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Highlighting JAPAN

Life Is a Dance

SBE80! of Fukui Prefecture’s Sabae City is an idol group whose average age is over eighty. They tour the country performing choreographed versions of aerobic exercises. Still supple, energetic and full of life, they are inspiring other seniors around the country to get up and move.

The group of female performers known as SBE80!, all from the town of Sabae in Fukui Prefecture, have an average age of over eighty. They made their official debut in the spring of 2010 when Michiko Miyashita, then eighty-five, led the group of sixteen in a choreographed dance number to “Tokimeki no Rumba,” a song by the young Japanese enka singer Kiyoshi Hikawa. “We made our hats ourselves out of red cardboard,” says Miyashita, pointing enthusiastically at a photograph, “and spent two months practicing our dance routine.”

According to Susumu Yamamoto, a physical therapist in the Health Affairs Section of Sabae City Hall, “what inspired the formation of SBE80! started in 2005 when students of the lifelong learning course organized by the Sabae Elderly Club Association performed exercise programs such as the fall-prevention ‘Dodonpa Exercise’ to promote physical activity in various locations around the city, including nursing homes and senior citizens’ clubs.”

Before long, the unnamed group was performing at more venues and expanding its repertoire. The members decided they should create a formal dance troupe, so SBE80!—which stands for “healthy 80-year-olds from Sabae!”—was born.

After the group unanimously selected songs to dance to, Yamamoto used his physical therapist’s eye to choreograph routines designed to maintain physical strength by bolstering the body’s trunk, with the emphasis on the muscles in the back and abdomen. Since its debut, SBE80! has gained attention as a dancing idol troupe, and organizers of events throughout Fukui Prefecture have approached the group. Interview requests from the media have also flooded in. SBE80! has even performed alongside smash-hit idol group AKB48, and now puts on thirty shows a year around Japan.

Now ninety, Miyashita is still lovely, with outstanding posture and enunciation. She played in a mothers’ volleyball club for sixteen years and served as a facilitator in Sabae’s elderly clubs. In short, she was a working woman active throughout all aspects of society. When asked how she maintains such an active tour schedule even at such an age, she says, “I love seeing people smile. Because I want to see as many smiles as possible, I want to keep working hard, taking on the next challenge and then the next.”
According to Yamamoto, SBE80!’s philosophy is: “From pursuing health for your own pleasure to pursuing health to entertain others,” meaning that rather than the elderly simply exercising for their own benefit, appearing and performing in front of others and getting feedback creates a circle of energy.

“It’s the power of entertainment,” Yamamoto notes. “The applause, the cameras, the lights—everything adds vim and vigor. Preconceptions of what it means to be eighty or ninety disappear. Inspired by SBE80!, a group of people in their seventies have even founded their own troupe, called Honmachi-Komachi.”

Sabae thrives as a site of traditional industries like eyeglass and lacquerware production. Yamamoto, who has worked at city hall for twenty years, evaluates the city from the long-range view of a civil servant: “People in Sabae excel at helping others. They’re also open to change and cutting-edge innovations, and have a spirit of hospitality as well. The young and elderly alike respect and understand each other. In such an aging society, it’s important to respect the lives that those who came before us have led. We should learn all we can from our elders while walking side by side with them into the future, with the younger generations shouldering what is to come.”

“Ninety is nothing!” declares Miyashita with a smile. “Our goal is to dance until we’re a hundred, so we have to make sure our bones stay healthy enough that we don’t fall or suffer a fracture.” Miyashita gets up every morning at five on the dot, does some radio-led exercises and then tends the fields. At night, she enjoys a glass of wine.

Yamamoto joked, “When Kiyoshi Hikawa takes the stage at the Kohaku Uta Gassen [a huge-scale national music program held every New Year’s Eve on public broadcaster NHK] this year, he might call on the group to dance alongside him, or we might meet up with AKB48 again! So we can’t slack off.” Miyashita adds with a beaming smile, “If he calls us, I’ll go with bells on. I'm having the time of my life!”