Take a moment to try to think seriously about cheerleaders. Nowadays, they don’t just wear skimpy outfits, wave pompoms and do high kicks. Oh no, the cheerleaders jump, tumble and perform acrobatic stunts. And, of course, they dance, chant and smile as well. But colorful pompoms and short skirts apart, get ready for this: cheerleading teams can be men-only too.

Yohei Kano, a 23-year-old senior at Waseda University in Tokyo, didn’t see anything strange in that notion — and he wondered why most teams are all-female. So three years ago Kano founded Shockers, the country’s first all-male university cheerleading team.

“Now I am a senior and retired from cheerleading activities. But you can come to see the team’s practice and you will realize how hard and exciting the sport is,” Kano told me over the phone.

I’d heard about mixed cheerleading teams, but I’d never seen one — much less a men-only troupe. So, feeling thrilled, I headed off to a public gymnasium in Nishi-Tokyo City in western Tokyo to see one in the flesh.

The 3-hour practice I watched, starting at 9 a.m., looked amazingly hard, and the guys sweated buckets.

The 28 members of the team, ranging from freshmen to junior-year students at Waseda, warmed up with stretches then listened to their instructors teaching them their dance moves, and explaining how to show off their stunts to best effect during their 2 1/2-minute-long performance.

Besides their main role supporting sports teams, cheerleaders also perform in competitions. Shockers primarily hone their stunning athletic skills expressly to compete in competitions and perform at various events.

That morning, they practiced stunts over and over again. But, because the gym’s ceiling was a little too low, this impressed observer was denied the chance to see them toss members up more than 5 meters to the top of the human tower that’s the highlight of their show.

Throughout, the whole squad looked very serious. But maybe because they were doing something only a few others do, they appeared to be enjoying themselves thoroughly as well.

While keeping one eye on the practice, Kano explained to me that, to perform the stunts in which members are lifted up beautifully and dynamically with seemingly no effort, building trust among the team is crucial.

“For a long time I used to play baseball, but if you do it seriously, cheerleading like this is as hard as a baseball game in terms of the physical abilities and energy it requires,” he said. “At the same time, the mental bond between members who perform at the top (of the human tower) and those who support at the base are very important. If you don’t trust someone who is supporting you, you cannot perform boldly and confidently.

“And you have to smile. Even if the performance is very hard, you have to smile at the audience. Otherwise, it’s not cheerleading,” Kano said.

Even in practice, I’d noticed that everyone was trying to keep a big smile on their face when they danced or performed stunts — an interesting contrast to their intense and sometimes dangerous gymnastics.

Certainly audiences seemed intrigued with this smiling-serious contrast, Kano said — but for the cheerleaders themselves it’s the daredevil stunts that are the main attraction. Once a member has experienced one of these, they just want to do more and more, he explained.

“It’s really fun. You don’t climb or jump to that height in daily life. It’s so thrilling,” he said, adding that he’d had no idea cheerleading was like that until he started doing it at the university.

In high school, Kano said, he had been a serious baseball player who had set his sights on the national high-school tournament and practiced hard. But he injured his shoulder as a third-year student and had to give up his dreams of playing at a high level.

Then, when he was thinking about which sport he wanted to do at university, he met some cheerleaders at a party for freshmen.

“I thought I couldn’t be a cheerleader because I’m a man. But then I had a second thought and wondered why we didn’t have a men’s cheerleading team. Quite simply, I thought that would be fun.”

Kano became more confident with the idea of forming a men’s cheerleading team when he went to see performances at other universities and got more insight into the sport. The members in that university group were women, but they performed challenging stunts as well as dynamic dancing. So Kano says he thought men could perform powerful and athletic cheerleading if they trained hard.

But perhaps inevitably, many people got hung up on those pompoms, and did not share his enthusiasm or vision of male cheerleaders.

“I visited venues for freshmen who were looking for sports clubs and asked them to join a men’s cheerleading team. But many just frowned at me and said they would ‘definitely not join.’

“But you know, in Waseda University, there are many different kinds of people. Luckily I managed to get five other members, including two with a gymnastics background.”

As the team of six were all beginners at cheerleading, they invited a coach from a high-school women’s cheerleading team to instruct them, and sometimes practiced in a local park.

Although they had to put up with jokers asking if they were going to wear skirts, Kano recalls that the hardest part was the training required to prepare themselves for the university’s autumn festival, where they gave their first-ever performance. Also, in time for that event, they designed their uniform — comprising T-shirts and short pants.

Through their hard work, the troupe’s debut went well, and with more shows in the following two years, the name Shockers became more and more well known. There are now 30 members from various backgrounds, with most only having started cheerleading after they saw the team in action.

Kensuke Aihara, a junior-year student who is now the team’s captain, used to play soccer at high school. But he said he chose cheerleading at university because he wanted to try something new and different.

“I joined this team on impulse,” Aihara said with a smile. “But then I found that cheerleading is so enjoyable. You feel great when you achieve a highly technical performance together with others — but maybe you can’t appreciate how exciting it is unless you actually do it.”

Takahide Sato, another junior-year student who performs as a “base” on the ground level of their human towers, said he joined the team because he wanted to perform as a “top.”

“I was invited to join and was told I might be tossed high in the air. I thought that was cool. But it’s turned out that I perform as a base who supports while others are tossed up to the top,” he said.

“But now I love performing as a base. I feel so good when I smile to the audience and they smile back at me.”

Right now Shockers are in training for their shows at the annual Waseda University festival, scheduled for November. Three years ago at the festival, Kano and 10 other members performed before an audience numbering mere dozens; last year, he was impressed to see a huge audience stretching as far as his eyes could see.

Indeed, men’s cheerleading in Japan seems to have changed a lot in the past three years. Kano said that when they started, they could not buy men’s shoes designed specially for cheerleading and had to order them from the United States. Now they can get the shoes in Japan — meaning that Japan’s population of male cheerleaders is going up like their human towers.

“It was interesting to challenge the idea that cheerleading belongs to girls, and probably because we are doing that, people come to see us and we’ve been able to come this far,” Kano said.

“It will be nice if we have a men’s cheerleading competition in Japan one day soon.”

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