Culture Shock in Socks!

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By Mentor Artist Sheila Berotti
It was with a bit of surprise recently that I realized that 7th graders might have an issue with the custom of removing one’s shoes.
When I teach workshops in Noh and Kyogen theatre with Theatre of Yugen, we ask students to remove their shoes as a matter of course. We work in tabi, which are a special kind of footwear that is a bit more than a sock, but much less than a shoe. In some recent workshops, the students were instructed to take their shoes off and many were willing, but many were plainly defiant and some flatly refused. The point was not over-labored, but it brought me to make a brief explanation of foreign customs and the graciousness of honoring them. I pointed out that there is a practical reason as well: the space, whether it is someone’s home or the sacred arena of the Noh stage, keeps cleaner.
We went on to have great class, wrapping students in beautiful silk kimono and exploring the classic 15th century beauty of the Noh ko-omote mask. We tried on the postures of a few of the Kyogen stock characters – master, servant, priest, woman – and discussed their status in Japanese feudal society. We explored the extreme and fairly silly vocal stylization of the riddle dance, “Usagi,” and asked the students if they had ever experienced a kind of beauty they might call Yugen.
Yu: deep, quiet, otherworldly
Gen: subtle, profound, dark
(This was all part of the lesson plan. I did not expect to include a lesson on observing manners and having respect for other cultures, but when it just came up, it presented the ideal opportunity to make the point.)

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