Jane Heit and Tsukikage Odorikai are Helping to Re-energize Big Island Bon Dances
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
A persistent rain dampened the start of the bon dance at the Honomu Henjoji temple on June 15 — and no amount of prayerful looks at the darkening sky would make it go away. Led by Jane Heit, their club’s co-founder and longtime leader, members of the Tsukikage Odorikai bon dance club donned raincoats and bonnets and began dancing their way through the raindrops as they have at so many Big Island bon dances over the years.
The bon dance at Henjoji is the first temple sponsored bon dance of the year, kicking off what locals refer to as the “bon dance season,” which traditionally runs from June through the end of August. By one count, some 16 bon dances are held, one after the other, over 14 consecutive weekends on the Big Island alone — enough to wear out even the hardiest of bon dance aficionados.
“Oh, that’s nothing,” Jane shrugs. “You want to see my schedule?”
In fact, Odorikai had already held bon dances at the Hawai‘i Care Choices lantern floating ceremony on May 25 and at the Queen Lili‘uokalani Gardens on June 1. And, in addition to the dances themselves, Jane also leads bon dance practices at about a half dozen East Hawai‘i temples.
It’s safe to say that bon dancing runs in Jane’s blood. Raised right in the middle of Hilo town, she began attending bon dances when she was only 4 years old. She learned to dance from her mother, Yoshi (Mae) Koizumi, who came to Hilo from Japan as a war bride after marrying Charles Koizumi.
“I’m not sure what her dance training was, but my mother came from Japan with her instruments and musical knowledge, so I know she was formally trained,” Jane adds. Sadly, her mother died when Jane was only 10 years old. “After my mother died, my grandmother dragged me from one bon dance to the other,” she explains.
Jane describes herself as somewhat of an introvert during high school. “My life revolved around church (Hilo Hongwanji) activities, such as Junior YBA (Young Buddhist Association),” she recalls.
After graduating from Hilo High School in 1970, Jane attended the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa before deciding to spend a couple of years roaming around the Mainland. “Hey, it was the ’70s!” she exclaims when asked what “roaming” entailed.
In total, Jane spent some five years away from home — a period in which she did not dance or speak Japanese as she used to do at home, since both her mother and grandmother were from Japan.
Soon after returning to Hilo, Jane remembers attending bon dances again and being shocked to see that the state of the bon dance had declined so dramatically. “Many temples had scaled back from two nights to one,” she notes. “The music sounded stale, and attendance had dropped way down.”
As temples struggled to keep the bon dance tradition alive, some debated what was “appropriate” for bon dances. Were hanten (happi) coats OK? What if people dressed in street clothes wanted to dance? At first, temple elders decided to put their collective feet down on the side of tradition, and, in the early ’70s, tried to control what dancers wore.
Just as impactful was the question of what music was played. “It used to be that each temple ran their bon dance the way they saw fit,” Jane explains. “The minister’s wife usually led the women’s group and they set the tone for the dances.”
Each temple had its own music. Each temple had its own dance leader. “Over time, the different temples shared music — gaining permission as needed from others — and it got blended,” Jane observes. “The Big Island is different because we share the music . . . . and Honolulu people like to dance in Hilo because Big Island style is all mish-mash.”
According to Jane, Garet Uemura, Kevin Hirayama, Leonard Chow and herself started by forming the nucleus of Tsukikage Odorikai around 2002. “When Rev. Earl Ikeda was assigned to Puna Hongwanji, his wife, Myra, asked us to lead the bon dance classes.” We started practicing twice a month at Puna Hongwanji and Hilo Meishoin. “People had forgotten many of the dance motions,” she says. “We had to get them to do it the same way.”
A key figure at that time was Sakae Kaya, who served as the bon dance leader for all of the Hongwanji temples on the Big Island. “When we started our group, we were careful not to infringe on Mrs. Kaya or other temple leaders, so we only focused on Meishoin and Puna,” Jane says. “When Mrs. Kaya got sick, we were asked to help at Papaikou Hongwanji, Higashi Hongwanji and Hilo Hongwanji.”
Odorikai began introducing new songs to its repertoire. “It’s nice to do the old ones, but it’s nice to do some new ones, too,” Jane reflects. “Garet used to dance in Honolulu a lot, so he had lots of friends there. Because of Garet, people in Honolulu supported us and let us use their songs . . . . as long as we did them correctly!”
Jane also drew inspiration from faraway Brazil.
“There’s a Nikkei group over there that is a lot like us,” she says. She studied their videos and read about their style of matsuri (festival) dancing, which blended Brazilian and Japanese music.
Since its inception, Odorikai has maintained a critical partnership with the Hilo Bon Dance Club led by Leonard Chow. “They provide the live music — drums, flute, vocals — at the bon dances,” Jane says. “Basically, where Leonard goes, we go.” Several Odorikai members now perform in the Hilo Bon Dance Club ensemble, although the two groups are distinct.
Both groups knew that they had to “modernize” their style of dancing. The “Electric Slide” was one of the early examples.
“That started in Honolulu. It took a while for it to come over here,” Jane recalls. “Honolulu was more willing to do that sort of stuff. We threw it in and people felt like, ‘Hey, I know this song!’ and they’d jump in.”
It did not take long for Jane to know they were on the right track. “After the first five years of Odorikai, we saw the attendance at Hilo Meishoin and Puna Hongwanji double or triple.”
The trend continues, fueled by the addition of new numbers that fall under the Odorikai heading of “Crazy Dances.” Most are choreographed by Jane, but others are brought to her by younger members of the troupe. “They’ll find the songs and come up with the dance movements and bring it to me to review — nothing raunchy, of course!” Most are Japanese songs, with a few K-Pop numbers mixed in. “If something doesn’t flow, I’ll change the motion,” Jane explains.
Her guidelines are simple: “I always tell our group. ‘Follow whoever the leader is. These rules still exist for us. Like when we go to dances in Pāpa‘aloa and Honoka‘a, we are not the lead group so we will follow their rules. Don’t go crazy. Try to remember it’s a religious event. Be respectful, act properly.’”
Today, Odorikai has a repertoire of over 200 songs from which to plan the evening. “We also do certain dances in other people’s style,” she says. “We can do it our way, Hāmākua way, Honolulu style or a more modern version. There is confusion when everybody does a certain song differently, so we try to teach our members all versions.”
Jane estimates that it takes some 40 to 50 songs to fill an average bon dance. As the mix master, she still starts out with slower, older songs. “The problem is that people don’t know the real old ones anymore . . . . Some of the elders scold us for not playing the old songs, but they themselves don’t remember them.”
The crowd used to be a mix of very young and very old, Jane observes. These days, there are more dancers who are in their 20s through their 60s. She sees this as a good sign.
“We may lose some high school kids who go away to college, but then we recognize their faces when they come back and bring others with them.”
As Jane looks out over the Honomu Henjoji bon dance, there is much to warm her in the cool summer rain. Odorikai, which she started with a handful of friends nearly 20 years ago, now has about 50 registered members in the group. Around 20 to 25 of them can be counted on to attend bon dances on any given weekend. On this night, her dancers make up about half of the participants willing to brave the elements. Up in the yagura (music platform), Jane’s husband Gordon and son Christopher — along with a few other Odorikai members — bang the taiko under the tutelage of her longtime friend, Leonard Chow.
On another telling note, Jane is actually planning a trip to Japan this summer during bon dance season. “There are several summer festivals in Japan that I’ve always wanted to see,” she says, “and August is kind of a quiet month for us here. Of course, I’ll have to tell three temples that I won’t be here, but not to worry. We have enough Odorikai dancers to step up and fill in while I’m away.”
Bon dances in general have survived some lean times in decades past, but are more popular now than they’ve ever been, energized by younger, more enthusiastic crowds. On the Big Island, there is no denying the role that Jane Heit, the bon dance queen, has played in that turnaround.
Arnold Hiura is the executive director of the Japanese Center in Hilo and a former Hawai‘i Herald editor. Arnold and his wife Eloise also own and operate the editorial and communications company, MBFT Media.