World Arts West
SF Ethnic Dance Festival


Azama Honryu Seifu Ichisen Kai USA Kinuko Mototake Okinawan Dance Academy

ARTISTIC DIRECTOR: Master Kinuko Mototake
First appearance in SF EDF: 2014

Azama Honryu Seifu Ichisenkai USA Kinuko Mototake Okinawan Dance Academy was formed in the Bay Area in 1996 with the goal of keeping  Okinawan traditional arts alive and to pass them down to younger generations in the US. Kinuko Mototake offers classes to introduce the unique cultural aspects of Okinawa through dance, costumes, and music.


GENRE: Traditional
TITLE: Kui Nu Hana; Iwai Bushi
DANCERS: Mieko Merrill, Master Kinuko Mototake

Photo by Mark Muntean

In this meditative performance of traditional Okinawan dance, the dynamics of the songs are of special importance: a song with a relaxed pace is followed by a faster song. To begin, Kui nu Hana—Flowers of Love—expresses the somber, sweet agony of lovers separated by distance. The lyrics reveal more:

It is snowing in the garden and the plum flowers
are in bloom. / My sweet lady’s warm heart
is as gentle as the tropical summer breeze. /
In my garden there are no plum blossoms, so
why do I hear the cry of the nightingale night
after night? / It is not the nightingale at all. It is
my Prince, whose sweet melody and alluring
song calls to me, drawing me into my garden to
embrace the love of my dreams.

The second song, Iwai Bushi—Song of Celebration—conveys a couple’s happiness when they are reunited where springtime flowers bloom:

In the valley of Nakazato, flowers bloom
beautifully throughout the land. I’d like to share
the blossoms with you.

The piece showcases Okinawa’s traditional aesthetic sensibility, developed during the Ryukyu era, 15th to 19th century. The island-kingdom had exceptional shipbuilding and maritime skills: and it used them to command prosperous trade routes in the China Sea—between China, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Over time, in the aristocratic Ryukyuan court, the ritualized gesture and song of Okinawan prayer blossomed into a stylized performance of inner thought and emotion. Centuries of trade brought new inventions and art forms to Okinawa. For example, the musical instruments for this piece are the 3-stringed sanshin, like the Japanese shamisen, and the taiko drum. The song Kui nu Hana is no doubt a cultural appropriation from Japan as snow never falls, and plum blossoms are not very common in the subtropical Ryukyus. The musical scale is similar to a Japanese scale, with parallels elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The dance techniques and gestures are also of Japanese origin.

The bingata style kimono is stenciled with flowers, birds, waves, and clouds: as the dancers changes pace, bright designs intensify or calm the mood.


TITLE: Yotsudake
GENRE: Classical
DIRECTOR: Kinuko Mototake
DANCERS: Satomi Isobe, Keara McNiel, Mieko Merrill, Kinuko Mototake

Sound them loudly,
sound the Yotsudake castanets.

This day in the banquet hall,
oh what joyous merriment!


This joyful song in the Okinawan dialect accompanies Yotsudake, the elegant dance of Okinawa. In striking headdresses of lotus petals and ocean waves and lavishly illustrated bingata kimonos, four dancers express resilience and connectedness, and their disciplined concentration brings inner happiness and quiet joy.

The dance’s history begins in the 14th century, when small domains on the (pre-Japanese) island of Okinawa merged into kingdoms. The Ryukyuan King invited the Ming Chinese to help him manage oceanic trade. So the Chinese sent six families, and their descendants helped the Ryukyuans, providing ships and rare access to Ming ports and regional trade. For nearly two centuries, Okinawan ships carried a marvelous wealth throughout Southeast Asia, a wealth of Japanese silver and artwork; Chinese herbs, coins, ceramics, and brocades; Southeast Asian rhino horn, sugar, and iron; Indian ivory; and Arabian frankincense.

In return, the Ryukyuan paid tributes. They also adopted the Chinese court system, and built castles and harbors. As their culture flourished, one result was this beautiful dance. Okinawan noblemen welcomed Chinese envoys with Yotsudake, often with fifty performers swaying like flowers in the ocean breeze. In the 1600s, Kyushu Shoguns conquered Ryukyu and Yotsudake dancers abandoned court life. The dance was sustained as city entertainment and today it is danced at happy events in both a classical and casual form.

Yotsudake means Four Bamboo, referring to pairs of tasseled bamboo castanets. Dancers mark the main beat with these instruments, one pair in each hand, and playing takes considerable skill. Musicians pluck a three-stringed sanshin banjo, an instrument originally made with a stretched Burmese python skin. The costumes are traditional design, and of particular note is the makeup, developed when dancers were only male. Its application takes hours, with layers of oily paste and white foundation, blended red highlights, and painted-on stylized eyebrows and lips.

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