Strutting her stuff in a gold-hemmed mini-skirt, white leather boots and shaking silver pom-poms, octogenarian Fumie Takino has discovered the fountain of youth – as a born-again cheerleader.
Normally associated with perky young women gyrating furiously, Takino and her troupe of spirited grannies tweak the nose of old age, even if their rambunctious rendition of Dreamgirls leaves them painfully out of breath and their pink tank tops dripping with sweat.
Takino, 84, has spearheaded more than 20 bubbly seniors for some two decades after founding the “Japan Pom-Pom” squad after being bitten by the cheerleading bug in middle age.
“You have to be 55 or older,” Takino said, referring to the age qualification for joining her team, the average age of which is 70. “Once you hit the age of 70, you have to admit it’s downhill,” she adds with a smile. “We’ve come a long way in 20 years!”
Japan is renowned its spritely pensioners: women live for an average of 87 years and men to 80, topping global league tables.
The average “healthy” lifespan is 10 years less for both sexes, meaning many suffer physical and mental ailments in the final decade of life.
But Takino insisted that her glamorous hobby has helped mitigate the effects of ageing, having taken it up when her marriage was on the rocks.
“My marriage was not going well,” she said of her decision to get into cheerleading. “I put up with it until my children got married.”
Takino confesses she wasn’t always so mentally and physically vibrant and wouldn’t have had the confidence to pick up pom-poms had it not been for other life changes that paved the way.
The first came when she packed up and flew to Texas at the age of 53 against the wishes of her ageing mother — but with the support of her children.
Completing a master’s degree in gerontology at the University of North Texas and a subsequent internship in New York, she returned home with a new-found sense of freedom.
Ironically, though, it was in Japan where she encountered the quintessentially American activity of cheerleading with its eye-popping array of moves, from human towers, somersaults and back flips.
It took off in Japan around 30 years ago, though remains rare outside school and university environments.
“It blew my mind,” said Takino, who immediately rounded up five friends to start her own troupe after first hearing about cheerleading.
Two decades later, the glowing grannies gather each week for intense training – and while they don’t overdo the acrobatics, they take practice seriously, even analysing videos of themselves to improve.
Earlier this year, the team celebrated its 20th anniversary by performing as guests at Japan’s annual United Spirit Association (USA) Nationals competition, where mostly high school and university teams compete.
Given their age, some members have to drop out for health issues or to care for ageing spouses, but new recruits are easy to find.
Shinko Kusajima, in her late sixties, says making new friends is a huge attraction.
“When you get old, you keep losing friends,” she said at a practice where she hoped to become a new member.
“But you always have mates here to share a good time.” – AFP