Inspired by Olympics debut, Japan’s seniors blaze breakdancing trail

Inspired by Olympics debut, Japan’s seniors blaze breakdancing trail
  • PublishedJune 25, 2024

A 74-year-old surfer and master of classical Japanese dance may seem an unlikely member of a seniors’ breakdancing group, but Saruwaka Kiyoshie says getting into “breaking” was a no-brainer after it was confirmed for the 2024 Paris Games.

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

A woman wearing a wetsuit and a cap paddles past the whitewash on a beach
Saruwaka Kiyoshie, 74, surfs at Kugenuma beach in Fujisawa in May 2024.(Reuters: Kim Kyung-Hoon)

“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!'”

A woman with grey-streaked black hair poses does a breakdancing pose with her head to the floor and left arm and leg  up
Saruwaka practices a dance move known as ‘chair freeze’ during a practice session.(Reuters: Kim Kyung-Hoon )

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

On a recent Friday, eight members gathered in a community centre 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 energise the community through sports and exercise.

Ms 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.

A man performs a breakdance move where he stands on one hand with his feet in the air as students look on
The group’s coach, Yusuke Arai, is a former national breaking champion.(Reuters: Kim Kyung-Hoon)

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

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

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

A group of children perform breakdance on stage
Members of Ara Style Kids rehearse on stage.(Reuters: Kim Kyung-Hoon)

“I want to spread breaking among seniors in Edogawa ward, and from Edogawa to the rest of Japan and maybe even the world,” the councilwoman said.

Japan is the most rapidly aging advanced society, with roughly 30 per cent of its population 65 or older.

A group of elderly breakdancers and their teacher stretch in a hallway in front of a vending machine
Members of Ara Style Senior stretch while they wait for their performance to start at a local festival in Tokyo.(Reuters: Kim Kyung-Hoon )

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 the councilwoman, 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.

A woman wearing a sash with a message in Japanese speaks into a megaphone on the street as a man passes her
The senior breakdancing group was born out of council woman Reiko Maruyama, 71, wanting to energise her community through sports and excercise.(Reuters: Kim Kyung-Hoon)

“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 last month, joined by Mr Arai and his younger students.

Children watch as a group of elderly people and other kids prepare on stage
Members of Ara Style Kids watch the final rehearsal of Ara Style Senior before their performance at a local festival.(Reuters: Kim Kyung-Hoon)

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.

A woman in her 60s runs after a young boy biking down a street on a practice bike with no pedals
Hitomi Oda, 69, plays with her grandson Asahi, 3.(Reuters: Kim Kyung-Hoon)

“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 in which she earned her professional stage name, or “natori”.

An elderly woman directs a young woman's head as she dances with a fan in her hand, both wearing traditional yukatas
Saruwaka teaches her pupil traditional Japanese dance, Nihonbuyo, at her studio in Tokyo.(Reuters: Kim Kyung-Hoon)

Once she changes into her traditional yukata outfit 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 characterise 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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