David Letterman frequently excuses the goofy stuff on his TV show, by saying in an almost saddened voice: "We're just trying to have some fun." That's true about life in general. There are indeed many different ways in which people prefer to be amused, but the bottom line for most things in life, not immediately related to survival, is entertainment.
Aikido is no exception. Not that we need to laugh every other minute, but we do need to be entertained and amused. We need to like what we do, or we turn elsewhere to kill time.
Therefore, an aikido instructor is kind of a performer. Each class is a show, built on audience participation, and the instructor is the host -- if there's no guest star sensei taking over that role. If the students return to class after class after class, they are entertained. They appreciate the show.
And many students do, year after year. That's quite marvelous. Who would return that persistently to the spectator seats of the Ed Sullivan Theater to watch Letterman have some fun?
We regard the greatest rock stars as the foremost entertainers of all, but what person would willingly return to a Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga or Rolling Stones concert, again and again, for years? In a way, that's what the teacher of a dojo accomplishes.
I've had the fortune of meeting many old and advanced aikido teachers, as well as some idolized pop artists. They are not that different. There is charisma, there's the ability to make the audience or students focus completely on what is presented, forgetting everyday life and anything else outside the dojo or performance hall. And there's the ability to improvise and adapt, so that each performance becomes unique, and each participant feels touched directly and profoundly.
Good instructors also have an instinct for dramaturgy, the structure of a plot from fade in to fade out. An aikido class is no exception to the rule. It has, as Aristotle says, a beginning, a middle, and an end.
The instructor must know how to create excited movement through the class, ending it so that the students feel they have reached and accomplished something, even changed somehow, like the protagonist in any drama. So, the instructor is a script writer and director, too.
The dojo is a theater, where the tatami is the stage and the instructor is the actor with star billing, but not the protagonist of the drama. Each student is.
Maybe a good aikido teacher is the antagonist of the drama, pushing the students to perform better and overcome their limitations. Some teachers behave in a rough way that reminds us of movie villains, but even the gentle ones have stern demands on their students, and don't take no for an answer. That's the role of the antagonist.
Bad teachers try to play the hero, but that's a mistake, since the hero has no main role in the drama. He or she is little more than a good example to inspire the protagonist, but plays no important part in the outcome. Usually the hero disappears before the climax of it, so that it's all up to the protagonist. A hero may invoke awe, but that's about it. Students of such a teacher will make the real leap in their progress when they leave the teacher.
Every actor knows, as does every other performer, that it's all about catharsis, the liberating experience that the drama induces -- in the performers as well as in the audience. If the performers don't feel it, nor will the audience. It's an experience of participation, where the wall between the stage and the auditorium dissolves.
The aikido instructor must do the same -- join with the students in the excited quest from beginning to end, from longing to reaching, from struggle to accomplishment. Thereby, the word "we" in the Letterman quote above reveals its key role. If it doesn't involve all who participate, it touches none and accomplishes nothing.
Shakespeare nods. All the world's a stage. Indeed.
Stefan Stenudd is a 6 dan Aikikai aikido instructor, member of the International Aikido Federation Directing Committee, the Swedish Aikikai Grading Committee, and the Swedish Budo Federation Board. He has practiced aikido since 1972. Presently he teaches aikido and iaido at his dojo Enighet in Malmo, Sweden, and at seminars in Sweden and abroad. He is also an author, artist, and historian of ideas. He has published a number of books in Swedish and English, both fiction and non-fiction. Among the latter are books about aikido and aikibatto, also a guide to the lifeforce qi, and a Life Energy Encyclopedia. He has written a Swedish interpretation of the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching, and of the Japanese samurai classic Book of Five Rings. In the history of ideas he studies the thought patterns of creation myths, as well as Aristotle's Poetics. He has his own extensive aikido website: http://www.stenudd.com/aikido