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Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2006

Kick up your heels and get dancing -- everybody else is

Special to The Japan Times

Dance has been a means of celebration, entertainment, self-expression and ritual thoughout human history. From Native American rain dances to honky-tonk line dancing or sexy and sensuous strip shows, everyone has a reason for getting their groove on. Dance can be artistic, moving and powerful or suggestive and seductive. It can be a way of making friends, getting fit, or just having some good, old-fashioned fun.

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Dance is undergoing something of a boom in Japan as people realize that the many styles they can learn also serve as a more social way of keeping fit than simply going along to the gym. THOMASINA LARKIN (above) HIROKI ENDO PHOTOS
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Dance has strong roots in Japanese culture, and plays an integral role in such art forms as kabuki and noh and in Bon odori and other traditional festivals. Dance forms from abroad, too, have always had their fans here, with blockbuster movies, such as "Saturday Night Fever," "Flashdance" and Japan's own 1996 ballroom dancing flick "Shall We Dance?," often sparking crazes for particular dance styles.

These days, however, something of a broad "dansu boom" appears to be occuring, with interest growing in a wide range of dance forms, students flocking to workshops and new academies, and a thick glossy magazine called DDD (Dance Dance Dance) promoting dance as a "fashion lifestyle." One reason for the trend, according to Kohei Takeuchi from Chacott Co., Ltd., an international school specializing in ballet, is that sharpening your shimmy is a great way to get in shape while also having a great time.

"Formerly, exercise was thought of as a hard thing to do. But every part of dance is fun and enjoyable, which is very different from other sports training. Also, dance includes elements of music, fashion, style and beautiful poses," says Takeuchi. "For many, taking ballet lessons makes it easier to reach the form of art they see in TV dramas, commercials and other media. Anyone can try to make their childhood dream come true. Even someone with a physical handicap, as long as they can just move one hand gracefully, can still feel the heart of ballet and can reach the artistic world."

Kazumi Watanabe, who has taught tap dance in Tokyo for 15 years, points to the fact that dance has a power that is simply infectious.

"After people see a tap performance they almost always want to join a class," he says, noting that the fancy footwork of SMAP's Tsuyoshi Kusanagi in the movie "Hotel Venus" and the spectacular dance sequence at the end of Kitano Takeshi's samurai flick "Zatoichi" have been recent sources of inspiration for Japanese would-be tap dancers.

Tap and ballet are well-known forms of dance, but the latest craze to hit Japan is for a style that is a little more out of the ordinary -- pole dancing. Reiko Suemune, who has been teaching in Tokyo for a year since winning the title of Miss Pole Dance 2005 World Champion, has attracted some 600 students, about 70 of whom are regulars, with business partner and friend Atsumi Takakura.

"If you pole dance, you can be famous just by saying 'I pole dance!' " says Suemune. "We were the first people to do it in Japan. Japanese still have an image of pole being dirty dancing. We want to introduce it as fun and sexy."

Interest in this form of dancing really took off earlier this year, she explains. "Before January there were many rumors the police would shut down any place with a pole because they thought people were working there illegally," says Suemune. "But the image is changing and nightclubs Luxe, Alife and Ageha installed poles about four months ago. Before that the only place to do it was in a gentlemen's club, but in our kind of pole dance we never take off our clothes. You don't need to do that."

Beginners start learning basic turns and how to stretch with the pole. The next step is learning how to turn upside down. After that it's just a matter of becoming more acrobatic, which means pumping up the arm muscles (Suemune's are larger than your average man's), and getting used to the centrifugal force.

Dance is certainly a great way to improve physical fitness, but it can also offer more subtle spiritual and mental benefits.

"Through dance, we learn to accept ourselves," says Shala, a belly-dance teacher in Tokyo who says belly dancing is one of the best ways for women to move both their soles and their souls. "If we accept ourselves, we dance beautifully and then we shine. Physically and mentally we'll be happy and will feel more passion for life and people.

"The movement is from deep inside the heart and the stomach and is very feminine. It's a dance for women to feel like women, feel each other and become friends," she adds. "After working in the office and walking in the street, belly dance can make real a dream or fantasy."

Dance clearly has a lot to offer -- so what's stopping you from getting your dancing shoes on? For those who are feeling footloose and fancy free, but aren't sure which form of dance would suit them best, here's a quick introduction to some of the most popular styles:


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Muscles worked: Legs especially. But you can get away with minimal exertion.

Other benefits: Improves posture and lightly tones the entire body. Great way to make friends and smooth your moves before hitting the salsa clubs.

Music: Caribbean and Latin styles often mixed with pop, R & B, jazz and rock.

Price: At Tropical NY in Tokyo, Taito-ku, Negishi 5-14-17; tel: (090) 9975-0135; www.danceschool.jp/studiomap.html ; 10,000 yen a month for beginners, 16,000 yen a month for preintermediate, 24,000 yen a month for intermediate classes, 2,500 yen for 50 minutes.

Celebrities who do it too: Paul Newman and Ricky Martin lead the salsa pack.


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Muscles worked: Upper body, legs, butt . . . well, if you've ever been to the ballet, you'll know that there's not a millimeter of fat anywhere on a ballerina's body.

Other benefits: Centers and balances the body. Good for posture. Fosters grace and classical beauty. Appeals to those wishing to realize a childhood fantasy.

Music: Usually orchestral.

Price: At Chacott in Tokyo, Shibuya-ku, Jinnan 1-20-8; tel: (03) 3476-1311; www.chacott-jp.com ; 2,200 yen a class, or 10 tickets usable over three months for 20,000 yen.

Celebrities who do it too: Sharing a name with an NHL defenseman and the 2004 World Chess Champion, Ukrainian Vladimir Malakhov is a "true prince" in the world of ballet.

Belly dance

Muscles worked: Stomach, arms and torso.

Other benefits: Tends to improve body image. Fosters sisterhood. Satisfies a taste for the exotic without unwanted attention.

Music: Middle Eastern, Arabic, Turkish, Egyptian, Lebanese and Sephardic.

Price: At Yoga Studio Tokyo & Expressive Art Studio in Shibuya-ku, Shibuya 2-22-14; fax: (03) 3381-6089; www.yogastudiotokyo.com/20e-schedule-fee.html ; 3,000 yen drop-in fee; 13,000 yen for five tickets; 30,000 yen for 12 tickets (usable within three months).

Celebrities who do it too: Shakira, Britney Spears and Madonna are probably the hottest babes bringing belly to the spotlight.


Muscles worked: Biceps and triceps.

Other benefits: Find your sensual inner self.

Music: Any kind of music is fine, but world champ Reiko Suemune suggests house, hip hop, R & B, rock or traditional Asian music for sexier moves.

Price: Various locations in Roppongi and Shinjuku; poledance.jugem.jp ; Saturday classes 4,000 yen an hour, weekday classes 6,000 yen.

Celebrities who do it too: The sexy cast of "Showgirls," the sensuous Jessica Alba in "Sin City," Natalie Portman in "Closer" and Madonna at the Grammys and on her Confessions tour (coming to Osaka Sept. 16 and Tokyo Sept. 20).


Muscles worked: Calves, thighs, bum and back mainly, but also the stomach.

Other benefits: Improves concentration, energy, creativity, rhythm, coordination and focus. Sheer style.

Music: Just about anything from piano melodies to jazz to hip hop.

Price: At Pensacola Live Tap Bar, 1-10 Kagurazaka, Sankyo Dai 22 Building, 6F, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; tel: (03) 5261-5254; www.rockbar-pensacola.com ; 1,500-2,500 yen yen for 60 to 90 minutes.

Celebrities who do it too: Takeshi Kitano, SMAP's Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, Sandman Williams and Savion Glover.

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