About Odissi Dance, Jaganaath, Lord Jaganaath
about izanai yosakoi, yosakoi
about akari, akari ueoka

About Odissi

Odissi is one of the traditional Indian dance forms.

It originated in the state of Orissa (or Odisha).

It was performed in the temples as an offering by the Maharis who dedicated their lives to the service of the divine.

After the British took over India, Odissi was prohibited – a restriction that can be likened to the abolishment of the Hawaiian hula. 

The tradition of Odissi was secretly embedded and carried on in Gotipuas, acrobatic boy dancers; and as India regained its independence, great efforts to revive the classical Indian dance forms emerged. Today, Odissi has found new life on stages around the world.
orissa, odisha, google map
Due to this important historical background, when we perform on a stage, we consider it as a ritual in the presence of Jagannath, which means Lord of the Universe.

It allows us a moment to be spectators of the rich tradition and spiritual practice, which elevates our lives toward oneness.

(Photo Right)
Jagannath painted by one of my teachers, Guru Vishnu Tattva Das. This was gifted to me at my Manchapravesha, debut ceremony.

Akari’s Odissi Teachers

Smt. Sarala Dandekar

She has studied and performed classical Indian dance since childhood. She received intensive training in Odissi from Guru Jhelum Paranjape and additional training from the late Kelucharan Mohapatra, in his village in Bubaneswar, Orissa. She is my immediate teacher. She teaches in Makawao, Maui.

Darshan Dance Project
sarala dandekar, darshan dance project

Guru Vishnu Tattva Das

Guru Vishnu Tattva Das is a dedicated artist who has devoted himself to perfecting the art of Odissi. He began his training in dance with Guru Jhelum Paranjape, director of Smitalay Dance Company in Mumbai, India. He then traveled to Orissa for intensive studies with Padmavibhusan Kelucharan Mohapatra at the Odissi Research Center in Bhubaneshwar. He is Sarala’s gurubai, and he is my once-a-year teacher (I take his workshop when he comes to Maui). He teaches in Bay Area, CA.

Odissi Vilas
vishnu tattva das, odissi vilas

Guru Jhelum Paranjape

Dance has been a way of life for her since childhood. For a number of years, she performed in the dance ballets staged by the Rashtra Seva Dal Kalapathak under the direction of noted poet Vasant Bapat and tutelage of Shri Ramesh Purav. Since 1977, she has dedicated herself to the pursuit of Odissi dance. Starting her training with Guru Shankar Behera, she has - since 1980 until his death in 2004 - been training with the doyen of Odissi dance, Padmavibhushan Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. She teaches in Mumbai, India.

jhelum pranjape, smitalay
I did not get to meet Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, so I would not arrogantly call him my teacher; however, my teachers were born out of him, so here, I would like to mention his great name to show respect to the lineage where my teachers have come from.

Padmabhushan Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra
(January 8, 1926 – April 7, 2004)

He was one of the key figures who revived Odissi dance in the 20th century.

I love this quote of his:

“The real dance must convey the feeling of undivided existence, that a spectator can feel that he is not different from the thing observed.”

When I see Odissi dance or hear its music, somehow, my heart quivers with a feeling of homecoming.

Something about it is intriguingly familiar though it is foreign to me in this lifetime. It echoes in the deeper part of me, to the point that my eyes water. It has been this feeling that is always the driving force for me to pursue it.

I believe that everyone experiences a similar phenomenon with his or her own calling. For some, it may be music. For others, it may be botany, architecture, law, mathematics, photography, science, literature, or sculpture.

I am grateful that my life has discovered such a soul-resonating calling, which has been feeding my spirit so fully.
About Odissi Dance, Jaganaath, Lord Jaganaath
about izanai yosakoi, yosakoi
about akari, akari ueoka

About Izanai Yosakoi

Yosakoi (Yo-sah-koi) means, “Good World Has Come.”

It is an annual dance festival originated in my hometown, Kochi, Japan after the Second World War to encourage the town’s spiritual and economic recovery. Yosakoi united people and generated new hope.

Today, 15,000 dancers from all walks of life dance for four consecutive days in the month of August. Each dance group can have up to 150 dancers and can have its own music, choreography, and costume. The whole town becomes a festival venue. I grew up being a part of the festival.
kochi, japan, google map

Akari’s Izanai Yosakoi Teacher

The Late Suga Kunitomo

Suga (Sue-gah) Kunitomo was born and raised in Kochi. She lived up to her name (one of the ancient Japanese gods) as a powerful and purposeful soul.

After leaving Gekidan Shiki (a large theater company in Japan), she returned to Kochi and established the first Suga Jazz Dance Studio in 1983. She introduced jazz dance and aerobics to Kochi and neighboring prefectures; and she contributed to the development of area art scenes. 

At the same time, she actively worked as a choreographer and producer to help grow the Yosakoi festival grow. With her unique charisma, she became a well-known and sought-after choreographer around the nation.

In 2001, she opened the Hokkaido studio.
In 2004, she opened the Izanai Academy in Kagawa.
In 2010, she opened the Niigata studio and Kyusyu studio.
In 2011, she moved the Izanai Academy to Chiba.
In June 2011, she passed away at age 58.
Currently, her sons and her senior instructors are running the studios.

Suga evolved Yosakoi to the next level called Izanai (Ee-zah-nai) Yosakoi. Izanai means “invitation to be awakened.” Her hope was to encourage people to remember who they truly are through dance, and to unite to create a beautiful world for future generations.

The Suga Izanai Yosakoi Ren team has performed all over Japan and the world. Although Suga has passed away, her spirit lives on in her fellow dancers. She was a part-time resident of Maui and dearly loved the island.

Suga Jazz Dance Studio
suga kunitomo, suga jazz dance studio, izanai yosakoi
suga kunitomo, suga jazz dance studio, izanai yosakoi

Photo by Hisui Iwasaki

Suga Episode #1

Suga Kunitomo left her physical body on June 1st, 2011.

I still vividly remember the dream I had on the morning of her passing. In the dream, I was sick with a high fever. Suga called me from Japan to tell me that she was about to get on a plane to come and take care of me. She said, "Akari, I'm coming right now. I’m flying to Maui right now. Don't worry. I'll take care of you!" Despite of my haziness due to the high fever, I could sense excitement in her voice. I smiled at her cute honesty because she was like a little child, finally getting an excuse for her to come to Maui. She and I both knew in the dream that my sickness was nothing serious – just a cold with a fever. She would not have had to come all the way to take care of me, but she jumped at the excuse. In real life, she was longing to return to Maui, but her health condition did not allow it. In the dream, I said to her fondly, “Okay, okay. Thank you for coming all the way. I’ll see you soon.”

Then I woke up to sky-cracking and earth-penetrating thunders. I knew that the dream and thunder occurring simultaneously was a message from her. I knew that she was no longer in this world as a huggable form. I could picture her vigorously yet regally dancing away on the back of a dragon intertwined with the lightening. Then I checked my email. Sure enough, there was an email notifying me that she passed away. Needless to say, I felt deep sadness for not being able to see her anymore. I cried and said to her, “You said you were gonna come and take care of me. Come here for real.” Then I realized that she already did. She did so in the dream before I opened the email to receive the news. Her spirit was there to comfort me. Since then, whenever I get sick, I think of her flying to Maui to take care of me with a big grin on her face.

Suga was the reason why I came to Maui initially. When I was struggling with eating disorders (both anorexia nervosa and bulimia) and social anxiety disorder during my high school years, she suggested that I come to Maui and live at her place for a couple of months. During that stay, I was healed from those disorders. Then I began my life on Maui, and the rest is history.

She had given birth to countless choreographed items and the dancer in me. Her dance studio was where I went almost every night to take lessons during the dark period of my high school years. I went there to find the Akari that was hidden underneath the heavy dark blanket. I would catch a glance of her in the mirrors when I was dancing. She would shy away quickly, but I felt good knowing that she was still there. While I was starving my physical body, dancing was feeding my soul. I would not be here the way I am today if it had not been for Suga. Therefore, it is my strong hope and desire to live up to what she has taught me through dancing.
Click here to listen to the radio interview about Izanai Yosakoi by the Hawaii Pacific Radio on 01-09-2017.
About Odissi Dance, Jaganaath, Lord Jaganaath
about izanai yosakoi, yosakoi
about akari, akari ueoka

About Akari Ueoka

Hello, it is pleasure to meet you.

My name is Akari Ueoka.
I was born and raised in Japan.
At age 18, I came to Maui, Hawaii.
Akari, baby in a basket

Akari in a basket (6 months old).
I guess I have liked being in a basket since then.

I’ve always loved dancing since I was a little child.

I started to dance by joining the local dance festival in my hometown. Then I learned a traditional Japanese sword dance at age nine.

In high school, I joined the rhythmic gymnastics club. From there, my passion for dance grew stronger, and I studied various dance forms, including jazz, modern, ballet, and hip-hop at the Suga Jazz Dance Studio in Kochi.

I also studied Izanai Yosakoi dance under guidance of the late Suga Kunitomo, a well-known choreographer/teacher in Japan. I performed and assisted her in teaching Izanai Yosakoi all over Japan and Hawaii.
Akari, yosakoi

Akari posing at a local dance festival
(almost 8 years old).

In 2001, I moved to Maui, Hawaii.

In 2005, I met Sarala Dandekar on Maui. After falling in love with her performance of Odissi, I began my studies with her.

In 2012, I had my Manchapravesh, a debut ceremony which marks completion of formal training and initiates dancers into a further commitment to the art form.

Although the dance form is technically challenging and requires much patience and practice to improve, my love for this art form has been steadily growing over the years; so much so, that I traveled to India to study with Sarala’s teacher, Guru Jhelum Paranjape in 2013 and 2018.

I am currently taking break from full-time elementary school teaching in order to focus on my Odissi dance training.
Sarala Dandekar, Akari, Teacher and Student

Sarala blessing me before the ceremony.

It is not an exaggeration for me to say that dance has saved, sustained, and become my lifeblood. During some of the darkest hours of my life, dance was always there for me and literally brought me back to my feet. During fifth and sixth grades, I was bullied at school. During my high school years, I struggled with eating disorders and agoraphobia (crowd phobia). How did I cope with them and eventually overcome them? – through dancing. In dancing, I always found my safe haven where I could be me and interact with the world.

More about my academic and professional background is available here.
Odissi Dance and Akari

My first encounter with Odissi dance was when my teacher, Sarala Dandekar performed at an event in 2005. I was mesmerized by her performance. As beautiful as it was, I did not think that I would dare to learn the dance form because it looked very complicated with the eye, torso, and percussive feet movements - not to mention the hand gestures (called Mudrah) that she was doing simultaneously. (Please go to “About Odissi” for more information.)

However, with her welcoming invitation to her class, I thought, “Well, there’s nothing to lose if I try once.” And the rest is history. Its intricacy actually fascinated me. For the first few months, it was like learning a totally new language. My body didn’t know what my brain was trying to signal, so the stubborn part of me wanted to figure it out. But the desire to resolve the curiosity itself would not have kept me on this path for this long.

The fundamental reason why I fell in love with Odissi was due to its strong spiritual background, which resonated with the spiritual seeker in me. It was like attaining English skills has helped me to communicate with people around the world, learning the Odissi dance helped me to communicate with the divine.

I went to India for a month in 2013 and studied Odissi with Sarala’s teacher, Guru Jhelum Paranjape, who is an expert in this art form. This one-month visit did not satisfy my desire to be immersed in the art form, but fueled more.

In India, I was given a chance to perform with Guru Jhelum and her senior students. When I watched her solo piece from the wings of the stage, something profound touched me. It was similar to when I saw Sarala dancing for the first time, but this time, it echoed at a deeper place in my soul. I found myself crying. I had a full make up on my face, especially around my eyes, and I still had one more piece to dance. Despite every attempt to hold back the tears, my eyes welled up. I looked straight down keeping my face parallel to the floor, so that tears would drop straight to the floor. At that moment, I realized how much my soul yarns to study this ancient art form.
Yosakoi Dance and Akari

I would say that my first encounter with Yosakoi dance was when I was in my mother’s womb. My mother felt me actively moving whenever she heard the festival music. Yosakoi dance is an annual dance festival in my hometown, Kochi. (Please read “About Izanai Yosakoi” for more information.) As a child, I remember feeling of joy-filled excitement as soon as I heard the festival music, and I could not keep myself from dancing to the music.

At age 7, my family moved to Tokyo for my father’s job, so I was away from dancing Yosakoi until I moved back to Kochi at age 15. That’s when I met my Yosakoi teacher, the late Suga Kunitomo who was running the Suga Jazz Dance Studio in Kochi at that time. She had trained several high-caliber dance instructors, and I had the blessing of receiving their daily instruction.

Suga was a busy lady. She traveled all over Japan to choreograph for Yosakoi teams and to help people start up new festivals in their cities, towns, or villages. Yosakoi dance was a great tool for communities to bring people together and build positive energy.

Due to her work, her students had opportunities to travel around Japan and perform Yosakoi dance. I remember getting on a charter bus late at night, sleeping on the bus, arriving the next morning, performing during the day, and coming home or departing to the next destination that night. Summer was a busy time. Sometimes, I was away from home for several days in a row.

Additionally, we had a theater where we performed nightly for tourists and also had corporate gigs (performing at high-end hotels where business conventions were held). I remember bringing the whole costume and a make-up kit to school and rushing to a hotel after school, and quickly changing into costumes and putting on make-up. I was a high school student, so schooling was a priority, but I danced as much as I could.

I am very grateful that Suga gave me these opportunities. From her and her senior students, I have learned not only what it means to be professional, but also the pure pleasure of sharing joy through dance.

Credits to Photographers

Photo by Richard Marks

richard marks, wedding photographer, maui photographer
deacon macmillan, Puamelia Photo, puameliaphoto.com, maui photographer

Photo by Erin Dorothy

erin dorothy, erin dorothy visuals, erindorothyvisuals.com

Recital 2023