Ageing cheerleaders offer glimpse of world’s longest-living women
Waving white pompoms in the air, dozens of greyhaired cheerleaders in matching red-and-white uniforms hop and skip to K-pop music in the practice room.
Halfway into their two-hour practice session, most of the elderly dancers are panting and sweating, but they do not let their bad knees or back pain stop them from what they say is keeping them healthy and youthful.
“I don’t need to take any medicine because I come here. Although I’m ageing on the outside, this keeps me young at heart,” said Oh Geum-nyu, 82.
Oh is one of the oldest members of Cheer Mommy, a 30member cheerleading squad with an average age of 75, based here, on South Korea’s east coast.
According to a research published in The Lancet medical journal, life expectancy in the fourthlargest economy in Asia was accelerating rapidly, and for women born in 2030 it could stretch to nine decades on average, the longest in the world.
The study by researchers at Imperial College London noted improved nutrition and broader access to healthcare as some of the reasons behind the phenomenon. Some South Korean experts also point to social factors behind longevity.
“Their love for informal gatherings and forging new personal bonds can be a source of energy,” said Chung Soon-dool, a social welfare professor at Ewha Women’s University here.
Most South Korean women in their 60s and older spent their lives in a strongly patriarchal society, where women are expected to stay at home and raise the children. Now, some are embracing pursuits of their own choosing for the first time after retiring as the “caretaker”.
“I was done raising my seven grandchildren when my friend told me about this place,” said Cheer Mommy member Ahn Young-ja, 65.
Lee Pal-soon, 82, who takes singing classes when not cheerleading, said she was enjoying the “second chapter” of her life after marrying off her five children.
Some are choosing to keep their brains active by going back to school, such as Kim Soon-sil, 88, who is among some 370 students aged 60 and older at Ilsung Women’s School here.
Kim, who grew up under Japan’s colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945, had to leave school at 13. It was not until seven decades later that she could fulfil her longing to continue her studies in history and English.
“I can feel small changes to my health every day. If my health permits, I want to enrol in university,” Kim said.
Cheer Mommy started out as a local authority leisure programme, but, now, the elderly squad regularly travels across the country to compete in national tournaments against rivals decades their juniors.
With the youngest member aged 63, the choreography lacks dynamic stunts, like backflips or somersaults, and it takes them twice as long to remember the routines. Instructor Yoon Bok-ja said: “They are slow like turtles, but they don’t give up until they are perfect.”
Cheer Mommy members practising a routine in Samcheok, South Korea, recently.