A granny pom-pom squad

> Ja­pan’s se­nior ladies have found a way to stay young by com­pet­ing in high-en­ergy cheer­lead­ing com­pe­ti­tions

The Sun (Malaysia) - - FEATURE -

STRUT­TING her stuff in a gold-hemmed mini-skirt, white leather boots and shak­ing sil­ver pom-poms, oc­to­ge­nar­ian Fu­mie Takino has dis­cov­ered her elixir of youth – cheer­lead­ing.

Takino and her troupe of spir­ited grannies tweak their noses at old age, even if their ram­bunc­tious rou­tine to the song Dream­girls leaves them painfully out of breath and their pink tank tops drip­ping with sweat.

Takino, 84, has spear­headed the group of more than 20 bub­bly se­niors for some two decades, found­ing the Ja­pan Pom-Pom squad af­ter be­ing bit­ten by the cheer­lead­ing bug – de­spite it tra­di­tion­ally be­ing the pre­serve of teenage girls – in her 60s.

“You have to be 55 or older,” Takino told AFP, re­fer­ring to the 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 said with a smile, be­fore adding: “We’ve come a long way in 20 years!”

Ja­pan is renowned for its spritely se­niors: women live for an av­er­age of 87 years and men to 80. But the av­er­age ‘healthy’ life­span is 10 years less for both sexes, mean­ing many suf­fer phys­i­cal and men­tal ail­ments in the fi­nal decade of life.

Takino, how­ever, in­sists that her glam­orous hobby has helped mit­i­gate the ef­fects of age­ing – mak­ing her feel men­tally and phys­i­cally more ag­ile.

She took up the ac­tiv­ity when her re­la­tion­ship with her hus­band be­gan to fal­ter. “My mar­riage was not go­ing well. I put up with it un­til my children got mar­ried.”

Takino added that she would not have had the con­fi­dence to pick up the pom-poms in her youth, ex­plain­ing that she be­came em­bold­ened by changes she made in mid­dle age.

The first came at the age of 53 – when she packed up and flew to Texas to study. It was against the wishes of her age­ing mother, but she says her children sup­ported her de­ci­sion.

Af­ter com­plet­ing a master’s de­gree in geron­tol­ogy at the University of North Texas and a work place­ment in New York, she re­turned home with a new­found sense of free­dom.

But it was ac­tu­ally in Ja­pan that 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 it 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 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 60s, says forg­ing new per­sonal bonds 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

Mem­bers of Ja­pan Pom-Pom squad with founder Takino (front row, ex­treme left).

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