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50+ Years in the Dance Circle: Sahomi Tachibana

Updated: Feb 17

Editor’s note: “50+ Years in the Dance Circle” will pay tribute to the extraordinary dance instructors who taught Bon Odori at BCA temples for 50 or more years. The series begins with a tribute to Sahomi Tachibana, who celebrates her 99th birthday in April.


 

Sahomi Tachibana enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a professional dancer and teacher in New York City and Portland, Oregon — performing on Broadway and Radio City Music Hall, founding two branches of the Tachibana School of Dance, and teaching Bon Odori for more than 60 years.


Known to everyone as “Sahomi,” she was born Haruno Doris Abey in Mountain View, California, in 1924. She began dancing at the age of 7 and performed during intermissions in her grandparents’ amateur kabuki productions. 


With encouragement from Rev. Yoshio Iwanaga, Abey moved to Japan as a teenager and lived with her grandparents while studying with Saho Tachibana in Fukushima and Hiroyo Tachibana in Tokyo. 


Returning with her professional dance name in the months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Sahomi was incarcerated with her family at the Tule Lake and Topaz concentration camps in California and Utah, respectively. Despite the harsh living conditions in the camps, she used her training to teach classical dance, present dance programs, and lead Bon Odori with Mitsusa Bando at Tule Lake. 


After World War II ended in 1945, Sahomi moved to New York City and made her professional debut in 1948. She signed with the East and West Association booking agency, performed in recitals throughout New York and at Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts, toured across the country, and was featured in “Cherry Blossom Time” at Radio City Music Hall in 1954 and “A Majority of One” on Broadway in 1959-60. 


Despite her busy schedule, Sahomi maintained a close relationship with the New York Buddhist Church. She led Bon Odori at the NYBC each summer beginning with the first Obon in 1949 and founded the New York Tachibana School of Dance at the temple in 1966. She taught a wide variety of dances including “Bamba Odori,” “Kanaiwa Matsuri Ondo,” “Nippon Daiko,” “Tanko Bushi,” “Tokyo Ondo,” and a unique version of “Bon Odori Uta” she had learned in camp. Sahomi choreographed numerous dances including “Riverside Ondo” in 1969, a Bon Odori song with lyrics by Rev. Hozen Seki and Mie Asao.


Sahomi and her devoted husband Frank Hrubant followed their daughter Elaine Werner to Portland, Oregon, in 1990. She soon started a new dance studio, led Bon Odori at the Oregon Buddhist Temple, and consulted for Laika’s 2016 animated movie “Kubo and the Two Strings.” 


At the temple, Sahomi taught her New York repertoire, introduced new dances, and choreographed “Portland Ondo” in 2016 for the 50th anniversary of the Oregon Buddhist Temple’s current location at 3720 SE 34th Ave. in Portland. 


At Bon Odori practices, Sahomi would explain the origins of each dance and describe the meaning behind the movements. The temple’s annual Obon Fest in early August was often hot, sometimes agonizingly so, but Sahomi was always there in her Tachibana yukata with a tenugui draped around her neck, radiating a joyful smile. Gradually, in the late 2010s, she handed the teaching duties to her friend Chris Dart and her daughter Elaine Werner.


In 2021, Sahomi was awarded the prestigious Emperor’s Order of the Rising Sun, Silver Rays. She turns 99 this April and welcomes letters at: Sahomi Tachibana, 5711 SW Multnomah Blvd, #203; Portland, Oregon 97219. 


To view the full list of “50+ Obon teachers,” follow the link: www.bit.ly/fiftyplusyears. If you have an additional dance instructor for the BCA Music Committee to consider, please email Wynn Kiyama at wynnkiyama@gmail.com


Wynn Kiyama teaches at Portland State University and is a member of the Oregon Buddhist Temple and the BCA Music Committee. He studied Japanese classical dance with Sahomi Tachibana in Portland and her students, Sahotae and Sahotoyo Tachibana, in New York City. He is currently working on a history of Bon Odori in the continental United States. 



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