The mai (dance) of noh, along with the musical elements of song and instrumental music are components of this comprehensive art form. Mai can be called the foundation of the form. The dance of noh is not simply the expression of the body moving through space, it has a much deeper meaning. When one is said to perform noh, one is said “to dance noh.” In a broad sense of the word, mai expresses much more than just the music and the movement, it somehow encapsulates the comprehensive nature of noh.
The word mai is also used for a specific dancing section of a noh. These mai, with names like chū-no-mai or jo-no-mai, feature the flute and the drums playing in a rhythmic fashion, timed to coincide with the shite’s dance.
Types of Mai
Depending on whether the character is male, female or other, and depending on the category of noh, shūgen-mono (god-theme), shura-mono (warrior-theme), or kazura-mono (woman-theme), the mai in a noh will be different. In many ways, the melody and rhythm of the flute in a mai are responsible for setting the tone. Below is an introduction to the principle mai of noh.
Apart from the above examples other mai include banshiki-hayamai, kakko, kyū-no-mai, and ha-no-mai. The mai-bataraki, in which a dragon, goblin or the like display its power; or the kakeri, which displays the struggles of a tormented soul, while not considered as mai, are still a kind of dance.
Depending on the heavy or light nature of the noh, one of these many mai are chosen to best represent the beauty of the form and the freeness of the expression.
The Difference Between “Mai” and “Dance”
Generally speaking, in Japanese within the noh world, the expression “noh wo odoru” (to dance noh) or “noh no odori” (the dance of noh) is not used. Rather another word, mau or mai is used. It has the same translation, but the meaning is quite different. In fact the word buyō, also meaning dance, is a combination of the two characters mai and odori, but how really are the two words different, mai and odori. If you look in the dictionary, the word odori somehow relates to dancing in rhythm, jumping, and using your hands and feet to articulate. Mai on the other hand conjures images of sliding feet and “going around”.
From long ago the distinction between the two was made, but exactly when and where that happened is unclear. There are indeed noh in which stomping to a rhythm and jumping are used, but for some reason, the word mai has remained as the word used to describe the movement in noh.
In addition Kagura, Imayō, Rōei, Ennen-no-mai, Kuse-mai, all stemming from ancient traditions used the word mai to describe the movement. It seems as if because of noh’s connection with those older traditions, they have remained attached to the use of the word.