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Tea Leaves

Japan learns to shimmy the pandemic blues away

Social media proves that when the going gets tough, the tough start dancing

Tokyo-based, 27-year-old Kotaro Ide wears a young salaryman’s suit in performance videos, the editing techniques of which he skillfully employs. (Photos courtesy of Kotaro Ide)

As the coronavirus pandemic drags on -- with new, ominous variants of its devastating contagion now emerging -- and the global COVID-19 death count continues to mount, much of the human family is experiencing a sense of collective cabin fever.

Endless lockdowns. Ambiguous "states of emergency." Strict don't-go-outside orders. For the cooped up and the home-corralled, the forced isolation long ago lost any gloss of novelty, prompting the American radio-program host Tanzina Vega to observe in a recent social-media post that a distinction between "pandemic fatigue" and "pandemic burnout" is now coming into focus.

Enter the spirit of Terpsichore, the ancient Greek muse of the dance, with a tip for the restless, for involuntary couch potatoes, and for all those who long ago put away their business clothes and now live full-time in shorts, sweatshirts, and leggings. It's time to get up, roll back the carpet, slip on those long-forgotten cha-cha pumps -- and move.

Lately, Instagram, the social-media platform for shared photos and short videos (its users' "reels," or imported TikTok clips), has offered plenty of evidence showing that, to paraphrase the TV anchorman Howard Beale in Sidney Lumet's 1976 film "Network," the pandemic-weary are mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore. Antsy grandmothers, itchy teens, fidgety toddlers -- suddenly, everyone is dancing.

They're boogying in Boston and cutting a rug in Seoul. But it is a veritable corps de ballet of a shape-shifting, virtual, unwittingly communal kind, spread out across Japan and now becoming known to the world through 30- and 60-second video clips, whose members have caught my attention. There is the young man in a beanie and puffer jacket corkscrewing his body to a languid groove, and another young mod, squeezed into the corner of a plain white room, offering a dramatic interpretation of a yearning Japanese ballad.

Screen shots from Instagram show various dancers from around Japan cutting loose as the pandemic era drags on.

There is the young woman bopping along with her father to "Make You Happy," the Japanese girl group NiziU's big hit from last year, as her dad moves with free-form gusto to the rhythm of his own distant, very different drummer. And there is the jewelry maker whose Instagram feed usually showcases her handcrafted creations -- except, of course, when her living room becomes a stage.

Of special interest are the performances of Kotaro Ide, whose Instagram moniker is "kotaroide," and Narumi Kudo, who goes by "mang0406." Their videos are filled with exuberant energy and goofy charm.

Tokyo-based Ide, 27, became interested in dance when he was in high school. As soon as Instagram introduced its "reels" videomaking function several months ago, Ide started producing his energetic performance clips.

In them, he often appears in a suit, gyrating like a young salaryman liberated from all of the social constraints to which such a costume might allude. He twitches. He spins. He uses the app's features to make his arms appear to fly away from his body and then magically reattach themselves.

He is good at popping, a mainstay of hip-hop dance, in which a performer tenses up and then contracts his muscles to create an effect that is at once jerky and smooth. Ide performs in borrowed classrooms or empty offices and sometimes outdoors. He would like his videos to encourage viewers to engage in some "positive movement" of their own.

Ide and his pal Kudo, who always wears a bright-blue track suit, sometimes appear together. Kudo's style is that of some kind of wildly expressionistic modern dance. Perhaps unbeknownst to this 26-year-old, who recently moved to Hiroshima Prefecture after studying at the Tokyo Dance and Actors School, there are unexpected affinities between her outrageously original style, complete with funny faces and athletic gestures, and the aesthetics of such pioneering postmodern dancer-choreographers as Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown and Pina Bausch.

Now based in Hiroshima Prefecture, Narumi Kudo has developed an original dancing style complete with expressive faces and athletic gestures. (Photos courtesy of Narumi Kudo)

Kudo told me: "Throughout the world, people's spirits have sunk. I'd like people to see my videos and say, 'This really makes me want to live!'" She added, "If someone looks at my videos, and if they bring a smile to someone's face -- that would make me very happy."

And so, on they go, legions of Instagram dancers, as this anxiety-filled moment continues to unfold. They prance, hop, shimmy, sway and jive across the vast, borderless terrain of a world held in the palm of one's hand, each of their mini-spectacles a cri de coeur against natural forces gone unfathomably awry. It is no accident that the soundtrack of many of their videos is "Dynamite," the irresistibly upbeat smash hit by the South Korean boy band BTS ("This is getting heavy; can you hear the bass boom?" the song implores).

In living rooms, offices and city streets, all of these self-styled superstars are up and at it not because they want to, but because they have to -- staring down the plague in a communal, joyous, defiant dance of life.

Edward M. Gomez is a Tokyo-based art historian, arts journalist and critic, specializing in Japan.

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