancing, called kenbu in Japanese, is an art that has been around since 700 A.D., where the dancer dresses up as a samurai (kimono, hakama, even the same belt that samurai would wear when heading off to battle) and features prominent use of the katana and fan in the dance. Each kenbu piece is about 2-1/2 minutes long, and has traditionally been performed to Japanese traditional music, accompanied by poetry (mostly written by samurai, although it can be a poem written by the dancer as well) called shigin. The aim of these performances is to tell the story of the life of a samurai in order to boost morale, promote meditation, and advance the teachings of bushido (the samurai code).

I loved everything about kenbu, and also utterly hated it.

Let’s start with the outfit. First layer, kimono, which had to be tied in a very particular manner. Followed by the hakama (kind of like short overalls) with four separate straps that had to intertwine, bend, and fold at just the right points and be tied meticulously to create the exact right cross-shape. Then the belts, which needed to be tight enough to keep the katana and fan in proper place but also not so tight that you couldn’t move and twist for the appropriate dance steps. It was so complicated that despite taking it on and off at least a hundred times back then, I’m quite certain I wouldn’t be able to dress myself anymore. Then after all that, you have to remove it and fold it in an intricate fashion back into its carrying case.

Japanese costuming is as much of a precise ritual as tea ceremony and flower arrangement. Read: frustrating until you can get it right. If you ever get it right. (Spoiler: I didn’t.)

Then there was the dance itself. Form is pretty much everything with kenbu. The dances are similar to tai chi kata that you’ve likely seen in movies or in the park on a summer morning led by a yoga studio . But in addition to those graceful movements, you also need to convey the “spirit of the samurai” in your grunts and “Yoshi!” utterances at the appropriate times during the song. It is without question a performance art. It is theatre.

Which sounds like my thing, right? The theatre nerd, the person who has been on stage performing since the age of five. Until you learn that the only musical theatre I excelled at was the one where I would sing, act, and leave the dancing to everyone else.

End result, my kenbu sensei was patient, kind, clear, and completely annoyed with me as as a student. But his annoyance was nothing compared to the mental beating I gave myself after every rehearsal.

Yet I carried on. I kept telling myself, do it anyway. Do it. Anyway.

The climax of this whole affair was when my boyfriend (now ex-husband) joined my kenbu group. I invited him, wanting someone to share in my struggles, and we could laugh together about the unpracticed, ungainly gaijin trying to keep up with the better-disciplined Japanese. We thought it would be a fun thing to do together. Little did I know that he was a very good dancer, with a brilliant mind for spatial relations — which translates into an excellent memory for choreography. He quickly surpassed my abilities and was doing advanced routines that I would never even start to learn, because I was so slow on the uptake.

Full disclosure – I did not handle this well. I became pouty, and moody, and a grumpy-puss. His response? He was understanding and empathetic. And suggested that maybe trying this out was a great idea, but was there wisdom in continuing, if it was making me so sad?

Hey now, why you gotta be so smart all the time?

For the record, I remain a big fan of this perspective, to try things that you know inside aren’t quite your bag. To not let difficulties, obstacles, and nay-sayers pull you away from your dreams. I believe that’s our intention, when we tell kids, you can do anything you want, if you put your mind to it. We know there’s beauty in striving to reach the moon, even if you’ll never get there.

I do think that gets lost in translation, though, in that pretty platitude about being able to do anything you put your mind to. I believe there’s a significantly more powerful life lesson, that there are certain things that you inherently enjoy more, because you “get” them more, and for whatever reason your brain is going to feel more peace, more flow, when you allow your life to drift in those directions — as opposed to constantly trying to pound your trapezoid peg into the octagonal hole.

Sure, some people might be able to do anything they want, and you might as well go for it while you have the time and energy — but don’t skip the part where you figure out what you actually do want. Because you can often mistake what you don’t want for what you do want, and drive yourself absolutely batshit.

I keep my fan from my kenbu outfit right next to my sword display, by the way. Yet another piece of the puzzle of things I learned from the other side of the world.

That it’s okay to be a fool. It’s okay to do it anyway, even if it’s another short chapter in your adventure.

And it’s okay to move on, it’s okay to write new, different, and potentially just as foolish chapters. Then to take a moment to reflect on past weird decisions, and say, gosh golly, look at my past self being a fool. Glad I’m not doing that anymore.

On that note, I’m positive that I still have a lot of foolish in me. That there are things I’m doing today, because I’m still self-blind in many ways, and will only be able to see that I’ve been spinning my wheels in retrospect. Perspective is funny like that — some things only become visible in the rearview. mirror.

Ergo, you might as well go for it, right? Embrace your inner fool, and try, and fail, and try again, and fail again, and so on ad infinitum until your life is filled with amazing, awkward, imperfect experiences that you wouldn’t trade for the world.

Perhaps being a fool isn’t that foolish, after all.

Trivial Things Series:

5 thoughts on “Trivial Things: Sword Dancing (Kenbu)

  1. If you recall, you did a kenbu performance for Bob and me and your grandparents when we visited you in Nagahama City. I remember a very graceful woman in Japanese garb, handling a sword and fan with ease. I happen to have a video of it somewhere if you need proof! 😉

    Liked by 2 people

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