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On Saturday, March 26th, my friends, family, and fellow Aikidoists will all come to watch my Sandan test, a work-in-progress 20+ years in the making, and still progressing. In other words, my community will be there to support, bear witness, and share a bowl of what promises to be mighty good soup! But, it would be wrong to suggest that this test is solely "my" endeavor, alone. Many other "cooks" helped create this "dish." Sensei's Linda, Glen, Aimen, David and Jeannie Sofen and Dennis all added necessary "ingredients" and invaluable signposts; and all the other regular members and visitors of North Bay Aikido were critical in "stirring the pot," and providing signposts of their own. I would mention you all here, but the list would number in the hundred's.
Thanks to you all, for your heartfelt training, your openness and your honesty. I could not have made this effort without your participation, your suggestions, your heartfelt ukemi.
To understand the relevance of my promotion, it is important to examine the relationship of the rank, to the larger community. Linda Sensei refers to Sandan-rank as a "pillar of the community." Since Dennis' Sandan-test, I had puzzled over that designation. Of course, other dojo's and other Aikido-styles have differing interpretations of what "Sandan" means—at its most basic, yudansha-rank refers, generally, to a qualification to teach. The higher your rank, the more qualified you are to teach, independently. This understanding is not limited to Aikido. A Tai Kwon Do instructor at SF State, who teaches a class right before mine, asked me if Sandan qualifies me to teach black-belt classes, after I told him of my imminent promotion. I explained that the designation of Sandan is different in my dojo. But in a sense, even the basic idea of teaching and rank in Aikido is complimentary to community. All martial arts have a foundational element in instruction.
But what makes up a "community?" Without delving into pointless definitions, I would say that a community is made up of the current and past members (and family-members) of the dojo, and the regularity of classes and our mutual interest is the "glue" that keeps North Bay Aikido viable. A necessary component to an active Aikido community is an upwardly active membership. Without a "critical mass" of participatory students, a dojo is in danger of becoming stale, rigidified, or overly tied to tradition.
Featured events throughout the year go a long way to making the "glue" hold fast: the Japanese Cultural Festival, Kangeiko and raffle, the New Years' misogi…all of these events play a role in community-building by keeping the members engaged in dojo-activities other than training. These activities also provide a solid means of outreach, drawing new members into the community.
Within any community are groups-within-groups, or sub-groups, that are not clearly evident, to a newcomer. These groups provide support to individuals outside of the dojo, or provide "behind the scenes" support to various dojo-functions. In our dojo, these groups are not closed systems: rather, they are more properly "federations" bound by common interest, age, or marital status.
Central to the process of dojo community-building, within any community, is the character of the Sensei. Specifically, a Sensei often determines how "open" (or closed) a community is, and the primary areas of study within Aikido (as there are many "sub-topics" of Aikido: chanting, swordwork, suwariwaza, etc). If you really want a litmus-test of the character of the dojo, go talk to Sensei. This is obvious in a hierarchical-based discipline such as Aikido, but is evident in all communities.
Conversely, the character of Sensei (of any martial art) can close the dojo-door to potential members, as well as open it. Relationships to other organizations, petty rivalries, hidebound elitism: these are the elements that can keep that "door" closed, or cause feelings of alienation and "cliques" to align themselves against a given member. The same groups and mechanisms that are so productive in ensuring the growth of a dojo have their dark sides in working to alienate some individuals, in a "toxic" dojo.
We are extremely fortunate in having Linda as Sensei, as she has openly professed her aversion to such "power politics." Having been a member of five dojo's in a score of years, I can honestly say that North Bay Aikido is the most "open" and non-political dojo that I have encountered. In a sense, we at North Bay Aikido are "spoiled (in the best way)" in being blind to this toxic nature of a dysfunctional community.
How do you watch out for this sort of toxicity? It's not easy: a "toxic" Sensei will not usually make his prejudices known. In fact, s/he is probably unaware, consciously: that s/he is often the source of the factors that alienate. But of course: look to your own motivations and sentiments, before questioning others. Perhaps the toxicity originates, from you? But a good, "quick" indicator of a "toxic" dojo, is if Sensei (or a senior student) claims that "their" Aikido is "not of everyone," or that "their" Aikido is somehow "special." I have so far heard two dojo's make this claim. In my opinion, this idea runs counter to the teachings of O Sensei, who said: "Aikido is for everyone; not just the Japanese."
My Aikido History
But what is your previous experience? Several people in the dojo have asked me this question.
It's funny, one's personal Aikido history is like an ever-widening river. We all talk about our previous instructors and "light up" when common paths were crossed, albeit at different times. "Oh yeah! I trained under so-and-so for years!" It's another tie to community and commonality, this recollection of paths crossed, unknowing.
Twenty years of study could seem like a long time, for some. In truth, when I consider my time spent in Aikido, I feel a twinge of embarrassment. Shouldn't I know more, by now? Shouldn't I be "better," than I am?
To recount all of my past training experiences would be impossible, even to fully remember. Memory is a poor recording-device. But, from what I can remember, I shall list in chart-form, below:
Fall, 1984 My first discovery of Aikido, at Johns Hopkins Univ Aikido Club, taught by Fernando
Salazar. I still remember my first class: I was so excited that I stayed for the "intermediate" class, held in the 2nd hour (classes were each 1hr long, 2 classes/evening. 2x/wk). I couldn't walk straight for four days
Spring, 1985 I had caught the Aikido-bug. But, I was stuck in a small private college, on an island off Maine. At the time, Aikido did not exist anywhere closer than NH. But I was determined, and stubborn. I organized an independent study with one other person. Together, we collaborated on a teaching regimen with a dojo in Nashua, NH, run by Lou Periello Sensei. We managed, between twice-weekly partner-training; visits from Peter Cina, a Nidan from Nashua; and attendance to 2 seminars; to eke out enough time to barely pass 5th kyu, which I set up as my criteria for evaluation, on my independent study.
When I completed my test, I asked Periello Sensei for feedback. He said that I need to find more steady and experienced instruction, if I wanted to progress.
Fall, 1985 I moved back to Baltimore, and took up my studies under a satellite dojo of Saotome Sensei. At the time, it was a little "club" which shared the space under a church which used the space as a daycare, during the day. Sensei Charlie Page, a senior student of Saotome, was the only instructor. All told, I would guess the club had about 10 members. Every night we trained, we had to move the Big-Bird toys, pull out the white, packing-material mats (which left a crumbly residue), and tape them down with duct tape, so they wouldn't slip around. What fun!
Dec 31, 1990 The date of my Shodan. Up till that time, I stayed with Baltimore Aikido Dojo, which moved on since I joined to become a full dojo (we had to move out of the daycare), with two other Sensei's who came onboard (Chuck Weber and Zenko Okamura), with an active membership of about 20-30 people.
On the day of my Shodan, it was a full-moon, we trained past the New Year, and I met the woman who would come with me to the West Coast, the moment I stepped off the mat. Momentous? Yeah, I guess it was.
I well remember my randori. Sensei's Kevin Choate, Martha (last name?) and Jim Sorrentino (both Kevin and Jim now teach at their dojo's in Chicago and Virginia, respectively) jumped up to be my uke's, with Sensei's Saotome and Ikeda as my test-board. I decided to use my speed to "outrun" my uke's. Saotome Sensei was much amused.
Summer, 1991 I traveled across the country in a U-Haul, stopping at several dojo's along the way.
Nov '91 I started my membership at Jamie Zimron Sensei's dojo, Aikido Arts Center, in SF. They had shortly altered their membership to include men, and I was one of the first male members.
I also took advantage of the many dojo's in SF and the Bay Area to broaden my Aikido experience. With the exception of North Bay Aikido, I went to visit all of the dojo's in which I would later become a member, such as:
1993-1998 Aikido West. When Jamie Zimron Sensei moved onto another city, I decided to move on, as well, to another dojo. I had managed to buy a used car, and so I could make the trip down to Redwood City. My Nidan test was in 1995, with Cyndi Hayashi Sensei as my uke. I also tried to incorporate skills I learned from other martial arts, such as:
1994-1999 Capoeira, with Mestre Urubu Malandro (Capoeira USA). Most of my Aikido/Capoeira experiments were interesting (and good for a few unique moves in a randori), but nothing to go off and start up a new martial art (not that I wanted to). But, I did have a moment of epiphany, when Mestre Urubu came to visit Aikido West to watch my Nidan. I brought him over to the office to introduce him to Doran Sensei. I wondered how they would each react, being masters of their respective disciplines, and each (in his own way) firmly set on his path. Without hesitation, Doran Sensei shook his hand and said with a beaming smile: "I love that Capoeira-stuff." Urubu grinned back.
I'll never forget that moment.
1998-2003 Suginami Aikikai, with Sensei Jim Friedman. For a time, I was a member of both Suginami and North Bay Aikido. In 2002 I took an intensive with Kato Sensei and attended Summer Camp in Santa Cruz, literally right on top of each other.
Fall, ‘01-today I began teaching my class at SFSU. Since then, my classes have grown from one to two sections. I can only hope to get an intermediate class.
2002-today North Bay Aikido, here I come. I actually moved here in Summer, 2003, kicking and screaming from my beloved and much-fantasized town of SF, when I was an East-Coast'er. Now, you'll need a crowbar and a few horses to get me out of here. Santa Cruz rocks: and I am walking distance to my dojo. What could be better?