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Home > Columns > "The Mirror" > June, 2005 - Serious Martial Artists

Serious Martial Artists by "The Mirror"


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This column was written by Susan Dalton.


Our dojo had been asked to participate in the International Day festival one Saturday at the local university. Nine of us signed up. My husband borrowed the wrestling mats from the high school where he teaches, Chuck helped haul them, and Diana made cookies. Our dojo likes to have parties, especially parties where we eat whatever Diana cooks. The festival organizer had told us to expect walk-through traffic most of the day, and we'd have ten minutes to do a demonstration on center stage in front of the fountain. We were happy to have been invited back and to be outside rolling around with our friends and eating Diana's cookies on a gorgeous April afternoon.

None of the other sensei had shown up yet, so I was sensei by default. I whizzed through a warm-up and we rolled in a rectangular pattern, hopping off the sun-heated patch of darker mat and into the cool grass -- ouch! That spot on the mat was hot! At first we all did whatever technique I demonstrated, but then we began, in ranking order, taking turns doing techniques and sitting in seiza watching. Erica handed out the flyers John had made, and she talked with people who stopped by.

While doing yokkomanuchi shihonage, I heard sharp commands being barked to my left, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a line of fit young men in crisp white dogi marching toward us. They lined up around the perimeter of the mat, standing at attention and never flinching when their bare toes touched the sizzling, dark mat. A smooth-faced boy who looked much too young to be wearing such a faded black belt yelled something, and in unison the other boys yelled something back. "Sensei," the young man who seemed to be in charge said, "Will you teach us your falls?"

"What sort of fall would you like to learn?" Politely, smilingly -- those were genuine smiles, weren't they? -- they said they wanted to learn our back falls. The class backed off the mat and into the grass to give me plenty of room to demonstrate. "Tuck your leg and fall on the side of your hip. Tilt your head to the same side. Hands and feet will go over the other shoulder. Breathe out as you roll and then pull the leg on the side you went down on through. Let your weight be equally balanced between your front foot and live toes in the back. Feel as though a string in the sky is pulling you to standing as you breathe in and stand." I rolled slowly, talking through each motion and trying to demonstrate precisely. As I came up to standing, my foot caught in a crack between the mats and I wobbled a bit but kept talking. "Here, you try it." They rolled a few times, soft, round rolls but with different footwork than ours.

"Here's how we do it," said the young man in charge.

Their front rolls looked quite similar to ours except for a foot-crossing finish and a quick spring to standing. They were up so fast and effortlessly I can't really tell you how they got there. Their back falls looked like something a Shaolin monk would train decades to accomplish, and their wave rolls combined break-dancing moves with one-armed push-ups. Their smiles were bigger now, more toothy.

"Very nice," I said.

"Thank you for your instruction." The young man bowed ever so slightly. "We're on stage at two-twenty."

"Thank you. We're on after you."

Elizabeth Sensei arrived and we took turns practicing the techniques we'd do on stage. After those energetic, acrobatic youths finished their presentation, we'd have ten minutes to set up and ten minutes to demonstrate. If we set up fast, we'd have plenty of time for our practiced techniques plus some jyu waza to finish.

My eleven-year-old daughter Kelsey and her friend Tory ran across the service road so they could play chase and soccer in the grass. They soon found a group of college students from South America to pass the soccer ball with. One guy in dreadlocks could keep it going no matter what impossible pass he received. Head, knee, foot, shoulder, head, foot -- soon some of the younger children sat down to watch this soccer player's amazing foot skills, but Kelsey and Tory stayed in, laughing when they missed a kick or headed the ball too hard, all these college guys laughing with them and keeping the ball going, including them in the action.

We heard the gong and the drums calling us to the stage, then the insistent thumping of the bass. The young, athletic martial artists kiai-ed as they performed synchronized kata to blaring techno music. One boy climbed to the top of a tall ladder and held a pie pan. The black belt in charge bounced on a mini-trampoline, whirled in the air, and kicked the pie pan out of his partner's hand. Each successful attempt earned a drum roll and thunderous beat of the gong. Then all the boys lined up and took turns running and throwing themselves off the trampoline, catapulting into the sky where they popped balloons with their kicks.

Scott and Diana came back from watching the performance up close. Scott shook his head. "If they ever get attacked by flying pie pans, they're ready."

"One day," said J. Y., "their bodies will no longer be nineteen years old. But today it is amazing what their nineteen-year-old bodies will do."

"Yes," I said to Elizabeth Sensei. "They're a tough act to follow."

She grinned. "We won't do all that, but we'll be fine."

Kelsey said she'd stay with the extra mats, watch the bags and weapons we weren't using while we took the stage. Elizabeth Sensei was right. We were fine. Several little boys up front clapped and clapped when we caught air out of rolls, and the crowd especially liked when Elizabeth Sensei threw Marquis and when Diana threw Scott. We squeezed in jyu waza. It was quick and pretty and fun and then it was over.

As we carried our mats back to our spot, I saw Kelsey glaring at a young man playing with J. Y.'s jo. An iridescent dragon sparkled on his black tee shirt. I said to Kelsey, "Teaching him jo waza, are you?"

She shifted her glare to me. "No, he took it from Tory. I told him it wasn't mine and to put it down, but he didn't."

"It's OK." She let me kiss the top of her head. "You've been very responsible today. I'll get it." While my dojo mates put the mats back together, I walked over to the young man and watched for a moment as he twirled the jo. "Hi. I'm Susan."

He turned and handed me the jo, eying my hakama and belt. He was probably no older than my nineteen-year-old son. I hoped he was eying my hakama and belt. "I'm a serious martial artist," he said. "I've taken almost six months of four different arts."

A blonde girl standing with him moved between us. "He looks like he doesn't know the basics, but he can do some very advanced techniques. He doesn't have a belt or anything, but he could. He can kill people with his bare hands."

Several parents had brought their children over to inquire about aikido. Elizabeth Sensei had invited them onto the mat. I could see Chuck working with the children and several of my dojo mates eating Diana's cookies in the shade.

"Congratulations," I said.

"Watch this roll," the serious martial artist said.

"Be careful of the little guys."

He did an awkward roll, careening through the children. Kelsey was glaring again. She took her child-watching responsibilities even more seriously than her jo-sitting responsibilities. Crossing her arms, she moved to stand between the children and the serious martial artist.

I smiled at Kelsey. "Yes, that roll is very much like ours."

He had the awareness to know he wasn't rolling again unless Kelsey gave him space and she wasn't moving. He stepped back off the mat. "I have friends teaching me Samurai secrets passed down in their families. Some of us get together in the woods and practice ninjitsu. You can come if you'll bring your weapons."

John seemed to be edging closer to listen. He was grinning big. He didn't need to get too close. The serious martial artist was making proclamations in a large, loud voice.

"That black skirt you're wearing would be perfect camouflage in the dark."

"We need to start demonstrating again," I said.

My friends looked happy in the shade. Scott was telling them an animated story and they were laughing. Elizabeth Sensei was on her knees on the mat, showing one of the little guys how to turn his summersault into an aikido roll.

The serious martial artist was now running in place and flexing his biceps while his girlfriend looked at him. "Can't you see him in a Jet Li film?" she asked.

"You have any ninja stars?" he said. "If we just had ninja stars, we'd be set."

"Sorry, I don't."

He smoothed down his dragon and rolled up the sleeves on his short-sleeved tee shirt. "Want to spar?"

"Sorry, I don't," I said. "It's time for us to clear the mats and start demonstrating again."

"Let's spar." He was jabbing the air. "Serious martial artist to serious martial artist."

Marquis' sons were chasing each other around the perimeter of the group under the tree. Kelsey said something to Marquis, then joined the squealing boys running around the tree. JY was showing a little boy and his sister how to knee walk into a forward roll, while Erica talked with their mother.

"Thanks, but no," I said. "I'm not a serious martial artist."


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