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Blazing a breakdancing trail

KYUNG HOON KIM / REUTERS
                                Members pose for a picture after a final rehearsal for a performance at a Tokyo festival. Their instructor, Yusuke Arai, 38, in the black shirt, joins them.
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KYUNG HOON KIM / REUTERS

Members pose for a picture after a final rehearsal for a performance at a Tokyo festival. Their instructor, Yusuke Arai, 38, in the black shirt, joins them.

KYUNG HOON KIM / REUTERS
                                At top, Saruwaka Kiyoshie, 74, is a member of Ara Style Senior, Japan’s only breakdancing club made up of older women.
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Swipe or click to see more

KYUNG HOON KIM / REUTERS

At top, Saruwaka Kiyoshie, 74, is a member of Ara Style Senior, Japan’s only breakdancing club made up of older women.

KYUNG HOON KIM / REUTERS
                                Members pose for a picture after a final rehearsal for a performance at a Tokyo festival. Their instructor, Yusuke Arai, 38, in the black shirt, joins them.
KYUNG HOON KIM / REUTERS
                                At top, Saruwaka Kiyoshie, 74, is a member of Ara Style Senior, Japan’s only breakdancing club made up of older women.

TOKYO >> A 74-year-old surfer and master of classical Japanese dance might seem an unlikely member of a seniors breakdancing group, but Saruwaka Kiyoshie said getting her feet wet in the sport was a no-brainer after it was confirmed for the 2024 Paris Games.

As a restless teenager, Saruwaka fell in love with surfing and had wondered why it wasn’t an Olympic sport, until it finally got its place at Tokyo 2020.

“And now, breaking is going to be added in Paris, and Japan even has a gold medal candidate,” Saruwaka, who once placed second in a local surfing contest and still rides waves for fun, said at her home in Tokyo.

“I used to see kids breakdancing under the railroad tracks and would think to myself, ‘I’d probably be one of them if I were young,’” she said, confessing that her parents had started her in Nihonbuyo — traditional Japanese dance — at age 5 to keep their feisty daughter out of trouble. “Of course, I never imagined I’d actually be doing it at this age, but when the opportunity arose I thought, ‘Why not? It sounds fun!’”

Saruwaka is now a member of Ara Style Senior, Japan’s only breakdancing club made up of older citizens.

On a recent Friday, eight members gathered in a community center wearing matching orange and green T-shirts to rehearse for a performance at a local festival in two days.

The team is the brainchild of Reiko Maruyama, 71, an elected official in Tokyo’s Edogawa ward who had been looking to revitalize the community through sports and exercise.

Maruyama had been speaking with Yusuke Arai, the son of a friend and former national breaking champion, and floated the idea of getting older residents into breakdancing.

“I told him, now that it’s going to be an Olympic discipline, this is the breakthrough moment!” she said.

Arai, who has judged breaking competitions — he once gave Japanese medal favorite B-Boy Shigekix an award as a child — agreed, starting with Maruyama as his sole elderly pupil in early 2023.

For motivation, Arai suggested last spring that Maruyama join the children he teaches in a performance that would be held at a community center.

Not wanting to be the only adult in a sea of schoolchildren, Maruyama enticed Saruwaka to join, betting on her penchant to take on new challenges.

“I want to spread breaking among seniors in Edogawa ward, and from Edogawa to the rest of Japan and maybe even the world,” the council woman said. Japan is the most rapidly aging advanced society, with roughly 30% of its population 65 or older.

As Soopasoul’s funk track “It’s Just Begun, Pt. 2” played, the women took their positions and rehearsed their routine peppered with the simplest of freezes, toprock and floor moves — and plenty of smiles.

“You can’t help but laugh when you see yourself in these funny poses,” said Maruyama, who was tasked with a chair freeze pose at the end of the routine, balancing herself up on her head, hands and one foot, with one leg held high above her body. “I think it’s great that you can laugh, dance and stay healthy, and that’s why I recommend it to people around me.”

B-girls, B-boys and B-ladies

Ara Style Senior now comprises about 15 members, eight of whom performed to a packed room of Edogawa locals at the festival in June, joined by Arai and his younger students.

The moves they attempt are a far cry from the impossibly acrobatic feats B-boys and B-girls will perform at the Olympics. The point for Ara Style’s B-ladies, though, is to have fun and stay fit.

“At first I thought, ‘There’s no way I can breakdance at my age,’” said 69-year-old Hitomi Oda. “And of course, we can’t do anything extreme, but it’s fun just to do the easy moves and get the body working.”

For Saruwaka, breaking is a welcome respite from the heavy responsibility she bears of passing on the art of the elite, 400-year-old Saruwaka school of classical dance, where she earned her professional stage name, or “natori.”

Once she changes into her traditional “yukata” (summer kimono) to teach after rehearsing with the B-ladies, Saruwaka’s expression is relaxed but serious as she offers her students guidance on the subtle gestures that characterize the craft of Nihonbuyo.

“I suspect I’ll be breakdancing for as long as I live,” she said, noting that it helped strengthen her lower body so she could continue with classical dance.

“I bet I can do it until I’m 100, if I’m still alive,” she said.

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