Smirks and snickering tend to greet any mention of “men’s rhythmic gymnastics,” as the phrase conjures up images of chaps in tights prancing around swinging ribbons or clutching squeezy balls to their chests like the sport’s female exponents.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, men’s rhythmic gymnastics is a fantastic event involving all kinds of dynamic and acrobatic stunts performed by teams whose minutely synchronized routines often move spectators to tears.
And there have been lots of joyous tears shed up in Tohoku at Aomori University on account of its men’s rhythmic gymnastics team, which has won the intercollegiate championship for 11 years in a row. For four consecutive years now, it has also won the All-Japan National Championship, in which the competitors include corporate teams whose members may be able to practice almost full-time.
During a trip to Tohoku last month, I stopped off at a high school gym to meet the Aomori University team. Most of them have been doing rhythmic gymnastics for more than 10 years and were recruited from across the nation following outstanding performances in high school events.
As the cream of the crop in the 1,000-strong ranks of Japan’s male rhythmic gymnasts, this is the team all the others want to beat, so I wasn’t surprised to find them hard at work practicing for the All-Japan Intercollegiate Rhythmic Gymnastics Championship coming up this month — as well as for a one-off display sponsored and produced by renowned fashion designer Issey Miyake.
To stage that event in front of a 2,600 audience at the Yoyogi National Stadium in central Tokyo on July 18, Miyake approached the Aomori team in February after being mesmerized watching them on a TV variety show. The fashion icon then hired U.S.-based choreographer Daniel Ezralow — who will choreograph the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics — to put together that hour-long program in Tokyo.
Met with thunderous applause on the night, that contemporary dance-style show titled “Flying Bodies, Soaring Spirits” featured 27 members outfitted in Miyake’s signature much-pleated costumes. Ezralow’s involvement also led to some moves new to the student gymnasts, including them being flung in the air like dolphins and doing flip-flops on the mat like shrimps on a boat’s deck.
Yoshimitsu Nakata, head coach of the Aomori team, said Miyake’s offer presented a great opportunity to advertise the appeal of the sport to a wider audience at a time when the outlook for it in Japan is grim.
According to the 40-year-old Aomori native, who is a former national champion, the sport’s community in this country is so small compared with those for the likes of baseball or soccer that it is on the brink of extinction. Men’s rhythmic gymnastics also pales in popularity to “regular” gymnastics, which is an Olympic sport boasting many high-profile athletes.
To make matters even worse, Nakata said there are even fewer rhythmic gymnasts outside Japan — so there are no international competitions — and for a long time there was also a lack of transparency in the way the athletes were judged in domestic competitions.
The sport’s fortunes started sagging, he explains, when women’s rhythmic gymnastics made its debut at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles — a breakthrough that unfortunately implanted the idea the sport is only for women. Then, in 2009, men’s rhythmic gymnastics was eliminated from the National Sports Festival of Japan (known as the Kokutai), a top competition held around the country every year.
All this despite the fact men’s rhythmic gymnastics was born in Japan more than 60 years ago by combining elements of gymnastic traditions from Sweden, Denmark and Germany.
“Several years ago, I was made head of the committee for men’s rhythmic gymnastics (under the Japan Gymnastic Association, which oversees both gymnasts and rhythmic gymnasts),” Nakata said. “But the association officials told me that if I couldn’t turn things around, they would move to abolish the sport itself.”
Many student athletes at Aomori University said they only started doing rhythmic gymnastics by chance or because injuries they picked up in other sports forced them to look eleswhere. And when they initially started training, the students said they all to different degrees had trouble shaking off a feeling of embarrassment to be doing a sport dominated by women.
“I certainly had reservations when I began practicing, but those feelings disappeared over time as I watched the performances of senior athletes. I found them cool,” said Sho Kobayashi, a senior at the university who won the individual category at this year’s East Japan Intercollegiate Championships. He also explained that he’d only turned to rhythmic gymnastics while he was at junior high school in Aichi Prefecture after an elbow injury made him give up baseball.
Meanwhile, several of Kobayashi’s teammates said they’d only started doing rhythmic gymnastics so they could learn how to do backward somersaults — then, as they racked up experience, they began to be drawn to the sport’s artistic dimensions.
As with other forms of gymnastics, competitions in this specialty are twofold: individual events in which athletes perform on a 13×13-meter mat for 90 seconds, using apparatus such as sticks and ropes; and a group competition in which teams of six perform together for three minutes.
It is the group category, though, that sets this sport so astonishingly apart, as the skills and abilities required of any one member are amplified when they have to do everything in perfect synch together.
In a routine called “tumbling,” for example, athletes dash diagonally from the corners of the mat at top speed, each repeating somersaults and crossing one another in mid-air, only narrowly avoiding collisions. Teamwork is essential, because the slightest error in an athlete’s direction or the speed of his moves could result in a serious accident. In fact these athletes even train so they breathe in and out at the same time as each other, and that sound is a notable feature of the performance.
When all this really comes together, Aomori and top-notch teams like them succeed in synchronizing their moves so exquisitely as to deliver an artistic and aesthetic effect unrivaled in almost any other sporting field.
Unlike most other university teams, all 27 members of the Aomori squad live in the same college dorm, share rooms with three to five beds each, cook together and spend pretty much all their after-school time together. “I think the biggest attraction of the sport is the collective beauty (of the performances of athletes),” said team captain Masamitsu Kikuchi. “I think our strength comes from the fact we all live together.”
Nakata, the head coach, sees it differently. He said that the long snowy winter fosters resilience in residents of Aomori. “It’s so cold out here,” he said. “You can’t go outside your house in winter until you finish plowing the heavy snow out of your way. You can’t get to school or work unless you do that every morning — sometimes three times a day.”
Meanwhile, though the general outlook for men’s rhythmic gymnastics may be far from rosy, the career options for the Aomori team’s graduates have looked up a lot. Where once they would have to compete frantically for the few jobs going every year as coaches at high schools and universities, recently five of the team’s alumni have joined the Canadian circus/entertainment company Cirque du Soleil, while several others work for the dance unit Blue Tokyo, which was co-founded in 2010 by Nakata and Sakae Arakawa, head coach of men’s rhythmic gymnastics at the university-affiliated Aomori Yamada Senior High School.
“Aomori’s population is falling and many of its residents have moved to Tokyo because they can’t find jobs here,” Nakata said. “We want to create events you can see only in Aomori, so more people will come from outside to visit and that will help to create jobs doing stage lighting, sound engineering, costume design and ticket sales. I feel strongly that we want to create something original here in Aomori.”
For more information on the Aomori team, with a video of the July 18 display in Tokyo, visit www.isseymiyake.com/aomori/.