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Mauians take bon dance online

With Obon festivals canceled this year, two lead from home

Maui residents Jonah Valois-Nishimura (left) and Shannon Loo knew they were going to miss the summertime obon dances, so they began holding an online dance session beginning in April. — Photo courtesy of Shannon Loo 

To fill the void of a summer without bon dances due to COVID-19, two Maui enthusiasts began their own virtual bon dance back in April.

“We didn’t expect the turnout to be as great as it was,” Shannon Loo said Tuesday.

Loo and Jonah Valois-Nishimura have attracted as many as 600 participants at a time, not only from Maui and around the state but from the Mainland, Japan and Singapore. Their virtual model has been used as a template for online bon dances on Oahu and the Mainland.

Their next virtual bon dance, which will be livestreamed via Facebook, is July 3. The normal start time for the Friday dances is around 7 p.m. Newcomers are welcome.

Buddhist or not, attending a bon dance during the summer is a tradition for locals. The obon festival and accompanymg religious ceremonies are held during the summertime to honor the passing of relatives and in folk tradition to welcome back the spirits of deceased loved ones. On Maui, obon is held at Buddhist temples and features dancers, ranging from experienced ones like Loo to newcomers like children and malihini, moving in circles around the yagura, or bandstand for musicians and taiko drummers.

As members of the Maui Minyo Kai, a Japanese dance group, Loo and Valois-Nishimura would normally dance in the inner ring during the festivals and serve as examples for other dancers to emulate.

Members of the dance group are typically busy all summer through mid-September with dances every weekend at various temples.

“We knew we were going to miss it,” said Loo, a Makawao resident.

He added that while the two did the virtual bon dance on their own, they did get praise from their sensei Ken Tasaka, as Maui Minyo Kai strives to perpetuate the Japanese culture through traditional Japanese dance.

“I always am so grateful when people are coming on,” Loo said of the virtual dances, adding that he doesn’t know 95 percent of those who tune in.

“We have been able to give all these people some normalcy,” he added. “We would normally be doing this (anyway). I know right now it’s a weird time for people. As long as we could have this normalcy, for the summer, even if it’s in their house, we are happy to do that. It’s what we love to do.”

During the virtual dances, Loo said he always starts off with “Tanko Bushi,” one of the more popular and easier dances. It represents work in the coal mines and mimics digging coal, wiping sweat and pushing carts.

He ends the nearly one-hour dance session with a fun song that’s more modern and upbeat. Some temples on Maui also end their in-person bon dance nights with fun songs that can include the Japanese version of “Beautiful Sunday.”

Loo said they wouldn’t normally portray the dance the way they do online — dancing “flat” with their faces to the camera most of the time — as dancers would normally look to the right or left at the inner circle of teachers during regular festivals.

Loo and Valois-Nishimura, who lives in Waiehu, and sometimes others from their dance group show up on the Facebook live feed to direct dancers as traditional bon dance music is played. They dance at Loo’s business in Wailuku, which is decorated with lanterns and red and white material to mimic the colors and to provide an obon ambiance.

Loo is the owner of Mise Kimono, which uses Japanese imported fabric to make Japanese-inspired items, such as clutches and bags. He also repurposes old obi, or the broad sash worn around the waist of someone wearing a kimono.

As more businesses reopen and stay-at-home orders ease up, Loo said there has been some drop off in online attendance.

But he knows there are people who want to dance, especially now, in what would be the thick of the bon dance season.

He said they would “keep going until the end of August.”

To view the virtual bon dance, search for the Japanese Community of Maui page on Facebook, or the Bon Dance Hawaii page.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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