Yukie Shiroma Blends Okinawan, Modern and Experimental Dance to Create “Your (Own) Ballet”
The Dancing Intellectual
After four decades as a professional dancer gliding between the usually distinct worlds of contemporary Western dance, classical Uchinanchu udui and experimental stage performance, sansei Yukie Shiroma has much to say about the nature of tradition.
“Up to now I feel like my life has been building up to a merging of tradition and experimentation,” reflects the award-winning choreographer and director. ‘Tradition’ is not static — it is not only something that happened 300 years ago and that remains unchanged,” she explains.
“Inherent in the definition of tradition is the potential for change: we are all people, and most arts are transmitted person to person, so of course, it will change naturally,” Shiroma states.
Rigorously trained in multiple dance traditions on the mainland and in Hawai‘i, Shiroma now lectures in the Dept. of Theatre + Dance at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. A barely-five-foot-tall intellectual in the body of a seasoned athlete, she has long contemplated the contrast between how Asian and Western cultures teach her craft of moving to music.
“In most European/Western classrooms, students learn by asking questions,” she observes. “In Asian settings, students watch and follow for years and years with the hope that one day, their questions will be answered … with the understanding that the learning might come in non-verbal ways.”
At UHM, Shiroma teaches Okinawan dance, but some of her students — raised in the continental U.S. and the Americanized Hawaiian islands — know little to nothing about Uchinanchu culture. Shiroma uses assigned readings, writing assignments, PowerPoints and videos to stimulate her students into thinking about what they do not understand. She encourages them to pose questions to her, before they try this centuries-old dance practice. “Although I learned in an Asian way, I gravitate towards a Western approach to teaching,” she explains.
“What’s Your Ballet?”
Shiroma’s critical approach to Uchinanchu performing arts comes, in no small part, from being a child in urban Northern California during the 1960s. Moving from Hawai‘i to San Francisco at the age of 8, she eventually trained in that major hub of U.S. modern and experimental arts. Employed part-time at San José State University while working towards her BA, she was also influenced by the milieu at SJSU, which at the time was amassing a growing Asian American studies orientation.
However, the cosmopolitan Bay Area approach to culture left her initially skeptical when it came to mixing ethnic dance traditions with Western forms. Seeing so many “cultural fusions” of the era that seemed superficial, she consciously kept her two passions separate.
“People were trying desperately to find their place in the world and looked to traditional art forms from their ancestry. I saw so many really bad and horrible cultural mixing at that time that I consciously kept my worlds separate for years (or so I thought); I did not tell modern dance friends about my Okinawan performances and the Okinawan community rarely saw my modern stuff,” she said.
One day, though, a Latinx colleague at SJSU asked her, “Yukie, what’s your ballet?” Her initial response was that her ballet was the same 18th-century French court-dance form which everyone needs to take to keep their bodies staying strong, maintain their balance, and so on.
Only later did she realize what her friend really meant to ask was, “What is the ballet of your ethnicity, your culture?” This question opened her up; “It was an ‘aha’ moment that turned me around,” Shiroma realized.
Much later, she began to comprehend that her “ballet” was actually Okinawan dance. Her mother and father, on both sides, were Uchinanchu. As a young adult, she herself also went to Okinawa at one point in her life to “find my roots.”
Big Band, Ballroom Dancing and a Sad, Sanshin-Playing Grandpa
As a Hawai‘i Okinawan, Shiroma had been raised in a fairly Americanized, if music-and-dance-centered, household. Her parents Beatrice Yoshiko Shiroma (now age 98) and Thomas Isamu Shiroma (now deceased), fans of commercial U.S. pop culture, met at the Mormon church on South Beretania Street during a “dance social.” At the time, they, like other youngsters of their generation, were showing off their popular dance techniques everywhere on island.
The two Okinawan Americans started dating, got serious and wanted to introduce each other to their families — only to find out that most of their issei parents, coincidentally, had come from Kitanagusuku (except one from Shuri). Needless to say, the new couple’s parents were thrilled.
“My parents were more into big band, swing music, ballroom dancing and Hawaiian music,” she notes. But, growing up in Hawai‘i, Shiroma got exposed to local cultural dances, such as hula, the first form she had learned. Her cousins practiced Okinawan dance, which she and her family would watch at parties.
Perhaps more impactful than these different dances, however, were Shiroma’s childhood memories of her Uchinanchu grandfather. Her mother’s dad would often sit at his window of their Pacific Heights home and play sanshin, a little jigger of awamori or sake by his side. He played it looking sad, sometimes crying. Shiroma’s mother would say, “Don’t bother grandpa; he is thinking of Okinawa.” Today, the dancer believes, “Maybe it was nostalgia or maybe the immigrant experience that made him sad. I never found out.”
Shiroma took hula lessons at 5 years of age, then later, following her parents’ passion for Western music and dance, learned ballet at the Richards Street YWCA. She would later pick up on these childhood sessions in San Francisco, where she professionally studied ballet, jazz and tap, eventually evolving into a working modern dancer (“I did not like being on my toes,” she jokes, referring to classical ballet as a path not taken).
During her SF stint, Shiroma helped found San Francisco’s Asian American Dance Collective, now called Asian American Dance Performances. In the 1960s-70s, according to the progressive dancer, there were few Asian Americans in ballet or modern companies in the United States — no role models.
“Asian Americans were not often exposed to dance and did not know they had the potential to dance professionally,” she criticizes. In time, she even visited Okinawa, but returned to the Bay Area and her job in community mental health.
One day an auntie, employed at the UHM Hamilton Library, informed her about the Japan Studies Summer Institute at Mänoa. This special workshop series would focus on the Okinawan performing arts; the university was to bring over several sensei in classical dance/music from Okinawa!
The life-changing institute would be held daily over 10 weeks in Room 116 of the university’s Music Building — the same place where she actually teaches now, “in the wonderful circle of life,” she marvels. So Shiroma temporarily traveled back to Hawai‘i in summer 1976 to spend a few months learning Okinawan dance and music.
Powerful Performance Lessons from Diverse Mentors
Over the next decade, the young modern dancer would refocus her dance studies back in Hawai‘i, where a host of mentors — from both East and West performance traditions — formed a crucible in which Shiroma would forge her own unique artistic approach to dance and stagecraft.
Significantly, when she returned to the UHM institute each summer from 1976-80, she met fellow sansei Uchinanchu who would eventually become key local teachers or practitioners of traditional Okinawan dance or udui, including Earl Nakasone sensei and James Hanashiro. Most important, she met her future mentor, Cheryl Yoshie Nakasone-Sensei, for whom she would later re-locate to the islands for good.
At the institute, these sansei dancers all learned from the great udui master Ryosho Kin. For the first time, Shiroma acquired a broader view of dance, especially in its relationship to music and other art forms.
In many non-Western traditional arts, the forms are not kept separate — a dancer may also be a musician or a visual artist. “As a dancer, I [initially] did not feel the need to study violin when learning ballet or alto sax when doing jazz. But shortly after I started studying with Cheryl-Sensei, I realized that I had to learn to play the sanshin.”
Soon, Shiroma started to take music lessons from Seisho Nakasone-Sensei (though she says she was not a good student!). Today, she learns sanshin from Norman Kaneshiro and language from Brandon Ing. “When you teach a cultural art form, you cannot teach it in isolation from other art forms; you must also study the history, language, and religion among other things. It’s all about the people, because people produce the art,” she analyzes.
The most powerful, if surprising, lesson: the Uchinanchu artistic wisdom, which she had gleaned from Ryosho Kin-Sensei, held strong parallels with the foundations of contemporary Western dance!
“What he taught was … a recognition of the importance of your ‘koshi,’ the center of your body and initiator of all movement, which is similar to the solar plexus for Martha Graham, innovator of modern dance. It is the ‘chi’ or the ‘ki’ in martial arts. The center. The core.
“Kin-Sensei was adamant about that: nothing moves but for the koshi; you start from that. There was a connection with centeredness, with balance. I came to realize that the koshi is not a physical thing but an awareness of being in the moment. What attracted me to Kin-Sensei’s teaching was not only learning an art form from my ancestry, but the unexpected connections he made to my training in modern dance.”
Moved by this realization, Shiroma decided to relocate back to Hawai‘i. From 1980 on, she became an island girl once more, extending her studies with Cheryl Nakasone-Sensei for the long run, as she had trained under this teacher during the institute over four summers.
Once back in Honolulu, Shiroma also began studying under the woman who would become her mentor in modern dance, Betty Jones. Jones taught classes in the José Limón technique at the Silent Dance Center behind Mo‘ili‘ili Community Center for over 30 years, before retiring in 2018.
Jones and her husband Fritz Ludin directed the DancesWeDance Company. Shiroma values the time the couple had shared to teach her. From them, she “learned about the power of dance to tell stories, to express joy, tragedy and grief. To do that well, one must give fully to the movement and dance with an inner clarity and strength (like koshi!).” She felt that going to Betty’s class was “like going to church!”
Finding an Artistic Language by Posing Questions
After a few years of living again on O‘ahu, Shiroma began taking as many UHM graduate classes in the performing arts as she could. After all, on the mainland, she had never received formal education in her own craft. She yearned to know, “What is music for dancers; what is dance history?”
At Mänoa, she found the person who would become her first major creative partner in Hawai‘i: Ben Moffat, a theatre graduate student whom she met at the university while working towards her dance MFA. Moffat impressed her with his huge collection of masks; the two performers wound up playing for hours, trying them out. Shiroma was drawn to masks initially, because she thought they were a great way of hiding oneself: “If you put on a mask, you can become anything.”
The two earned their masters degrees and graduated on to the creative-performance instruction circuit — Shiroma teaching at Mid-Pacific Institute and Moffatt at Windward Community College. Even as they solidified separate professional lives, they together conjured up a surrealistic combination of mask work, puppetry and silent movement: the Monkey Waterfall Dance Theatre Company. Monkey Waterfall, which soon also included visual artist (and Yukie’s husband) Michael Harada, eventually launched a world tour from 1998-99, performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Malaysia, Singapore and Canada.
After Monkey Waterfall’s first big performance in San Francisco’s Theater Artaud in 1991 — where the company debuted a weekend of shows — an Okinawan dance teacher from the Bay Area came up to Shiroma, praising “How Okinawan the performance was!” She saw it as similar to the Okinawan 18th-century dance-theatre form, “kumi wudui,” in terms of Monkey Waterfall’s approach to song and dance.
At the time, Shiroma felt, No, I have kept these forms separate, but the sensei said, “No, it is there.” Shiroma then realized that the Okinawan and modern had finally blended unconsciously. As that Okinawan dance sensei said, “It [Okinawan culture] is there!”
Shiroma returned to the islands after that S.F. premiere, “a little stunned, for months asking myself, ‘How can that be — I have kept them in separate suitcases for so long!’” She consulted her UH mentor, Professor Judy Van Zile, who directed the Summer Institute back in 1976. Shiroma recalls, “Judy encouraged me to acknowledge these two sides of my life and to allow the connections to happen naturally. After all these years, I guess they are now coming together, slowly and surely.”
In terms of local approaches to Okinawan dance tradition, Shiroma feels that, “In Hawai‘i, there is a strong focus on preservation in our immigrant communities — schools of music and dance here perpetuate the tradition of our ancestors in incredible ways.
“I don’t sense as much interest in artists experimenting with different traditional forms, though,” she asserts. While Shiroma herself has felt responsible, as a cultural practitioner, for retaining artistic traditions “passed down from our ancestors in as pure a form as I was taught … (A)s an artist, I needed to find other vocabulary to respond to this ever-changing world.” For her, modern dance and masks are that other language.
This vocabulary now allows her to communicate issues to audiences through using her art: “I have always felt that artists in their own ways are the ‘first responders’ to our changing environments, our catastrophes. The ways these responses are expressed are through our art.”
“First-responding art” became the mission of Monkey Waterfall, which tries “to uncover in a non-linear, often humorous way, topics of concern to our contemporary existence.”
In its three decades, the theater she built with Moffat and Harada has posed its share of questions to audiences, playfully, intriguingly. For example, their company created many shows at The ARTS at Marks Garage beginning with 2001’s “Monkey on My Back,” about everyday addictions and obsessions as ways people order the world. In 2010, with theatre professor/director Paul Cravath and his Leeward Community College students, Monkey Waterfall offered a series of shows exploring the theme of “Celebrity” by inquiring, What is the role of media, what is a celebrity, what does it mean to be famous? What did Andy Warhol mean by “15 minutes of fame”?
Finally, “Shrines to Paradise,” performed in the lobby of Honolulu Hale in 2007, was funded by grants from the Mayor’s Office of Culture and the Arts and the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. The show examined how the promotion of Hawai‘i has long been skewed to the “paradise” image, exploiting “exotic” stereotypes of the islands.
Among that show’s many creative techniques and scenes, company member Annie Lokomaika‘i Lipscomb delivered Queen Lili‘uokalani’s famous speech when she surrendered her throne under protest, to help prevent further violence against her subjects. Shiroma found this act reminiscentof that of the last king of the Ryükyü Kingdom, King Sho Tai, who is credited with saying the Okinawan expression, “Nuchi nu takara” (“Life is precious”), to avert further killing of his people; soon after, he was taken by Japan as a hostage in Edo, where he lived out his life.
Creating One’s Imaginary Homeland
At this point in her life, its last third, Yukie Shiroma continues to move forward with boldness and integrity. Her current project is a multi-media, cross-cultural one: pairing her dance and stage craft with the musical skills of fellow performers Kenny Endo (taiko) and Norman Kaneshiro (sanshin) in a show called “Imaginary Homelands,” to be presented on the Leeward Theatre stage in January 2021 — hopefully live, but probably virtually.
The project is inspired by the titular essay from “Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1992,” written by British-Indian author Salman Rushdie. In his “Imaginary Homelands” piece, according to Shiroma, Rushdie says that we are all immigrants from the past, as he questions the accuracy of viewing one’s homeland from a distance. For Rushdie, she believes, the act of remembering is often more about memory than about creating what was actually there.
Shiroma was moved by the piece: “His [Rushdie’s] words spoke to me — Kenny, Norman and I look back to our homelands for inspiration, but as creative artists we also feel the need to respond to Hawai‘i in the 21st century. We are all migrants, now celebrating 120 years of Okinawan migration. Can we honor the past and acknowledge the present at the same time?”
This “present” includes a world both divisive and nationalistic, but “if Japanese taiko and Okinawan sanshin and Okinawan dance and modern dance can say something together, maybe anything is possible!” she muses.
As our interview ends, Shiroma sums up her orientation to art, encapsulated in a recent quote by Ocean Vuong, the young Vietnamese novelist. Vuong describes his own approach to storytelling, but this might as well be a motto of the Okinawan modern dancer, as well: “…(F)ounded on truth, but realized by the imagination.”