Ukemi, the misunderstood role of Uke
I know that most people when they see the words ukemi skills and ukemi techniques immediately think of high breakfall, flipping and long distance bouncing. These are of course very nice skills to have and for a lot of people certainly help their confidence and ego on the tatami. They are however not the essence of ukemi.
What does constitute good ukemi?
Unfortunately for a lot of people, the essence of ukemi is not equal to looking good and doing high breakfalls. The essence of ukemi is being a good and safe partner.
How does being a good partner work? Well first of all there has to be a complete trust and feeling of safety between nage and uke, this means being sincere in your training and definitly no funny stunts in your training. How else can nage expect uke to be willing to give everything in training for nage to use? Still this is very difficult. Complete trust is hard to gain and easily lost.
So uke has to give everything? But how? First of all uke has to really attack. This is for a lot of people a problem, not because they dont want to, but because the have not been exposed to this part of ukemi yet. (If you are attacking, you are doing something more than just holding nage's hand, you would "in reallife" continue and do something with this hand. Besides, you are attacking the whole person, not just the hand.) This means uke's intention does not stop. Uke's attention goes forward and keeps on going forward through the entire technique.
Here we immediately arive at one of the most difficult things to do for uke, or so it seems. Uke can only give and work with what is actually happening at that point. Uke has to live in the present, no psychic trics like knowing what is going to happen are allowed. Uke is attacking and can not anticipate on something that has not happened yet!!!
But uke knows what technique is being done, a lot of people will comment. Is that true? Does uke know what is going to happen? Can uke predict the future? Does uke have any guarantee that what he thinks is going to happen, actually will happen? No, uke does not have this guarantee. So uke only has the present to work with and this means uke can only do ukemi in the present, not in the futur.
So uke is working in the present, but how. Nage will use uke's attack/intention and start some movement of his own. Uke tries to be very sensitive to this movement and follows it so closely that the thin line between nage doing it and uke doing it gets blurred, but without taking over. At this point both uke and nage are learning about the essence of the techniques they are doing.
With uke only working in the present, it means that he can not set himself up for some high breakfall in advance. Therefor uke can only do the breakfall that happens at that point, which only rarely is going to be some spectacular high breakfall.
Ukemi is hard work and should be practiced seriously. If you ever have to choose between not being uke or not being nage, I would suggest not being nage. While taking ukemi you have so many different things to learn, things you can also use when being nage.