A side step to the left, then a shimmy to the right. Double high kick and a pom pom to the ceiling, then a twirl that ends with a wink to the audience.
Such is the upbeat choreography of Japan Pom Pom, a cheerleading squad in Tokyo where age is truly just a number.
Before the pandemic, this team of cheerleaders, all 55 years old and above, got together for two hours every week to practice their routines. After mastering a number of combinations, the squad performed at charity events, dance shows, and international competitions. Though men have never auditioned to be part of the group, Japan Pom Pom is open to all.
“We could never compete against young people; we simply wouldn’t win,” Fumie Takino, the 89-year-old founder of Japan Pom Pom, told VICE. “But what we can do is have fun.”
At first glance, Japan Pom Pom is a group of energetic seniors cheering to stay in shape. They’re applauded for taking care of their health, but Takino insisted that there’s more to their squad than their age. For them, cheer is about freedom and disregarding the judgment of others.
“We’ve performed a few times at senior centers and were given nasty looks. Because our team’s average age is [about 70], we’d get comments like ‘What are they wearing?’ or ‘Why are they showing their legs like that?’ Not one person would smile at those events,” Takino recalled. “There are things you’re told you can and can’t do as an old person.”
Initial response to the group’s vivacious cheer choreography, as well as stereotypical expectations that older Japanese women must wear more reserved clothing, are what stopped Japan Pom Pom from sporting showy costumes when they first started. They selected ensembles that were more toned-down in the first few years of the group’s founding.
But Takino said much has changed since she formed the group in 1996.
Over 25 years later, the group has become a safe space for cheerleaders, giving them the confidence to don more risqué costumes they may have shied away from before.
“Now, a lot of people want to join Japan Pom Pom to wear these costumes. It’s so fun. Being able to wear these clothes, after turning 60, it’s amazing,” Takino said.
And fun costumes they are. Sparkles? A must. Sleeveless tops? Of course. Short skirts? A given.
“I want the costumes to keep getting flashier. At first, they had to be long-sleeved, or high-neck. But then at some point, we lost the sleeves and our hems were fringed,” Takino said.
Naomi Harada, the recently appointed 61-year-old captain of Japan Pom Pom, said the sparkly costumes made her slightly nervous to join over three years ago. But after seeing how much fun the squad was having, as well as realizing that cheer had been a dream of hers since high school, she took the chance.
After seeing Japan Pom Pom featured on Japanese media, Harada said she researched the group and attended their guest performances. She deliberated over joining for a while, but when she saw how energetic Takino was despite her age, Harada eventually auditioned.
“My mother is the same age as Takino. She used to be very energetic; she was a school teacher. But after a certain age, she would say ‘I’m at the end of my life.’ That was very shocking to me. I wondered what the difference between her and Takino was, and I thought, maybe it was the fact Takino exercised even in her 50s. So with that realization, I thought ‘Let me try it,’” Harada told VICE.
Besides the sparkly costumes which Harada has grown to love, she said she appreciates all the new experiences she’s having, from wearing wigs to putting on fake eyelashes.
“With some costumes, I get concerned about my fat in certain places. If it’s too embarrassing, I start exercising to look better—it becomes good motivation,” she said.
Harada explained that preparing for shows is part of the fun. Most of their routines consist of cheer dance steps, with the occasional small pyramid and splits. Cartwheels and backflips on the other hand, are not their forte.
“If we have a show in three weeks time and I want to be able to zip up my costume, then I’ll start training and change what I eat. But that’s fun too because I have to change the way I think,” she said.
“Mrs. Harada is very slim and pretty,” her teammate, Takino, said. “In our circle, I’m quite short and have sloping shoulders, but I don’t even think about losing weight. I just shove myself into my costume like a sausage.”
When Takino founded Japan Pom Pom over 25 years ago, she had no idea it would have the significance it does now.
She started the squad after reading about a senior cheer group in the United States. She wanted to start one of her own, and began a correspondence with the U.S. cheer team’s leader. Takino received advice and photos from the group, which she showed her friends to garner their interest.
After some convincing, Takino managed to form a five-person group in January 1996.
“At the beginning, we had no idea what we were doing. We were just having fun, and only learning one dance a year. We asked a student from Aoyama Gakuin University’s baton twirl group to teach us, because baton twirling is the same as cheer, right?” Takino laughed.
“That first performance at the baton students’ show, we danced like kindergarteners,” she said.
Every year, they host a celebratory anniversary show, often held in one of Tokyo’s public gyms. They rent out a facility to perform several cheer routines as a team; those who want to perform individual or partner choreography perform too.
But after hosting their seventh anniversary performance, Takino said the group began to symbolize something more than a fun cheer troupe.
“We took an audience survey and we got responses that said we gave them strength or courage. I realized, ‘Oh, this is what our group must look like to others’,” she said.
Since then, Japan Pom Pom has raised money to donate to groups supporting various causes, including victims of the March 11 triple disaster in Fukushima, the children’s humanitarian fund UNICEF, and the Sakura Wheelchair Project, a non-profit organization that provides support for those with wheelchair needs.
Though practice has been canceled due to Japan’s COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, Japan Pom Pom members don’t plan on slowing down. Harada takes pilates classes and goes on walks a few times a week. Though Takino hasn’t exercised recently, she’s eager to get back to cheer practice.
“Keep challenging yourself, no matter what age you turn. Don’t give up,” she said.
Harada had an even simpler message: Don’t forget to smile.
“Something is fun because you’re smiling, not the other way around. Even when life gets hard, if you’re smiling, those heavy feelings will get lighter,” she said. “Smiling will bring you happiness.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of the article said team members’ average age is about 80, rather than about 70. We regret the error.