For years, the Japanese folk dances at the heart of Olympia’s Bon Odori festival have been led mostly by dancers from out of town.
The festival, set for Saturday, is a secular version of the traditional Japanese festival focused on dances that celebrate the activities of daily life. It ends with an illuminated ceremony focusing on peace and honoring ancestors.
This year, a group of Olympia dancers, many of them Japanese Americans, will take on leadership roles — and the connection was made through the dance of Latin America.
“I was in Zumba class, and I had this revelation: ‘Hey, here are all these Japanese women who can dance. Let me recruit them,’” event organizer Reiko Callner said.
Zumba is a popular fitness class that blends Latin American music and dance with aerobics.
Part of Callner’s fitness routine is attending Zumba classes taught by Megumi Chiba “Meg” McKinney, who will be among the kimono-clad dancers leading the dances Saturday night. Also participating are local Zumba teachers Hiromi Sorrell, Regina Tiemi Yoshihara McAllister, and Diana Yu, plus several Zumba students.
“Meg is just such an exceptionally good teacher,” Callner said. “There is a community of Japanese-born women here; a lot of them are married to servicemen. They find community in their dance connection.”
McKinney of Lacey, who had participated in Bon Odori ceremonies in Japan and attended the Olympia festival last year, said she is rediscovering her connection to Japan through learning to lead the Bon Odori dances.
“I have been here in the United States for four years,” she said. “I almost forgot I was Japanese. I discover myself more as Japanese through Bon Odori.”
Zumba has a quite different rhythm and attitude than the traditional Japanese folk dancing. “The Bon Odori dancing is more subtle,” she said. “Zumba is more expressive and high-energy.”
Both, however, connect McKinney not only to other immigrants from Japan but also to the larger community.
“Dance is fun,” she said. “It’s a good connection to other people without language — without talking.”
When she recruited her fellow Zumba dancers to join in with Bon Odori, Callner became the teacher for a while.
She’s excited to have more local dancers in leadership roles. While she and some other Olympia residents have long danced in the center of the group, many of the leading dancers have been members of Tacoma’s Toryo Kai, a Japanese dance troupe, and dancers from the Tacoma Buddhist Temple.
“We’ve never had an adequate number of local people,” Callner said. “We have relied — and, I feel, imposed — on the generosity of the people coming down from Tacoma. It’s quite a lot of driving.”
Another new feature of the festival this year is a modified version of the traditional illuminated ceremony that offers participants the opportunity to honor their ancestors and wish for peace. The ceremony has involved floating lanterns on Capitol Lake, but the lake’s closure because of mud snails prevents that.
This year, the ceremony will happen on land, with participants carrying illuminated Japanese lanterns adorned with wishes for peace and memories of deceased loved ones.
“I’ve enjoyed the luminary procession that takes place the night before Procession of the Species,” Callner said “I had this brainstorm that we could take brightly colored paper lanterns and illuminate them, and we’ll make a festive ceremony of it.
“It will be a pretty light show to finish the evening.”