"Tutu Funny; A Foreign Ballet Student in Japan"
By Susan Hirakawa [3 November 1999]

I should have known from the first lesson that I got more than I had classbargained for in joining a Ballet class here in Japan. It was not so much what I got but what I ended up giving to the rest of the class. The sparkle in the madam's eyes on that first day held the hint of her delight to find a living, foreign-body specimen for showing those endless anatomical differences between the gaijin body and the oriental. Here are some of the valuable lessons I have been privileged to provide in the flesh:

1) While our legs may be long, they cannot compare in strength. This lesson inevitably follows after a dismal effort on my part to raise my leg higher than my hip while supporting all my weight on the ball of one foot. And it is usually accompanied with a graphic display of the traditional toilet squat position that sensei insists is the secret to her countrywomen's strong thighs, never mind that it is the rare modern urbanite who can still maintain that pose long enough to finish the job.

2) While our shoulders are wide, the lower back fails to hold up under the stress of point shoes where body alignment is crucial, or, as in my case, excruciating, without the all important tushie tuck.. On the other hand, she points out, foreigners are spared the infamous Japanese curse of kata-kori (stiff shoulders), thanks, in her opinion, to the Western use of high tables, sofas and chairs, which by the way, also gives us our longer legs and straighter spine. Eating her words (and my cooking) would not be punishment enough if she saw the low counters I've had to cook and eat on here in Japan. I must be getting used to them; now the throbbing starts as soon as I begin even thinking of what to cook for dinner.

3) Speaking of food, according to my sensei, foreigners diet gives us an advantage in muscle shape too. I was pleased to find out that this round butt of mine is thanks to a high protein diet which has infiltrated my ancestors DNA and forced generations of my family to buy only elastic waisted clothing. It always helps to know "why", doesn't it? Thinking about it now, I must admit that since hearing this last tidbit, the main dishes at our house have taken a suspicious turn towards the vegetarian.

4) Westerners are better at expressing themselves through dance. Sensei attributes this to the larger western ego, said, coincidentally, during one of the first classes I took before I knew the impoliteness of not hesitating when told to assemble for the center exercises. Taking the lead in obedience and thoughtfulness, I ran quickly to the front of the room in true NYC ballet class "survival of the quickest" tradition. Hey, a spot in front of the mirror under the critical eyes of the teacher can easily translate into an extra 300 calorie loss. Meanwhile, those skinny wallflowers behind me were holding up the class by feigning shyness and manners and waiting for the teacher to choose where they should be so grateful to stand. Aesthetically dictated by my superior height, she chose that I should be in the back.

It isn't so much the constant comparisons that I mind. It's the tangent, head-nodding "hmm's" from the other dancers, most of whom are living, breathing, exceptions to every rule imaginable that might give westerners' bodies the slightest advantage over Japanese ones. I should be so lucky as to have one-tenth of the DNA responsible for their beautiful bodies. The biggest difference between them and me is really only hard work, with a bit of youth and vitality on their side, plus maybe a greater tolerance to authority. Now, after five years, I have learned to smile and nod in agreement with the rest of my classmates, and the comments are coming less and less since I'm not such a new face (that is: body) anymore. Sensei is less interested now that I have failed her by producing three boys when she had hoped from me the ultimate Svengali project, that of shaping a mixed Japanese and American ballerina of her own, giving a big sigh and saying "zannen"(what a shame) whenever our gang happens to meet her around the neighborhood. Why do I put up with the abuse? Call me a masochist, but each time I see my elderly sensei's straight back and beautiful legs moving and jumping in ways I can only hope to someday, I can't help but to keep going back to her for more.

Susan Hirakawa, an American mother of 3 boys enrolled in Japanese schools and a graduate student at Sophia, has lived in Japan for 12 years.

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