The Buried Beauty of Butoh Dance

You are standing still. Close your eyes. Imagine an ant crawling over the bones of your left foot. It finds a nest in the space between your toes. Then, more of them appear. They surround your feet, tracing their shape…and then, they start the ascent. Trailing up your legs, between them, up your belly. One tickles the thin skin on your wrist. You swat it away only to find two more have replaced. You are swarmed with them. This has become a full-on infestation. The ants with their furry feet and beady abdomens journey across the map of your face, your hilly nose, into the depths of your ears, until they disappear into your hair.

Feeling a bit disturbed? This, says the dance instructor, is how you should always feel when you perform Butoh.

This semester, I’m taking Asian 200 – Introduction to Japanese Civilization. It is just that – an overview of each major period of Japanese history from the Heian Era to the Meiji to World War 2 and today. As we near the end of the semester, we have just begun our discussion on the 20th century. Because an entire course could be dedicated to World War 2 and Japan’s role in it, we have focused more on the effects of the war on the people, the economy, and the arts.

One of the most innovative arts to come out of the post-war era in Japan was the avant-garde dance called Butoh (which literally translates to “dance which steps on a political party” or any dance that is not sanctioned by the Japanese government). 

Hijikata Tatsumi performing Butoh; Image via

Created by Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo in 1959, butoh strove to become the new Japanese dance, which broke away from both Western modern dance and traditional Japanese dances. Especially after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there wasn’t a time when nationalism was more necessary to unite the country after tragedy. Butoh was the catalyst for young Japanese artists and intellectuals of the early 60’s to reject the status that Japan had been reduced to by Western superpowers. They wanted to subvert the sense of “alienation,  dehumanization, and loss of self-identity” ( Klein, Susan Blakeley. Ankoku Butoh. Ithaca: Cornell East Asia Papers, 1988: p. 9) that had been assigned to them.

Through the performance of Butoh, the dancers embrace a grotesque beauty – where they often make their expressions as revolting as possible, yet move across the stage with a paradoxical grace of controlled spasms. In a way, the more alienated and dehumanized the dancers become on stage, the richer the social critique.

The emaciated (and often naked) bodies of the dancers are covered in a thick white powder, highlighting ribs muscles, and especially the facial features. The dancers are enrobed in a mist macabre and their movements further unsettle the audience. We watched a few videos in class and had to define our emotional response to them.

Classmates answered “confused,” “creeped out,” “disturbed.” I think this comes from how weak the dancers appear (which of course is all an act). We feel awkward watching extreme suffering (even if it is fake) before us. The dancers become hyper-human in their ability to decompose and waste away. They become an alternative form of the humanity we thought we knew.

But how do they do it? Understanding that such a foreign dance would be difficult to talk about without experiencing it firsthand, my professor brought in a Butoh artist/scholar named Dr. Katherine Mezur to teach my class real exercises that are used in professional Butoh troupe lessons. We were instructed to wear loose, moveable clothing and white, cotton socks (though it was ambiguous which was more important: the whiteness or the cotton-ness). We were given the option to sit out if we ever grew uncomfortable. While I promised myself that I wouldn’t let myself sit out, I was pretty sure that at least one person in our class of strangers would feel shy or embarrassed, and gratefully accept the role of observer.

But no! Everyone participated. One of the first exercises after getting loosened up was the immersive imagination scene I referred to earlier: the one with the bugs. Because we had our eyes closed, we were all embarking on our own experience, yet we shared the energy of everyone in the room. We then learned a shuffling step, which provides the base for all Butoh movement. Moving around in the same space, we had to be aware of each other’s persons. We became each other’s obstacles. To complicate things even more Dr. Mezur would yell out an animal or a kind of material (glass, steel, wood) and we’d have to internalize these properties and incorporate them into our basic movement. This exercise was to teach us to realize the materiality of the body.

The most bizarre, and most striking, element of the Butoh dance is the facial expression. Dr. Mezur taught us to roll our eyes back (Exorcism-style),  cover our teeth with our lips, open our mouth, and draw in your neck like a gobbling turkey.

Image via

Luckily, everyone else’s eyes are turned up to the ceiling too, so no one could make fun of how ridiculous we looked.

Not only did I feel extremely ugly, I felt an internal pain from imitating the appearance of suffering. And that’s just the cherry on top of the revolting body image of Butoh. It’s about experiencing all aspects of being human: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The dancers of Butoh seem to say: ‘Not only are we humans who die and kill and begrudge and heartbreak and destroy. We are also humans who can turn the scariest, saddest, unexplainable parts of our stories and create something hauntingly stunning and beautiful and emotional. We connect with you through a shared fear that we might not make it through this performance. But we always do.’

An Ode to Dance

Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw dances in her closet.

This semester, my last semester, I decided to take all of the classes I always wanted to take before graduating. Therefore, every Monday and Wednesday I wake up, put my hair in a bun, and head to dance class. At first, I thought dance would just be a fun way to exercise and move around twice a week, but after my first class I knew it would be much more than that.

My instructor starts off every class with all of us sitting in a circle. Then, he has us introduce ourselves to someone new. We don’t go around and say our names with a fruit that starts with the same letter or anything like that, but we smile and wave and awkwardly shake hands. It might sound strange, but it feels kind of nice to be explicitly told to interact with the people you’ll be seeing the rest of the semester. I’ve had far too many classes where that just doesn’t happen and it’s kind of sad to go through life interacting with people whose names you don’t even know.

Then, my instructor has us stand up and feel the weight in our feet, center ourselves, and wake up our bodies. He doesn’t stop there, though. While we stand, eyes shut tight so no one feels like they’re being judged; he helps us discover different things about ourselves. Yesterday, he asked us to think about something that is stressing us out, and then he walked us through a scenario where we let go of that stress and fill ourselves up with a positive green light. It’s a great way to start the morning and it really did make me feel a little better about what was stressing me out.

After that, we warm up. That means there’s a lot of movement and a lot of finding your way through a mess of sweaty students. My instructor always makes sure to add some improv to the routine because it makes people feel strange and uncomfortable and free and expressive. And here’s the best part: you can’t really be bad at improv! As long as you try and you go through the steps confidently, you’re doing it right. Sure, you might not know what you’re doing as you move one foot in front of the next and you might be nervous you’ll bump into someone or look silly, but guess what? That’s what life is like—one big improvisational dance move!

This class has helped me realize that there’s something so intrinsic about dance. We’re born with the need to move. When you put on music, even little babies start to tap their feet and sway their hips. It’s what we do when we win a game or get a good grade. It’s how we celebrate marriages and birthdays. Dance is what we do when we think no one is watching, or sometimes, when we think someone is. It’s beautiful and fun and exciting and expressive. So, while I took dance as a fun way to get moving, I’m starting to think it’ll be one of the most important classes I take before graduating. It will teach me to be confident, even when I don’t know what I’m doing. And, it’ll teach me to have fun. Because who wants to kick-ball-change with a frown on their face? “Not I,” said the duck!

Confessions: 1MillionDance Studio

I have a confession to make. Really, I owe it to you. There’s something I’ve never told you.

I love dance.

That’s right. I love dance. It’s something I’ve never said before, and yet it’s true.

Now, to be quite honest, I’m not a dancer. I took ballet and tap when I was little, but I never continued. I danced when I was in theatre, but beyond being able to do a jazz square, I was never anything special.

No, I don’t love dancing, though I will admit it is quite fun. That’s not what I mean.

I love watching people dance. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed. My mom used to take me to the Nutcracker every year, and I think I saw the Jon M. Chu and Adam Sevani dance battle at least fifty times. Of course, I’m pretty picky about what I watch – I prefer hip-hop and modern forms to other classic types of dance, and I love a good jazz square (everyone loves a good jazz square). Which is why, when I found 1MillionDance, I knew immediately I’d love it.

I don’t think it’s a secret anymore that I like listening to music in other languages, and though most of their videos feature American music, I found 1MillionDance through their videos featuring Korean hip-hop songs. However, as I scrolled down the list of videos, I was surprised (and excited) by the variety of genres they danced to, with, yes, lots of hip-hop.

I marathoned the videos (and still do…whoops, sorry homework, you’re going to have to wait) and slowly realized I hadn’t watched this kind of dance, pure dance, no singing *cough* kpop *cough* in a really long time.

Which is why I want to share some of my personal favorites with you, to show that no, I haven’t forgotten about dance about an art form. Dance is beautiful, amazing, and expressive. Although I have no talent for it, I still empathize with dancers, even if I don’t know how to move and control my body as they do.

So, in no particular order, my favorite dances from 1MillionDance Studio in Seoul, and also why I love the dance so much.

Note: the dances feature multiple dancers doing the same choreography, learned that day (so there’s bound to be mistakes – nobody is perfect). The first dancer in the center is always the choreographer, with other highly proficient dancers or other choreographers sometimes joining.

Junsun Yoo is hands down my favorite choreographer for 1Million. His dances are always on point, and this one in particular blew me away. For starters, this is one of my all time favorite songs, and it’s not your typical dance song either. Sure, it has a really strong beat, but it’s not a hip-hop song, and yet the moves are so on point – the hand move for the bell is my favorite. Overall, this video is in my top 5 favorites from this channel.

If Junsun is my favorite choreographer, Bongyoung Park comes in a very very very close second. It was a hard to choose which one of his videos to post (His Maroon 5 dance is freaking amazing – warning, strong language in the song), but this one is hands down the most lively and fun. Bongyoung’s expressions throughout the dance also completely add to the dance, though the other dancers who don’t do expressions are also fantastic. Also in my top five favorite dances (which, by the way, these aren’t – just five I think you should watch).

To slow things down a bit, this is also one of my favorite dances. I love this video too, not just because Eunho is a very compelling dancer, and has freaking amazing body control, but because his dance can be transformed in so many different ways by the students. He performs alone, but two groups do it as a couple dance – and it works fantastically. But it also works in a larger group as well, towards the middle of the video. I especially love too how this dance tells more of a story. Warning – strong language in the song.

Lest you think this channel features only male choreographers, here’s Sori Na with a legit amazing dance. I love her too not just because she’s a fantastic choreographer, but because she doesn’t shy away from songs like these. Yes, girl power is super awesome, and dancing to female-oriented or created songs is super empowering. But dancing to something you love that might be considered traditionally male is also empowering, especially for me. Not to mention she just oozes swag. How can you not love her?

And last, but certainly not least, May J Lee creates an addictive dance to an already addictive song. Everyone knows it, yes, and it plays everywhere – I’m personally not a huge fan of this song. But honestly, her choreography is so on point that I’ve actually started to somewhat like the song due to how many times I’ve watched this video. Not to mention that I want to do the choreography every time I hear this song now. Watch for cameos from Bongyoung, from earlier, and also Koosung Jung, a fellow choreographer who’s also in The Hills video.

Go watch some of 1Million’s other videos, because they’re all fantastic, and who knows, if you’re a dancer and you’re in Seoul and you drop by, maybe you’ll be in one of their videos someday.



That Time I Danced Thriller

So I was in a talent show. I know, shocking, right? I actually participated in art this time! I mean, that’s a very loose definition of art, but I did it, so that’s all that matters, right?

Here’s the skinny (seriously, why don’t people talk like this anymore, it’s so freaking cool): I’m in InterVarsity Undergrad, or IVU, a club/Christian group on campus. Our leader/staff worker/patron of silliness Jess was speaking at the weekly meeting of Asian InterVarsity, or AIV, one of IV’s chapters on campus, so naturally IVU had to attend. I mean, it wasn’t mandatory or anything, but you get the idea.

I don’t know if there’s any history behind it or anything, but AIV typically has a post-AIV thing that they do each week, and of course the week Jess was speaking they were having a talent show.

Now, I vaguely knew about this but I didn’t really know until my good friend Stefany emailed me (and everyone else in IVU) and informed us that AIV really really really wanted us to participate. The email was sent out Wednesday night. Thursday night IVU met for our weekly meeting. Friday night was the talent show.

As you can probably already tell, our “talent” was not very talent-y…and that’s being nice.

But I mean, we had a plan of action, so that counts for something, right? We were gonna use our talent of silliness as our actual talent, and by that I mean we were going to wing it the whole way.

We decided on opening with a game of “Raptor Tag,” which seems pretty self explanatory but I’ll explain anyways. You go around, hopping around like a raptor and with your arms close to your chest because “I have a big head and little arms!!!“ You try to tag other peoples’ arms without extending yours because you;re a raptor obviously, and when you lose both arms you’re out. It’s kinda like ninja meets tag meets playing raptor. In any case, we were gonna start with a mock game of that to confuse our audience. And then, once we’re all dead, Dean would give a raptor-y cry of victory, and as the beginning notes of “Thriller” sounded over the speakers he’d raise us from the dead, raptor zombies here to change the world and get funky.

This, in theory, sounds wonderful – we were gonna learn an easy, 20-30 second dance to “Thriller” and it was going to be flawless.

We had about an hour Thursday night and Friday night to learn and practice our dance. So I’m sure you can predict how utterly flawless we all were.

In reality, I was a beat ahead of everyone else, forgot the moves and couldn’t shimmy to save my life.

But the thing was, it didn’t matter. I was giggling, next to me my friend Hannah was red-faced and smiling, and the whole auditorium in front of us whooped and cheered when they heard the first beats of the iconic song. They didn’t care that we were off beat and could never live up to the perfection of Michael Jackson’s dancing, just like we didn’t care that the slam poetry section ended up being “We’re All In This Together.”

Usually, I don’t try to make grand statements about Art in my blog posts, but tonight, I’d like to try. That night, I realized something. Art is about community, about ideas being exchanged between people in a creative way. And that talent show I was in was all about community. By the end of the night, when I complimented Zander on his terrific HSM dancing, he graciously accepted and said to me and my friends “You guys should come more often.” That invitation, that acceptance of us even though we were outsiders, made me feel as though I had just built a community of my own. It made me feel that art, in it’s silliest, wildest, least choreographed, most unpredictable form, brought us together that night to soulfully sing “We’re All In This Together.”

Because we are. We really, really are.

Music . . . wait for it . . . that makes me *gyrate*

So: I’m a hot mess.

Over the past 4 years I’ve been that gay boy who prides himself for wearing the “legalize gay” t-shirt, who loves gay marriage like its creme brulee that people are giving out for free when you’ve run out of money for the week, and I’ve projected myself to mature in a suburban wet dream of picket upon picket fences. HOWEVER, no more. My queerness, thankfully, disrupts these dreadful past faults of mine. I’m wary of all institutions (particularly marriage), I hate the normalization of my sexuality and how its being co-opted into moderate liberal agendas, but I still love creme brulee. That thick, hard, sugary crust of joy on top of the most deliciously creamy and sensuous tasty yum-yum is something I dream about.

Or listen to.Recently released, new music has really made me feel like I become a creme brulee.

Two cd’s, in particular, have really got me moving. I listen to both of them every day: when I wake up, at the gym, on my way to class, on my way home from class, when I study, cook, eat–they are on almost 24/7.

(Shamefully:) Lady Gaga’s Artpop;

and (Pridefully:) M.I.A.’s Matangi.

I admit. Gaga is someone I have grown to hate, to love, to hate again, and (shhhh) love again. I saw one of her earliest mainstream performances on the TV show, “So You Think You Can Dance,” where I was solidly NOT a fan–this was 2008. Her album, The Fame appeared, I resisted. She got more famous, I resisted. And then one moment later I was doing the full choreography from “Bad Romance” at my High School Prom (#dark). When Gaga traps you, you find yourself in an unavoidable love game. Years went by and I fought for Gaga, even through that bullshit song, “Born this Way.” EVEN THROUGH THAT. But then when she (or someone) leaked “Aura” and I found her all over tumblr traipsing around the world in a burqa (for fashion) I almost lit all of my Gaga things on fire. I was offended and outraged and so confused. And then Artpop came out.

There is something so brilliant about this album–it’s so weird. I am and am in the process of becoming more and more eccentric everyday and so this space-sounding, electro heavy, sexual album of glory speaks to my soul. “G.U.Y.” is not only catchy but fucks with gender insofar as she reverses the gender of her and her male partner while affirming certain aspects of her identity: “I (Gaga) wanna be your ‘Guy’/’G. U. Y.’” includes her being both a guy and being a “girl under you” while, at other points of the song, she calls her partner a “G. I. R. L.” Now, there is nothing too exciting about this as a concept but that gender confusion, mistaking, crossing, etc., happening in this song is so refreshing. (Or acts a justification for me to like it, whatever . . . ) Similarly, “Sexxx Dreams” (the current song I wake up to) is talking about Gaga more or less seducing the girlfriend of some guy. I love that Gaga talks about her sexuality and her attraction to women in a sexual way (rather than some oblique reference). “Donatella” makes me want to dance on a table while champagne/sweat/glitter is pouring from a disco ball. Yes.

And then there is M.I.A. I first did not like or understand M.I.A. “Paper Planes” came out in 2007 when I was a sophomore in high school. But as I got older I rediscovered her and heavily listened to her Maya album. M.I.A. fully entered my life (she’s here to stay), again, this past July. A friend offered to drive me, and some friends, to the M.I.A. concert in Royal Oak and I thought, “yeah, should be fun.” When I left the concert I couldn’t because I was a pile of love, feelings, and desire for M.I.A. and her music to never stop.

M. M. M. I. I. A.

When Matangi came out I was instantly hooked. Every song is perfect. “Y.A.L.A.” and the line, “bombs go off when I enter the building,” is what I listen to on repeat when I do interval sprints at the gym. “Double Bubble Trouble” is my everything song. “Bad Girls” and “Bring The Noize” will be my anthems for years to come. Every song pushes the boundary of what music is supposed to do and so I don’t see her music ever going out of “style/fashion.” At least not for me.

But not only is M.I.A. aesthetic perfection embodied. She is spot on with her politics, in my opinion, about life, which can be summed up in this beautiful article ( She is ironic, she is direct, she is everything she needs to be about discussing the global south, western hegemony, feminism, etc.

Now, while Gaga’s album might be good for those stereotypical “rage” nights, parties, even days, M.I.A.’s album clearly wins and has me dancing as I party, burn structures of oppression, fight for liberation, write my thesis, and forge a future for myself and others outside of the void of undergrad life.

Sight, Sound, and Stir

An academic talk, I assume, will have a standard format: “Here’s what I’m going to do, here’s me doing it, here’s what I did, questions?” The do/did/done is usually particular research, lots of (beautiful) jargon (#HomoNationalism, #Schizoanalysis, #FungibilityAndAccumulation), and a take away that blows something (my mind, not something (just blows), etc.). I am used to this format. This format gives me comfort. There is a certain formula/art, if you will, to the standard talk.

When the normal academic talk is disrupted, however, by queer-black-dance identity, I know this talk isn’t just an art form but art itself. Here are some signs:
1. There is a Wii controller that, when it moves, adjusts sounds that I’ve never heard before–whirrs and chants and whizzes and vhroooooongs.
2. Every so often the mouse on screen ventures into the unknown, seemingly jumping from the screen onto the board to drag another window (invisible) into plain sight. As if all computer windows are always open but invisible to the naked eye, all information like atoms, tucked away into the smallest depths of reality, the mouse dragged j-stepping videos into plain sight. J-step over here and over there, and all of a sudden the talk stopped to only watch a video (all with accompanying Wii controller controlled sound).
3. Before long all windows flashed away from the screen and a lone Word document lay in our midst. The cursor blinks in a terrifyingly regular way, more steady than my own heart or the internal metronome keeping the Wii controller controlled. Words, fragments, phrases, and identities appear. Are corrected. Disappear. Move on.
4. There is silence. Between words, sentences, remarks, sounds. He stares back at our staring eyes.

Some talks have audio-visual components, but again–”I’m playing this for you, here it is, wow, I just played that–cool.” “OH MY, I’m going to play this video for you, BAM, here it is, AH! it just played.”

This academic talk was less talk more performance art. Hinging on creative interests and experiences as an artist, dancer, queer person of color, it was no surprise that Tomm(ie/y) would disrupt our notions of an academic talk to center himself along the edges, cracks, and space in order to create something that was original and unique. Something that wouldn’t just talk about “Dancing [Black
|Queer] Diasporas” but be dancing, black, queer diasporas.

Blackness and Queerness disrupt most things in civil society, if not all things. In my experience they (it, since I identify as Queer) do so in a beautiful way by allowing for more possibilities than first realized.

The talk finished, the questions answered, and then we danced.

We were to dance Black dance insofar as Black dance is an aesthetic style appropriated by some, embodied by some, and rendered (un)intelligible by some. The beat to 212 (by, yes, Azealia Banks) started to play and I knew that this was some pivotal moment in my life. We were beckoned to stand up (if able) and an individual led us through several dance moves that involved hip and bum movement, dropping it low, and sidestepping. We laughed and danced and became community all while the beat beat beat beat beat.

Coming back to campus, coming (back) to academia, and coming back to beloved spaces, it was nice to have a Monday night interrupted with dance, art, performance art, and a big queer audience of which to be a part.

The world said “welcome back” to Ann Arbor and we replied “I guess that . . . gettin eatin.”