Babies were crying as their mothers limbered up for something unusual at Tokyo’s Yoyogi National Stadium in November. There was good reason for the unease: Five thousand people were in the audience.
Over 70 women in red T-shirts cautiously pushed their babies in strollers to the center of the floor, and as if on cue the children fell silent.
Music began playing, and expressions of nervousness on the mothers’ faces instantly became broad smiles. They pushed and swung the strollers, shook their bodies, and bounced and twirled around. Their babies gazed in curiosity at the movement.
The most rewarding moment came at the end, when the audience broke into applause. It was just reward for the months of practice by mothers who often struggle in isolation to raise their babies.
“We did it!” exclaimed one participant following the performance at the Japan Gymnastics Festival. Others cheered in agreement.
“Words can’t describe how moving this is,” said Sayaka Yoshi, 38, who heads the dance group Japan Parent-Child Association Famirhythm. The group holds lessons at five studios in Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture as well as online.
The stroller-dance team has been a part of the festival for three years now, with membership expanding from about 50 pairs in the first year.
The group’s members are mostly 30-something mothers with no experience of dancing in front of an audience. Their babies are aged from about 3 months and upwards.
Yoshi, a mother of three, founded the dance group under a different name in 2012 after suffering postpartum depression following the birth of her first child.
“I was crying the whole time when I was taking care of my first baby. I was suddenly cut off from the rest of the world, and I barely talked to anybody during the day,” Yoshi said. She had been active and social before the baby’s birth, spending much of her time outside with friends.
The traumatic experience of raising a child on her own made her aware of the need to connect with others, and she soon turned to dancing, which she loved and had been doing since childhood — only this time it was with her child in a stroller.
Like Yoshi, many mothers in Japan are often left alone with their children. It is still uncommon for fathers to take leave for child care, and they tend to work long hours away from home.
Although family and community support have become increasingly scarce with changes in lifestyles, cultural views persist that a mother’s role is looking after her children. A 2010 government survey — the latest for which there are statistics — showed roughly 60 percent of Japanese women leave their jobs upon the birth of their first child.
Members of Famirhythm were no exception. Many said they quit their jobs and gave up hobbies or altered their lifestyles to focus on raising their children.
“When you have a child, your child becomes your top priority, but then you end up having to give up all the fun stuff for yourself,” said Sachiko Furuie, 32, who now has a son aged 3 months and is on her second period of maternity leave.
She said taking part in the dance gives her a way to relax, and it makes child care easier. “It made me think I should do something that I enjoy doing, because it helps me deal with my kids with a more relaxed attitude.”
Miho Mochizuki, a 36-year-old mother of one, said taking part in last year’s stroller dance gave her a sense of achievement unlike anything she experienced in child-rearing and “energized” her enough to return to her old hobby of jogging.
“The satisfying feeling made me want to start other things,” she said, adding that she soon took up jogging and started going out more frequently since her routine keeps her busy and away from home. “Here, I don’t have to worry about the noise my child makes,” she said.
Reiko Koya, an instructor at a Tokyo studio, hoisted her gurgling 9-month-old in a baby carrier while she taught stroller dance moves. Older children played in the background.
“We want to make child-rearing fun,” said the 39-year-old former member of the Shiki Theatre Company. “There is no end to child-rearing, but when we dance together, we can make a fresh start.”
Fathers also benefit from the dancing.
Masaaki Matsuda, a 31-year-old father of two daughters, said he indirectly benefits from his wife’s participation. The mother, Aimi, 28, takes the children to dance sessions.
“I think the dance helps relieve stress. My wife stopped snapping at me and that has helped me a lot,” he said with a laugh, adding, “She’s now physically stronger too.”
During a practice at a studio in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward, Matsuda watched over his daughters at times and assisted the mothers by ordering pizzas for lunch afterwards.
Few fathers participate in the dance themselves, but Yoshi believes the entire family “ends up getting involved,” regardless of whether the fathers join in.
“This dance sets the rhythm for the entire family,” hence the name “Famirhythm,” a combination of “family” and “rhythm,” she said.
Although the group still faces many difficulties, including securing studios that allow strollers to be used, it hopes to expand its membership further and even take the dance overseas in years ahead.
“We want to send a message that encourages child-rearing, like, ‘We are all going through child-rearing and it’s hard, but let’s do it together,’ ” Yoshi said.