When Fort Wayne Taiko hosts Knock on Wood, putting a spotligh on Japanese drumming both locally and nationally, on November 4, it represents not only one of many unique artistic achievements at Fort Wayne Dance Collective but also demonstrates how much one woman on a mission can achieveThe show, just one example of FWDC bringing in high-caliber guest artists from around the world, is just the latest in a line of achievements by Fort Wayne’s own Taiko group over the years, but it’s also the result of a 20-year odyssey for Allison Ballard.
First exposed to Taiko drumming in 1992 when Katari Taiko of Vancouver was guest artist at the Dance Collective, Ballard immediately responded to what she heard.
“I kind of stumbled onto the performance and had no idea what to expect. But I sat with my jaw dropped the entire time. I knew then that I wanted to play Taiko, but it was a formidable thought. I couldn’t take classes here, and I couldn’t relocate to a place that I could.”
The group was brought back in 1997, and this time Ballard knew she had to find a way to get involved. She was determined to make Taiko part of her life regardless of what that required.
“When they left I was motivated,” she says. “I talked to Liz Monnier, who was then the director of Dance Collective, and told her I wanted to start a local Taiko group. I don’t think she knew how serious I was, but she said, ‘Sure, okay.’ So I started the process.”
But with no teachers available locally, she decided to start with the most basic element: a drum.
“I got some cheap whiskey barrels and started building drums. They took two years to get made. I’m not sure if that was the best way to start, but I needed to feel like I was moving forward. These drums were in my dining room as I was building them. I’m not a craftswoman, and I’m not good with tools, so it was all kind of humorous. I didn’t know any better. I just had to do something. I was just that determined. Looking back it was really pretty brazen, but I just wanted it so badly.”
She also began attending conferences and learning from teachers around the country. By 2000 she had enough momentum to begin teaching classes and eventually performing, putting together a group of four for performances. Through both youth and beginning adult students, she began seeing people who were similarly moved by the experience and anxious to continue to learn. For the first few years, her passion was limited to work behind the scenes to get the program off the ground. Eventually she had to take that enthusiasm to the stage.
“It’s never easy, no matter what I’ve accomplished or we’ve accomplished as a group. Not that I’m never satisfied or proud of what we’ve accomplished, but it’s just really, really hard. And when I started this I was in my mid 30s and am now in my mid 50s. Plus, this really is the Taiko Siberia. We had no mentors or teachers to learn from.”
What makes it worthwhile is the joy she gets from drumming.
“It’s hard, but it’s all balanced by how much fun it is. I’m a Taiko drummer; I have no choice anymore. I had some surgery awhile back, and as I came out of the anesthesia I started moving my arms, and the nurses got my mother and showed her what I was doing. She told them, ‘Oh, she’s just drumming.’ No one had seen anyone do that before.”
Having now established Taiko drumming in Fort Wayne – and being the only Taiko drumming group in the state – Ballard now spreads the joy around. She says the drumming and the drummers’ wide stance are empowering, and she’s happy to share it not only with the group at Fort Wayne Dance Collective but with young students around the city whom they visit through their outreach program.
“I used to go to schools and ask who had heard of Taiko drumming, and no one would raise their hands. Now maybe two-thirds of the kids raise their hands because they’ve seen us at the Three Rivers Festival or the Cherry Blossom Festival. They know what it is, and the kids we have in our youth group now are rocking these songs.”
With the upcoming Knock on Wood performance, Ballard can look back on her 20-year quest to bring Taiko not only to her own life but to her community. And she will be bringing in some of the mentors who have encouraged her over the years. Mas Baba and Shoji Kameda from On Ensemble, a Los Angeles based Taiko group, are bringing their deeply entrenched Taiko skills to our city with a multimedia production which will be augmented by performances from Ballad’s own Taiko group and the students she teaches. Her own training, which has included visits to Japan, has brought her to a point where she’s happy to share some of the people who helped bring Taiko to this country.
“Shoji and Mas have been playing since they were children. Mas’ parents were actually pioneers in bringing Taiko to this country, so he’s been playing since he left the womb. They’re fabulous artists and fabulous teachers, so bringing them here is a really great thing.”
Having devoted so many years to Taiko, she’s heartened by the joy she sees it bringing others, whether through the performances of national artists or through the classes she teaches.
“Even in the beginning class, when they’re just coming in to check it out, I see how Taiko has affected them. The resonance of the drum and the vibration … you can’t spend time playing something that big and not be changed by it.”