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Bambi Naka: Talented dancer improvises her way back to the silver screen

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Bambi Naka

A top-class Japanese dancer whose first name is also that of a Disney hit movie made her star debut in the movie “Dreams on Fire,” released in May.

Born on June 15, 1992, in Kumamoto Prefecture, Bambi Naka was a backup dancer for singers such as Madonna, Ringo Sheena and BoA, and she also performed in NHK’s program “Kohaku Utagassen” (Red & White Year-end Song Festival), along with the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics.

“I was always jumping around, so I’m like Bambi,” she said with a friendly smile as cute as a fawn, which enlivened the whole interview. However, once on stage, she gives off a cool demeanor. Rather than dancing to the rhythm, her dance creates the rhythm through the free movement of her body. She leaves a strong impression not only with her dance, but also with eyes that pierce through spectators’ hearts.

She described it as “infiltrating people’s memories,” perplexing this interviewer. She then went on, saying, “When I stare into the eyes of the audience members, they get rigid, and I get a thrill from that.

“I look for people who are not looking at me and stare at them [from the stage]. I don’t want them to remember the whole stage; I want them to be traumatized.”

With Madonna

She started learning dance when she was 5. In 2015, she became a backup dancer for Madonna after a video of Naka was posted on YouTube. Back then Naka couldn’t speak English, she said.

“Madonna purposely called me in front of everyone and spoke really fast like she was angry,” Naka said. “People around me were laughing. I mean, she just liked to see me stare at her, completely confused.”

Naka broke through the language barrier with her inherent personality and also gained outstanding trust as a dancer. Madonna had taught other backup dancers in detail about how to do makeup and their hair, but not to Naka, who was allowed to do whatever she wanted, Naka recalled.

Naka returned to Japan after a 1½-year tour with Madonna. Naka got a lot more visibility and more jobs as a dancer than before, but she felt people’s image of her being one of Madonna’s backup dancers had become greater than who she really is.

“I was dancing for fun, but it began feeling like dance was a job and duty, and I felt a little suffocated,” Naka said. “It felt like it was hard to breathe. I just wanted to do it freely.”

It was around then she got a job as an actress. In 2019, she made her acting debut in the movie “Chiwawa-chan.” The same year, she took to the stage and sang in the rock opera “R&J” based on “Romeo and Juliet.”

“In fact, I’m the type of actor who can let themselves become possessed. I stay in character even after I’m done performing.

“When I was doing ‘R&J,’ people told me I was selfish and would use people like pawns. I don’t remember, though,” she said with a mischievous smile.

She said she enjoys her unexpected new career.

©Dreams on Fire Inc.
Dancers perform in “Dreams on Fire”

Go with the flow

©Dreams on Fire Inc.
A poster advertising “Dreams on Fire”

In “Dreams on Fire,” Naka plays Yume, a young woman with a pure heart who is fascinated by dance and comes to Tokyo to find success.

In the movie, Yume comes to the capital, despite her family’s opposition, to make a living as a dancer. She doesn’t have any money or experience, and she is shocked by how much better the other dancers in Tokyo are. However, she never gives up. She eventually works in an entertainment district where she meets many dancers and develops her skills. Canadian Philippe McKie wrote and directed the film.

Naka choreographed Yume’s dance that expresses the process of how Yume develops her skills based on her feelings and background. Only two of the dance sequences were choreographed, and Naka improvised the rest when filming.

“Thinking of Yume’s feelings makes my body move on its own,” Naka said. “But, sometimes I forget who I am, and I become Yume.”

Asked about the future, Naka said: “I prioritize freedom, so I don’t make plans. I’m just gonna go with the flow. ‘I do it because I like it’ is my motto. I want to keep that in mind and try anything I’ve never done before.”