Odottemita in Singapore: A Comparative Commentary

A layman’s view of this peculiar subculture.

Foreword

Although the Chicago style preferred in my essays do not use a font change for headings, I find the use of larger font for key headings and smaller fonts for sub-headings to be more aesthetically pleasing. For that reason, headings will decrease in font size as they become sub-headings, but the citation style used in essays will still be that of hyperlinks (in place of author-date in-text citations) with the relevant bibliography at the end.

Introduction

The subculture of odottemita (踊ってみた, 踊 -odo, って-tte, み-mi, た-ta) is one that is perplexing to external observers. What drives one to record themselves dancing in their rooms or in public to a pop song? Who develops the moves of the dance, and how do these dance moves relate to contemporary forms of dance? This confusion is no doubt exacerbated by a complete lack of literature on this subject. To be sure, one does not expect a serious study of this subculture by distinguished academics anymore than one may hope for an analysis of a television show such as My Little Pony or Game of Thrones. Encapsulated within the hyperlinks, however, is proof that studies on both topics do exist. The aspect of Japanese pop culture as a form of soft power has also been given consideration by some scholars, but precious little has been written about this specific subculture as opposed to, say, Vocaloid or anime.

Perhaps most odorites (踊り手, 踊-odo, り-ri, 手-te, the ‘s’ being the plural form of a noun) are not inclined to write about the community which they exist within, imagined or otherwise. Time spent thinking and typing, after all, is time that could be otherwise spent practicing a song’s moves or learning a new choreography for a planned video recording later. Understandable priorities, definitely, but ultimately one which reinforces the dearth of literature regarding this subject.

It is thus the hope of this essay to be a source of education for two groups of people: New odorites to the community, as well as external observers and appreciators of this subculture. Written based on my limited experiences as a former odorite and based on research conducted from the relative comfort of Youtube and Nico Nico Douga, I intend to provide a rigorous examination of how this subculture evolved both in Japan, its country of origin, as well as Singapore, which is my country of origin. I will argue that the odottemita subculture in Japan peaked in 2013 and is presently on the decline, which is a future I foresee for its Singaporean counterparts. Finally, the essay will conclude with thoughts about the spread of this subculture to Western countries and address comparisons with the Hallyu (한류) culture originating from Korea.

In writing this, by no means is expected that it will be a definitive or exhaustive description of the varied history of odorite groups or predicted future of the subculture. Rather, it cannot be stressed enough that most accounts are subjective in nature, with one arriving at their own conclusion after considering multiple narratives being ideal. Given the aforementioned paucity of literature, however, this is naturally easier said than done. My contribution to this subculture in the form of this essay should thus be viewed as one among many, rather than taken as the gospel truth.

A Primer to Odottemita

Before beginning my historical description, it is important to acquaint those new to the subculture of various terminologies used, as well as provide a general definition of what odottemita is, and is not.

Terminologies of the Subculture

Why it has been defined a subculture within this essay is due to the nature in which one views a particular cultural phenomenon. In this case, by assigning Japanese pop culture as the main culture from which odottemita is part of, or exists within, odottemita becomes a component within the culture. For ease of reference, it is then known as a subculture. If one considers odottemita as a main culture, then the different forms of odottemita become varying subcultures.

Odottemita (pronounced O-dou-teh-me-tah) itself is a tag used on Nico Nico Douga videos of people dancing to songs. These songs are frequently pop songs ranging from anime to Vocaloid, but may also be Korean or English in nature. An individual that participates within this activity may be known as an odorite (pronounced O-dou-ree-teh, not O-dou-right), which would be colloquially be called a ‘dancer’ in English. Given the mentioned nature of how most songs are pop, perhaps ‘pop dancer’ may be more accurate a label.

Although the original meaning of odottemita has been translated as ‘I tried to dance (to a particular song or choreography)’, it can, as in this essay, be used to refer to the subculture as a whole.

A Definition of Odottemita

Although specifically defining a subculture is tedious and may result in unnecessary theoretical constructs, I believe that there exists a clear distinction as to what constitutes odottemita. Odottemita requires both purpose and execution according to conventionally accepted norms. To paraphrase Confused Matthew’s review of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’,

One does not consider a video bereft plot or characters as a movie anymore than one considers a man standing still in a room and waving his arms periodically every 20 minutes to be dancing.

In the same manner, it would be ludicrous to consider a video of someone cycling as odottemita, simply because it lacks the execution of what most people accept as ‘dance’.

Purpose, too, is important for defining what odottemita takes the form of. By purpose, I refer to an intent to dance with performance as a primary function of the dance. Playing a dance-based video game such as Dance Dance Revolution, then, does not constitute odottemita even though the songs are pop in nature, for the playing of the video game is the focus of the dance, not the public performance of the dance itself. Although one could always adopt a critical viewpoint and argue that actions in a dance game qualify as ‘rhythmic movement’ which is similar to dancing in odottemita, this essay is not intended to take sides in what I predict to be a rather insipid debate of nomenclature. For the purposes of this essay, conventional odottemita in which an odorite clearly performs a particular choreography or freestyles for the camera will be utilized as the definition of odottemita.

Different forms of Odottemita

Followers of the subculture may notice that not all odottemitas are recorded equally. Stylistic differences in odottemitas can be generally broken down into a spectrum as represented below

Dance types

Proposed framework for classifying and identifying odottemita types

The bottom row shows the difference in odottemita dances where some are fully choreographed while others lack any semblance of choreography, with most dances having varying levels of choreography and freestyle.

On the far right, odottemitas which lack choreography are strikingly similar to what contemporary dancers would refer to as cyphers. Cyphers are sessions where dancers gather together to watch each other freestyle or express their interpretation of a song or track through dance. Others on the far left are usually more choreographed with such that odorites follow a traditional set of moves. More notable odorites are usually admired for their ability to differentiate themselves even if they are dancing the same moves as others.

The top row is based on the choreography styles established by the community in this video, where there is a clear distinction between various types of dances that are prevalent in odottemita videos. The ‘girl’ style, for example, often uses movements similar to those utilized by Japanese pop idols evoking an image of a cute, innocent and young girl, while the ‘woman’ style is somewhat more provocative in nature and is perhaps more akin to contemporary lyrical jazz.

The relationship between the two roles, then, is generally representative of how some dance styles lend themselves more easily to choreography than freestyle, and vice-versa for others. It is uncommon to see a freestyle odottemita done in the style of ‘girls’, but many popular songs used in ‘girls’ odottemita such as Happy Synthesizer and Zigg-Zagg often feature choreography that is adhered to by most odorites. Conversely, hip hop and its associated genres of breaking, house and other funk styles usually contain substantially more elements of freestyle than is conventionally seen in the ‘woman’ or ‘girls’ styles.

Odorite Attire and Odottemita Locations

As one may expect, female odorites tend towards a particular attire based on their personality as well as the song that they are dancing to. A cute song such as ‘Zigg-Zagg’ sometimes inspires adhesion to cultural cuteness  such as schoolgirl uniforms complete with cat paws. Other songs that are more mature in tone likewise encourage a similar style of dressing. Although exceptions to the norm do occur in the form of individual odorites choosing an attire consistent in multiple odottemitas, it can be said that there is a strong tendency for the song to be considered for the odorite‘s attire with regards to females.

Male odorites tend to adopt casual or stylish dressing in their videos. Often based off hip hop fashion, the latter is favoured by skilled dancers and their aspirants, while the former is a convenient outfit that is seldom indicative of one’s ability.

In the case of both genders, coordinated and elaborate costumes worn by multiple odorites are more frequently associated with semi-professional dance groups compared to individual odorites, although small groups of two or three odorites may wear a similar shirt or mask. Large groups of odorites, lacking coordination, thus tend to have a diverse range of outfits ranging from the common to the extraordinary.

Although odottemitas can be recorded at many locations, a frequent background in most odottemitas is that of Yoyogi Park. In particular, two large wall murals adorn twin walls that support an overhead bridge as shown in the following photographs taken from a trip conducted in 2015.

Past recordings have also been done under and on the overhead bridge itself.

In short, although some odorites choose bright and visually appealing backgrounds for their odottemitas to be recorded against, Yoyogi Park is notable for being a well-frequented place where odorites gathered, met others that were interested in the same genres as them, and recorded odottemitas just as the subculture was beginning to take off.

 

Odottemita‘s History in Japan

Although odottemita technically existed since 2007 according to some accounts, it only became substantially more popular within Japan from 2009 to 2013. This was followed by a marked decrease in this newfound interest from 2013 to the present which I attribute to three factors elaborated below.

Sub-cultural Cross Pollination

Without a doubt, cultural perceptions of the popular voice synthesizer program Vocaloid changed from apathy and indifference to curiosity following its meteoric rise from the original Hatsune Miku leekspin video. Although Vocaloid remains a subculture unto itself containing varied elements such as live concerts and spawning Nico Nico Choruses, it has also exerted a notable influence on the evolution of odottemita.

Many iconic early songs that were performed by odorites were Vocaloid in origin, ranging from Megurine Luka and Gumi’s ‘Happy Synthesizer’ originally danced by Melochin to later releases such as Megurine Luka’sLuka Luka ★ Night Fever‘, ‘Just Be Friends‘ and Hatsune Miku’sBaby Maniacs‘.

Although there were certainly exceptions to the rule such as ‘Bad Apple‘ that hails from the Touhou fandom, they remained as relative anomalies until approximately 2012 when odottemita backing tracks became more diverse.

Perhaps most intriguingly, an overlap of the odottemita and Vocaloid subculture occurred in the field of animation. Use of the Miku Miku Dance program to animate odottemita covers have resulted in motion data for the 3D models being developed according to what odorites have danced in some covers. This extent of collaboration, to the extent where side by side comparisons almost identical, deserves mention for the difficulty surmounted by the motion data’s creators.

Further cross pollination can be observed from anime songs that were also fairly popular among odorites in the burgeoning community. A Certain Scientific Railgun’sOnly My Railgun‘ and K-ON!’sCagayake Girls!’ were songs that were sufficiently well known to be performed at the first Nico Nico Dance Master, albeit with altered choreography in some instances.

All in all, the old adage of ‘Causation does not imply correlation’ is still relevant. Given, however, the prevalence of Vocaloid and anime songs within early odottemita covers, I believe that it is quite likely cross pollination occurred between these three communities which contributed to the growth of odottemita as a subculture from 2009 onward. By appealing to fans of the anime and Vocaloid subcultures through odottemita videos that had songs they were familiar with, the odottemita population and popular consciousness of the subculture increased. A minority of those that were then involved in multiple subcultures then produced more media consumed by viewers from differing subcultures that encouraged further promotion of odottemita as a whole. This collaborative effort is well represented by the Miku Miku Dance videos that were described above.

Increased Professionalism of Early Pioneers

During this period of surging interest in the subculture, it is astonishing how rapidly the quality of odottemita covers rose. Perhaps spurred by a desire to improve themselves, being as they were at the forefront of a cultural phenomenon, some odorites such as Tadanon  became smoother and more skillful in their later dance covers. Video production of odottemitas by prominent odorites like Melochin also saw a corresponding improvement, as evidenced by the transition from videos recorded in one’s bedroom to colourful, decorated and simple backgrounds that were aesthetically pleasing.

Although seemingly inconsequential and a natural occurrence as a subculture thrived, this professionalism arguably drew more viewers towards odottemita videos, resulting in greater appreciation of the subculture as a whole. That past amateur bedroom dancers became substantially better in their craft did little to dampen interest in the subculture; the same could be said with regards to the improved production qualities inherent within later videos. Ultimately, the emergence of what could be termed ‘semi-professional’ odorites from a subculture that was previously generally homogeneous in both skill and production values accelerated interest aggregation by those who were introduced to this subculture by word of mouth. The projection of such a semi-professional image thus contributed, to some extent, in the community’s growth over this period, which was heightened by the knowledge that these rising odorites had previously been of the same humble beginnings as their less famous counterparts.

Advent of Event Support

The first Nico Nico Dance Master was hosted on 12th December, 2010 and attracted a moderate sized crowd eager to see performances by Nico Nico odorites. Containing mostly choreographed performances, it was a good start that saw many popular songs such as Luka Luka ★ Night Fever, Zigg-Zagg, Breeze, Soar and Only My Railgun performed with gusto by trailblazing odorites. Also included was a guest performance by a semi-professional odottemita group, Team Black Starz to their remix of ‘A Cruel Angel’s Thesis’ from the anime series Evangelion.

Building on the strong demand from the first Nico Nico Dance Master, a second Nico Nico Dance Master was held on 19th June, 2011. Notable for introducing a ‘dance battle’ that allowed some measure of freestyling by participants, the event was sufficiently well received such that the third iteration of Nico Nico Dance Master was held on 15th October in the same year. The last two Nico Nico Dance Masters were then held on 18th August in 2012 and 2013 respectively.

Although odottemita had begun with individuals recording themselves dancing and uploading these recordings to Nico Nico Douga, it quickly blossomed into real life mass dances involving groups of odorites, of which some informal dance groups were later formed from. While this may have been promising in and of itself, widespread recognition in the form of odottemita events such as ‘Nico Nico Dance Master’ was critical in both providing a venue for fans of the subculture to gather and celebrate the best odorites which Nico Nico Douga had to offer, while simultaneously advertising the existence and strength of the subculture to those who were still unaware. This recognition was translated into both audience interest in future Nico Nico Dance Master iterations as well as encouraging some to venture into odottemita themselves, which further fueled odottemita’s popularity.

Odottemita in Singapore

At present, the same situation that occurred in Japanese odottemita from 2009 to 2013 appears to be occurring in Singapore as well. Beginning around 2010 and 2011, a few Singaporean odorites such as Suzume Suzuki and Miu recorded amateur covers in their bedrooms and uploaded them for others to view with the appropriate odottemita tag. Later odorites such as Kuiin and MomoChan joined in 2013, with odorites from Japan flying to Singapore to perform at a Japanese pop culture convention called ‘Event Of the Year’ in 20132014 and 2015.

With burgeoning public interest and the same increased professionalism apparent in leading odorites, it is evident that Singapore’s odottemita culture is undergoing the same waxing of interest. Driven largely by identical factors explained above, one would expect such interest to continue for the near future as bigger events such as Anime Festival Asia and Cosfest Asia begin to offer stage performances for fledgling Singapore odorites to showcase their skill.

However, I predict that the Singapore odottemita scene will likely, in time, follow that of its Japanese counterparts, in that this recent unprecedented interest will shortly be replaced by gradual mainstream acceptance of the odottemita subculture. It will, as in the case of Japan, remain a relevant subculture within Japanese pop culture, but much of the vibrancy and accessibility which characterized its early birth will fade with time.

Three factors explained below are, I believe, the cause of why the odottemita subculture in Japan is no longer the same novel and anticipated phenomenon that it once was when it first emerged in 2009.

Changes in domestic popular culture

Extending both to the maturation and saturation of the Vocaloid subculture in Japan, Hatsune Miku is no longer viewed as being strange, rare or even exotic. Although Vocaloid concerts still do take place under the moniker ‘Miku Expo’ within Japan, the greatest growth in Vocaloid interest is generally within countries relatively unexposed to Japanese pop culture or where Vocaloid culture has yet to become a form of mainstream media. This is not to say that the Vocaloid subculture will soon fade away, but rather that the loss of its novelty factor and accepted consumption by mainstream otakus in Japan is unprecedented in its short history since gaining popularity in 2009. The impact of this development can be seen in the decreasing number of new Vocaloid songs that are used as backing tracks for odottemita videos: While they certainly still do exist, the Vocaloid majority has significantly declined since the early days of odottemita’s history.

This trend has continued to a smaller extent with the anime subculture in what seems to be a parting of interests. While songs from popular idol animes such as ‘Love Live’ are still danced to by odorites, these odorites are frequently part of semi-professional dance groups as opposed to amateur, individual bedroom odorites. Other recent animes that have gained considerable followings such as ‘Sword Art Online’and ‘Attack On Titan’ see their songs being used much less in odottemitas compared to the 2009 era where animes unrelated to dance groups such as ‘A Certain Scientific Railgun’ and ‘K-ON!had several  tracks used in odottemita videos.

Hollowing out of the Odorite Community

An evergreen community usually has sufficient new members to replace ageing or retired members. In the case of the odorite community, several notable odorites have either retired or reduced their activities within the subculture as they deal with other aspects of life, but few have risen to such prominence in their place. I believe that this is the case due to the cultivated professional image that has discouraged new odorites from entering the community.

As mentioned above, odottemita had an egalitarian appeal during the 2009 era as many odorites who later became relatively famous within and outside of the community had originally begun as amateur odorites. Given that there was a much lower standard that the best odorites could reach back then, lowered production values meant that the barriers to entry for aspiring odorites was perceived to be fairly low. The impression one would thus have of odottemita as a hobby was perhaps spending a bit of time to learn some moves to a song one liked and recording oneself for later upload on Nico Nico Douga. Minimal, if any, video editing was required, with the focus being on the individual odorite and occasionally unexpected nature of public odottemita. 

In contrast, following the increased professionalism of the top odorites, the image one may have had after 2013 was that excelling in this hobby required a significant investment of time to master a dance, not to mention moderate levels of video editing if one desired to add effects. Although this improvement projected a noticeably cleaner and attractive image of the subculture, it had the effect of raising the perceived barriers to entry for prospective odorites, thus encouraging them to look towards other hobbies that may catch their interest. While this may not completely dissuade them from entering the community as new odorites, it becomes more likely that potential odorites will be content with being appreciators of the subculture rather than active participants within it.

It could be said that the health of a hobby is dependent on the dedication and passion of individuals within it. With a shortage in the quantity of new odorites and graduation of more prominent odorites from the community, it is difficult for the subculture to maintain the same dynamism which characterized its early growth. Stagnation is thus, at this point, a real possibility.

Decreased Event Support

Perhaps in acknowledgement to declining public interest in odottemita and perceived stagnation of the subculture, Nico Nico Dance Master was not held in 2014 and 2015. While there have since been smaller events such as No Odottemita No Life (a play on the anime ‘No Game, No Life’), the lack of larger events to promote the subculture does not bode well for the continued growth of the subculture to individuals that may be interested in it. The adoption of events on a smaller scale may simply be reflective of the true numbers of odorites and their appreciators. The hosting of these smaller events is, after all, more financially sound than a large event which falls short of meeting the minimum number of attendees required for the organizers to break even.

However, that would mean an acceptance of the thesis which has been advanced over the past few paragraphs: That the Japanese odottemita subculute has diminished since 2013 compared to the days when it was growing rapidly. To some extent, this stable population may well be the expected state that a subculture’s community reaches after seeing strong initial growth fueled by novelty. Cosplay, for example, has not died out in Japan and continues to fill conventions despite being a mainstream hobby to most within the Japanese pop culture community. It is plausible that odottemita, once rarely known and later massively popular, will follow a similar path.

Conclusion

While Singapore’s odottemita community continues to grow as more youthful consumers of Japanese pop culture learn of this subculture, it is likely that the saturation point reached within Japan will likewise be the same fate that meets the burgeoning community here. Despite the difficulty in securing hard data on a past phenomenon rooted within a subculture in another country, I believe that the arguments presented above are sufficiently compelling when coupled with observations of fluctuations within the subculture to arrive at the predicted outcome. The direction taken by the subculture in response to possible problems raised within this essay may yet prove critical in the reinvigorating of the subculture.

A nascent odottemita community can be detected in Western countries, but remains on the cultural fringes compared to its Japanese counterparts. Nevertheless, a few odorites have attained some level of popularity similar to their Japanese counterparts in 2009, which is a trend that looks set to continue as long as the subculture continues to grow.

Finally, the current cultural phenomenon of Hallyu (한류) emanating from South Korea has also resulted in increased popular interest of ‘K-Pop’ dance videos and the introduction of dance classes specializing in this genre of dance to meet rising demand. There is little similarity between the odottemita subculture described above, however, as a bottom up, organic growth of a Korean version of odottemita has not yet emerged as a mainstream or fringe form of pop culture, and seems largely confined to appreciation for professional pop Korean dance groups. Perhaps this may change in the near future, which would herald a new era in the continuing evolution of odottemita‘s history.

Afterword

An addendum to this essay was written shortly after this essay was completed, and contains further thoughts on some issues raised within this essay. For those interested in how wotagei and Para Para relate to odottemita, I would highly recommend checking it out.


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