I just love attending and participating in bon dances (bon odori) every summer. In brief, bon dances are a Japanese Buddhist tradition and in Hawaii, take place at a different Buddhist church every weekend from June through early August. There are just enough churches on Kauai so that there is one bon dance going on twice each weekend (Friday and Saturday nights) for ten weekends, so a true bon-addict can attend them all if so inclined. I'm pretty sure there are people who attend 20 each summer because it seems that every time I go to a bon dance I see the same people. Either that or they're thinking the same thing: "That lady must go to EVERY bon dance because I see her at every one I go to!" *LOL* Actually, we attend maybe 10 nights per summer.
I can't think of anything like a bon dance, although I'm sure there must be similar traditions in other cultures that provide a comparable experience. The beauty of the bon dance tradition in Hawaii is not limited to the beauty of the tradition itself: dancers in colorful garb happily dancing around a wooden tower on a balmy moonlit night, paper lanterns swaying--ok let's not think of the occasional termite swarm. The beauty is also in the sharing and integration you're guaranteed to experience.
First of all, you'll notice that the dancers are not just Japanese. Bon dance has evolved into a Hawaiian tradition and consequently you'll see people of all ethnic backgrounds participating. Many of the non-Japanese know the dance routines well, but newbies are also welcomed to join in. No one needs to feel self-conscious. On Kauai, there's this one Japanese guy who dances like he's at a disco, never attempting to learn the routines and rarely even dancing with the flow of the circle. Ok, no one doubts he is probably mentally ill, but he is not ridiculed or asked to leave. Of course when I see him nearby it throws off my concentration and makes me miss a step or two, but it gives me a chuckle.
Another beauty of bon dance is that all ages are represented in the ring. Adorable toddlers decked out in teeny tiny yukatas follow their moms or dads, stopping occasionally to stare up at the lanterns, at the other dancers, or to watch the drummers. Groups of teens, male and female, jostle each other as they invariably head for the innermost circle (Why is that? My guess is typical of teens, they don't want to be seen too easily so they go to the inside to hide). Grandmas are well-represented, of course, and a few grandpas, too.
My very favorite people to watch at bon dances are the tourists and obvious newbies. I love that they're eager to participate, and it's fun watching them concentrate on imitating the movements of the seasoned dancers. When you look at someone willing to look silly to learn a "foreign" dance, you're looking at a person enthusiastically embracing cultural diversity. That's a beautiful sight.
One of my mottos is "It's all about energy," and at a bon dance, you get a healthy dose of good energy. I swear that the steady beat of the taiko drums is somehow in sync to my "bio" rhythm. You don't have to dance in the ring to get it. Dozens of people are playing carnival type games, buying food at the food booths, or shopping at the church's white elephant sale. Dozens more sit around the ring watching the dancers, "talking story" with friends, and enjoying the favorite bon dance fare: teriyaki meat on sticks, flying saucers (round toasted bread filled with sloppy joe style beef), shaved ice, andagi (doughnut balls), and saimin noodles. I said you get a "healthy dose of good energy", not a "good dose of healthy food." I tell myself the healthy energy makes up for the not-so-healthy food.
So if you get a chance to visit a bon dance, take your camera, a few dollars, your folding chair, and your smile. You'll be using them all and loving it.