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Geisha Culture and Dance

Updated on September 13, 2017

The Way She Moves


Geisha Dance Movement

The Geisha dance is a highly precise, slow artistic dance with mysterious echoes of ancient Japanese stories and legends. A geisha dance performance can be hypnotizing, forcing your eyes to take in every detail of her elaborate costume and subtle gestures. Her ornamented hair and detailed Kimono only hint at the splendid ambience of her performance. Tiny changes in her expression and barely discernible moves are finely tuned and choreographed so that any of her well trained sisters could step in her shoes and finish the dance with barely a blink from the audience. While her moves are deliberate and require copious amounts of concentration, she is not without grace and elegance. She performs her art distinctly as she is taught; yet, if she is good, you can sense her secret story through her Geisha façade. It might be more of a feeling you get as you watch her. You might think "there is something about her". It is her personal mystery, which she dares to share in minuscule ways throughout her dance, which may draw you to applaud her.

I was introduced to Kimonos and beautiful Japanese Geisha as a small child, when My Grandparents took a trip to Japan and brought me back a lovely little Kimono and a Japanese Geisha doll. She was so beautiful I was afraid to play with her, to touch her even. She sat high on my shelf in a protective globe for most of my childhood, admired only from a distance. Perhaps this is why I have a bit of reverence for the Geisha. Most of what I have learned about them is from the book "Memoirs of a Geisha". It is a lovely story, and while it is a work of fiction, the Geisha lifestyle and daily struggle was thoroughly researched by the author. Our heroine in the book is an accomplished dancer, and the aesthetics of the dance of the Geisha are what I feel closest to. There are famous Geisha who sing or are known for other artistic talent, but it is the dance which I find most fascinating, largely from the intricate description by author Arthur Golden. It is not often I read a book that takes me into a completely different culture and place, making me feel what the characters must feel. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it!

The Kimono I had as a Child

Child's Kimono with accessories
Child's Kimono with accessories | Source

The Geisha Costume

A geisha will spend a great deal of time and personal expense on her appearance, including her hair and makeup. Many of the Kimonos she wears belong to her Okiya (geisha house where she lives). They are by far the most expensive and elaborate part of her attire. She needs the assistance of a dresser, and the process of putting it all on is quite complicated. Some of the Kimono designs may compliment her dance as part of the story. Others are ornate designs based on the whim of the designer. Great kimono designers are highly sought out, even today. They may use indicate dying techniques, painted on artwork, a variety of embroidery stitching, gold foil, and other mediums to achieve the desired design effect. A high quality Kimono is considered a work of art.

A geisha's hairstyle is also vital to her look. Sometimes they wear their own hair, elaborately coiffed, or some will wear a wig. Even wearing a wig is difficult, with all the weight of the kimono and the wig; she generally must function in all her grace, often on shoes several inches off the ground, with all that extra baggage. Geisha may look small and delicate, but it takes a real athlete to carry that look!

Memoirs of a Geisha - the Book

Kyomai Dance

The Performance

Most of the dances and other performances take place in the teahouses, where a geisha is generally hired to entertain guests. Once a year, however, in the spring, Kyoto holds the Cherry Blossom dances, which is a showcase of Geisha talent for the public to see. It takes a pretty deep wallet to get into a tea house, but the spring dances are for anyone to enjoy for the modest price of a concert ticket. There are group dances and solo dances, as well as duets and other small groups. Most dances tell some kind of story, or represent something about Japanese life, such as a change in season, or raindrops. One of the most famous, and the one depicted in the movie version of "Memoirs of a Geisha" is the "Yuki Onna" or "Snow Woman".

What is fascinating when watching two or more dancing in unison, is that they can be facing different directions, never looking at each other, yet be completely in synch. Their perseverance in learning every microscopic move is commendable.

The dance of the geisha takes its roots in large part from Kabuki Theater, which combines drama with music and dance, and originated in the early 1600s.

Geisha Never Stop Learning


Teaching & learning

Today, young Geisha in training (maiko) start around 15 years old (in Kyoto, or at 18 in Tokyo). Before WWII, however, there were many younger girls sold into the lifestyle, some as young as 9 or 10. This was the case of our main character in the book "Memoirs of a Geisha". Other girls were brought up from infancy to train. Most of these were children of other Geisha. Geisha learn the arts in many forms, including playing musical instruments, singing, performing tea ceremonies, and dance, as well as others. Some will excel in one area or another, but all are proficient in all areas. Even once one becomes a full-fledged Geisha, she will still train, perhaps more deeply in her area of expertise, or her strongest talent.

Older Geisha may become teachers, but many remain active entertainers even late in life. A young Geisha in training (maiko) is taken under the wing of an older "sister" Geisha as well, and much of their training is as she goes out to the tea houses with her.

Memoirs of a Geisha - the Movie

Miyako Odori in Gion

Stories of the Geisha Dances

Many stories depicted in the dances of the geisha are based on older stories from Japanese culture. One comes from ancient Mesopotamia, about a goddess who visits the underworld in order to free her lover. The act of "freeing" him brings an end to winter and welcomes spring. This is a familiar theme in many of the stories. Another set of seasonal dances was created around a portion of a book made from the diary of an 11th century lady in waiting: The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon.

Poster for the Miyako Odori (Cherry blossom Dances)


The Flower and Willow World

Geisha are the Willows in the Flower and Willow World, which is another name for the Geisha District. They are "trained to be graceful and pliant, but strong of spirit, like a willow tree" Lesley Downer. "Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha Who Bewitched the West"

Cherry Blossom Dancers


My Pinterest Board "Memoirs of a Geisha"



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    • abrodech profile image

      Anya Brodech 3 years ago from 130 Linden St, Oakland, California, 94607

      Thanks for sharing! I really enjoyed learning more about geishas and think that they're really beautiful!