How I Found Community Through Taiko During My First Year

If you told me prior to coming to Swarthmore that I would take a dance class in college, I would have laughed and thought that you’re crazy! I’m the type of person who loves to play sports, watch some Netflix, or go on a nice weekend hike, but never anything that requires physical and musical coordination both at once. However, fast forward a year later and I have done just that by taking Taiko, a traditional form of Japanese drumming. 

During freshman orientation, every academic department at Swarthmore sets up a table during the classes fair to talk to freshmen and showcase what they offer. I happened to walk by the Dance department’s table and saw a picture of people drumming on a flier. I asked about it, and they directed me to Professor Joe Small ‘05. He explained to me what taiko was and told me how there was a Taiko I and Taiko Repertory class. I was intrigued, and as a bold freshman thinking that I was invincible, I decided to sign up for the repertory class where we perform at the end of the semester. Little did I know what I was getting myself into!

The class during a workshop with the legendary taiko artist Kenny Endo sensei.

The Swarthmore Taiko Ensemble (STE or also known to some insiders as the Swarthmore Traffic Enforcement) meets every Friday from 2:15pm-5:00pm with the occasional extra Saturday practices in the dance studio in LPAC. When I first started taiko, I struggled to lift my arms after every class as it’s a combination of physical strength, legs in a warrior 2 yoga stance, controlling your energy, and learning complicated choreography all at once. I was also extremely nervous and intimidated by the seniors who had been playing for four years and had their ki (flow/energy) down very well. However, I soon realized that these seniors would become some of the most supportive friends and mentors. From each strike of don sukon, they guided me through the piece. During our solo pod time, where we created our own taiko feature to perform as a part of the larger group, they were the first to provide feedback and tips on how I could find my own ki. Throughout my first year in taiko, I transformed from a shy, reserved freshman to a more vocal, outgoing “veteran” of the group (though I still like to consider myself a newbie) who also happens to be much more knowledgeable about Japanese culture too. Additionally, I now get the luxury of calling myself a drummer, dancer, and artist as taiko falls somewhere in-between all three.

Although I initially took taiko out of curiosity and partially for the PE credit, I have genuinely fallen in love with taiko and plan to continue it during my remaining time here at Swarthmore. I love the Friday classes where I go to relieve stress and refresh my body and mind after a long week of classes. I love my fellow Swatties as they foster a community environment that makes the class engaging and supportive. I love the conversations during meals that we grab after practices and shenanigans like stacking as many bachi (drum sticks) on top of one another as possible. And lastly, I love the feeling of receiving a standing ovation at the end of each semester’s performance as in that moment, it shows the cumulation of hours of hard work that our entire group put in together during the semester. If you end up coming to Swarthmore, please do yourself a favor and take taiko! 

Swarthmore Taiko Ensemble Spring 2022

P.S. If you are interested in viewing taiko in live action, here’s a link to our Spring 2022 performance of a Yodan Uchi Tribute. You’ll be amazed in how we rotate so many times, yet manage to not bump into each other or get dizzy enough to throw off our timing in the piece. Enjoy! 🙂  

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