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Performing on the Dojo Stage
by The Mirror
Performing on the Dojo Stage


I attended a concert at which the opening act was very clearly afraid of the audience: she looked at her shoes, pulled a hat over her face, made herself small -- thereby making her voice small -- and generally had about as little stage presence as you can possibly have without running for the wings (which she did at the first opportunity). Then the headliner was very much the opposite -- she established a better connection with the audience while hooking up her guitar than the opening act did in her entire set.

This reminded me of how various teachers talk about owning the room, engaging people at a distance, and so forth. I'm very much working on that in my own practice right now; it was interesting to see such a dramatic demonstration of how big a difference it can make.

So I asked my Mirror colleagues to help me explore just what "stage presence" consists of. If you don't naturally have it, how do you get better at it? How does that translate into aikido term, if at all? At more advanced levels in aikido, one also talks about being able to expand and contract one's "bubble" at will. Is there a non-aikido, non-martial arts way to talk about that?


I've been a community college instructor for 28 years. There I teach English, and for the last nine years I have also taught aikido. Since 2001 I have been dojo cho for Greensboro Kodokan Aikido Dojo, where I fill in for any instructor who has to miss class. For a couple of years I was the children's class instructor.

I was such a wimp when I began aikido. I was too afraid to be in the adult class and stayed in the children's class for quite some time. Before Sensei would allow me to test for shodan, he made me stride around the mat and say in a very loud voice, "This is MY mat!" I can't tell you how many times he made me do that, probably not as many as I remember, but quite a few. I felt so stupid, but I had always been a person who was uncomfortable taking up my space. You want my space? Here, have it. Aikido has changed me drastically in that way. Yes, it's posture, projection, owning your voice, finding your center, all that. I make all my students kiai every so often because so many of them don't think they can, especially the girls.

A couple of years ago this woman stopped me and asked me what I did. I didn't understand what she was talking about. She said, the way you walk, carry yourself, you do something. What is it? I told her I do aikido. You're really highly ranked, aren't you, she said. I told her no, third or fourth dan, whichever I was at the time. I knew it, she said, I knew you were a black belt in something, just by your presence. As someone who used to hunch over and slouch around, hoping not to be noticed, I was really struck by this encounter. Soon afterward, a colleague of mine told me that people respond differently to him when he's with me, and he had figured out it was because of the way I enter situations with confidence and a smile. I was really honored that he shared that observation with me, and again I thought of the difference 20+ years of aikido can make in someone's presence.


Teaching background includes years of staff development, patient and family teaching in health care settings, basic sewing and painting classes, and now three years leading Low Impact Aikido. Performance experience includes public speaking as community activist on and off for decades; improvised political theater/action with Code Pink Women for Peace.

I'm a ham when given a reason (dressing up and/or public theater being my preferred forms of political activism). I have explicitly regarded all my aikido rankings except the initial 5th kyu as public performances, which I believe has made them better.

Having an "I own this mat" attitude was something explicitly expressed to all students preparing to test in the dojo I joined as a fifth kyu student in 1998.

Coming myself from a Brooklyn background, for myself I found it made more sense to change this message from what could be an aggressive stance to a more welcoming one - inspired by having watched a woman nidan test for fukushidoin at a summer camp the year before, her randori so lovely because as she moved towards each attacker her arm extended with such grace I could picture opera gloves and I like to smile at my partners so I try to express a self-assured and happy hostess inviting her guests into her home. The thing to work on in a martial art as opposed to performance is how to express an image without EMBODYING it as they are two different things: I don't want to have the lightness in my body the metaphor of a hostess might suggest but to keep the body structure I want and still already be there and ahem decide where they are going to sit.


This is something I've been really struggling with, too. "Owning" space and "entering decisively" have connotations of aggressiveness for me, which means that either I have trouble doing them at all or I create tension that doesn't help matters. What seems to be working is to not focus on the emotional content of the interaction, but look at it as a movement and timing problem to be solved. Like the geometry in an ice skating or dance performance, maybe. I need to be at a particular location at a particular time, and if I do that I don't need to be aggressive and my partner's aggression won't matter.


I think a lot of the good self defense for women courses address the whole issue of presentation to the world, using your voice, learning to say no and sound like you mean it, etc. in a way that helps people outside of a martial arts context unfortunately the shy performer or unhappy speechmaker is unlikely to seek a self defense class for help with speaking or shyness issues. And I think the shorthand solutions offered to them ("picture your audience naked" or "pick two people to make eye contact with") don't get to the crux of the issue, rearranging your own innards.


Practicing being big, practicing owning space, looking at and practicing being as big as the 4 upper corners of the room all involve expanding the ribcage, breathing more fully, lifting one's gaze which over time translate as better posture and a more engaged attitude.

Just like a good uke throws himself into a roll, part of stage presence is "filling the room"--a personal willingness to expand into the space--own the whole mat (or stage, or classroom) not just a piece of it. It requires you to be "big" enough to feel you can fill it, take possession of it (take personal responsibility for the environment), and make it comfortable for your partner, partners (as in randori), or fellow actors, musicians, etc. With music, think of any jazz group you've seen: there's a group harmony/synthesis that's larger than just one person--that "connection." Part of the way of learning stage presence is "big gestures" (in aikido), projecting your voice to the back of the room or auditorium (acting, singing, teaching); simple, yet dramatic, make-up, costuming that supports the character, and physical motions (as in, for example, opera). There is a touch of "larger than life" to it--to get the point across. It's an expressive focus. And it can be learned, with practice. You may start out clenched-in and timid in your martial arts (and boy! does that ever show), but you can learn how, with practice and relaxation, to expand your gestures, make your techniques flow, and not only own the mat but do beautiful large execution of techniques that fill the whole space up and are a pleasure for everyone to watch and learn from. And like all of aikido, this is how you do it in your outside life, too.


I've found that a lot of the advice about "filling space" is either very vague and fluffy, or so mechanistic that it seems to have the opposite effect. If someone tells me to "expand" by focusing on extending my spine, relaxing my shoulders, etc., well, that's helpful up to a point but also tends to pull my attention inward, back to the body. And a lot of advice seems to come from people describing what they're experiencing now, rather than the mechanism they used to get there. Since successful public performers of all kinds have this skill out of necessity, maybe there is a whole set of teaching metaphors out there that we in the aikido world aren't aware of.


Filling space = making yourself big enough to where you can accept everything in the environment as part of you.


I've been teaching recorder playing for 16-17 years. Alexander technique for 9 years. We spend time in the lessons with both sets of students working on how to prepare for public performances, music or, in the case of the AT students, often presentations at work and other forms of public speaking.

Leading aikido classes since ... 2005 or so?

I've been performing for a public since I was a kid, first with the school choir and in student recitals and such, later as a recorder and traverso player. I used to suffer from stage fright a lot.

To me filling space has a lot to do with awareness, much less to do with anything physical that I do directly. Though a change in awareness leads to physical changes, in posture etc.

There's a physiological side that affects how a performance succeeds and is perceived, and a psychological side. Owning the stage or mat is something you have to prepare well in advance it turns out.

Very important for me has been how to deal with the adrenaline rush that is a part of performing with accompanying symptoms of: tension, loss of hearing (very inconvenient for a musician!), sweating, weak knees, shaking fingers, loose bowels...

Some people enjoy the feeling of an adrenaline rush, go figure. I find it very unpleasant. So at first I always tried to suppress it or lessen it's effects. Which turns out to be a bad idea for several reasons:
  • It takes your mind off the job at hand, which is not dealing with how your stomach feels.
  • Some adrenalin is necessary for a good energetic performance, a complete lack will be felt by the audience.
  • If you suppress the adrenaline before a performance you might get an even bigger surge during the performance, which will be even more difficult to deal with, plus trying to deal with it during the performance will turn your attention inward which will again be felt by the audience. In the worst case it might completely incapacitate you.
What I've found works much better is consciously calling up a feeling of excitement well in advance on the same day. Allow the adrenaline to flow all through your body. Let your fingers tingle with it. Don't tense against it. Breathe with the waves of it. Move about, jump up and down, whatever feels natural to you. Visit the bathroom as many times as necessary.

Learning to be in contact with your body helps with all this. When it works, and I manage to time this well, it gives a lot of energy. Can't say I really enjoy it though, even so.

The thinking side:

The fatal thing in a performance for me is disappearing inside my own head. I might be genuinely living the music and the different feelings of it, but the audience will only feel that I'm not sharing something nice with them. Now some people naturally project so much of their insides on to the world that it's enough for them to think "I own the mat " or "I'm sad/happy/in love" and everybody will feel it. But this doesn't work for me and it took me a long time to discover that. I used to get told "just be yourself" but... my self is very introverted.

Things to avoid thinking: "OMG, OMG, what if I screw up, I can't do this, should have practiced more " etc. It might be all true, but in the moment, it directs my attention the wrong way.

Another pitfall is disappearing into my head to enjoy the performance. Sort of following what is happening, instead of making decisions about what I want to happen and how to make that happen.

What I've discovered is that it really just takes a form of mental discipline to avoid these, and it can be practised. When I practise, I can't allow myself to indulge in this kind of thinking. If I begin to panic or daydream, I direct my thoughts in a different direction.

I give myself very deliberate instructions instead - in the case of aikido, it could be giving yourself deliberate instructions on where to turn and step and grab next, for example. (I realize that the "just do it" crowd will object to this...) For a musical example: Instead of trying to feel sad and hoping that that will translate into a moving sound from my flute, I play more softly, with a more plaintive tone, accentuating certain notes and not others, changing the length of some notes, etc. (sorry if that sounds too mechanistic and not romantic enough.)


One of the things my trainer has been emphasizing in my test prep is having a clear idea which specific techniques I want to do, and from which entries. Otherwise, I'm likely to respond to the tunnel vision that adrenaline creates by either doing the same thing over and over sandan is supposed to show a range or changing my mind in mid-technique, leading to a mess.


For the goal of owning the mat this is actually not quite ideal but it's better than panicking and it steers the inner chatter in a useful direction.

Even better, but scary, and takes practice:

Allow your awareness to grow to take in the whole space you're in. Don't put up barriers. Allow it all in. See as much of the space as you can, hear, feel, smell. What Al said above. This can't be just suddenly achieved just before a performance/test, you have to practise this in your preparation as well. Be aware that it can make you feel very vulnerable. That's a good sign.

In order to have the head space that is necessary for this you have to know what you are going to do "by heart", though. Personally I find it very difficult to practise this if i'm at the same time trying to polish some technical detail. You have to have practised not only which steps to take when but also how. And keep in mind that your awareness will change and shift focus, that's only natural. The trick is to keep letting it grow back if you temporarily happen to go smaller in order to deal with a difficulty.

By the way, one of the things I really dislike in aikido exams is when a candidate is asked to perform an unexpected, complicated technique, and the criticized for becoming stiffer or less present etc... which is exactly what i would expect to happen in the circumstances.


Because I came to Aikido in mid-life my previous experiences with performing often influence my training, rather than the other way around. I don't have any serious performance background - I am not a professional musician or anything like that - but I have had tastes of it in many areas. I've given speeches in Toastmasters, chaired large public meetings, and presented work to important clients. I've led a few songs in sing-alongs, been on stage at the Aiki Follies a couple of times, and took a ballet class in college. At the dojo I've led warm-ups and taught a few kids' classes. I would say I'm pretty comfortable in front of groups. Of course I don't want to look stupid - I like to be well prepared - but the idea doesn't frighten me.

Surprisingly, the college ballet class had a strong influence. The teacher had a rule about our end-of-semester "recital" (just a short routine we were to do in class, like a final exam): We would get at least a C grade on our performance if we only looked confident and happy, nothing more. We could forget the entire routine and do all the moves badly, it didn't matter. Head up, open posture, arms extended, big smile! She taught us the value of selling ourselves to the audience.

Most people want to enjoy your performance. They are rooting for you, and want to see you do well. (Those who don't are bullies, and not worth worrying about.) If you look uncertain and defeated - as Katherine experienced with that awkward opening act - it's no fun for anyone, even if you do everything correctly.

I hadn't considered it until this discussion, but the advice we often hear about public speaking - like imagining the audience in their underwear - focuses on managing our fear. We are taught to steel ourselves against danger with note cards and podiums, and to make people seem less threatening by keeping them distant and objectified. Our Aikido training, on the other hand, allows us to experience our connection and relatedness. By welcoming people into our space and helping them feel comfortable - acting as a host, like Janet said - we can see that they are vulnerable humans just like us, our friends, so there's no fear to manage.
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:

We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.
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