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It Had to Be Felt #56: Frank Doran: Command Presence
It Had to Be Felt #56: Frank Doran: Command Presence
by It Had To Be Felt
It Had to Be Felt #56: Frank Doran: Command Presence

As Bob Galeone noted in his portrait of Clyde Takeguchi sensei (IHTBF #36), ". . .most contributions to this series describe the somatic feelings associated with taking ukemi," but it is equally valuable to understand the word ‘felt' with respect to another meaning of the same work, that of ‘aesthetic perception.' This is especially true when considering the act of command, in which the basis for the connection between the leader and the led may not be immediately obvious.

I first saw Doran sensei in the summer of 1988 at the Rocky Mountain Summer Camp, organized by Hiroshi Ikeda sensei and the Boulder Aikikai. There were several classes each day, led by Saotome Mitsugi sensei, Ikeda Hiroshi sensei, and Frank Doran sensei in turn.

Mid-way through the camp, it was Doran sensei's turn to teach the morning class. The elevation was over 8,000 feet, and after almost three days of intense training, even the Boulder students felt it. Doran sensei bowed us all in, and the sense of fatigue was palpable as we half-heartedly yelled "Onegashimasu!" Doran sensei smiled broadly as he looked us over.

"Repeat after me," he bellowed. "I hurt!" We chorused back obediently.

"All over!" Again we responded, with some curiosity about where this was going.

"More than anyplace else!" We shouted the phrase back, laughing loudly.

The tension broke, and Doran sensei launched into an energetic demonstration of katadori irimi-tenkan. The next two hours passed quickly, with Sensei moving around the mat, bantering easily with us as he demonstrated. His movement that morning was broad, circular, and elegant, but what I remember most clearly was his complete engagement with all of us and his relentlessly cheerful encouragement.

I was unable to attend the Colorado camp the following year. In late 1990, however, I was visiting a fellow aikidoka in San Francisco, and she suggested that we visit Aikido West, Doran sensei's dojo in Redwood City, where Saotome sensei was going teach a seminar later that week. We didn't call ahead—in the Bay Area, many aikidoka ‘trained around,' and nobody took offense at any apparent lack of exclusivity or loyalty. As we walked into the dojo, Doran sensei came out of the office and extended his hand. "Jim! It's great to see you," he said. 

His greeting instantly disarmed me. It was as powerful as any aikido technique. It had been at least a year and a half since I'd seen him. We had never been formally introduced, nor had I made any effort to maintain contact with him since first seeing him in Colorado, yet at the moment of contact, he treated me as if I were an old friend he'd invited into his home. 

In the years since that visit, I've had many opportunities to take more conventional ukemi for Doran sensei, at his dojo as well as mine and others', both in regular classes and seminars. The feeling is always the same as that first off-the-mat encounter; Doran sensei creates a clear opening for me to approach him. As I make contact, I become viscerally aware that I am not in control of the situation. It is as if I am at the tip of a spear or the edge of a sword, and the immediate breaking of my balance as I strive to realign myself is as much a product of my attack as it is the result of Doran sensei's impeccable posture.

Doran sensei has studied with many of the major figures in aikido. In his own classes, Doran sensei conveys not only how it was to study with each of these teachers, but how they felt. In particular, Doran sensei clearly acknowledges the influences of Nidai Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Morihiro Saito sensei, and Saotome sensei, given that their pictures are on the walls of his dojo, but he has been influenced well beyond those three remarkable men. I once asked Sensei after class about how to practice torifune (furitama). We had changed into our street clothes, and he extended his hands toward me. "Tohei sensei always told us that we should do it like this," he said as I grabbed his wrists—and he abruptly launched me six feet backward! Similarly, his demonstration of Nishio Shoji sensei's incorporation of Japanese sword training into aikido inspires the student to see how such study can cultivate an attitude of precision and attention.

Even as he demonstrates and shares his insights into the aikido of these other instructors, however, Doran sensei remains his own man, with confidence and integrity, both on the mat and off. On his first visit to Aikido of Northern Virginia, several of my students and I took him to visit the Washington Monument. As we waited in line to enter the obelisk, a grizzled old Park Ranger came up to Sensei and said, gruffly, "You're a Marine, aren't you?" Doran sensei replied that he was. The Ranger said, "Regular Army myself. I saw you all the way across the mall, standing up straight." The two of them then launched into some jokes reflecting good-natured inter-service rivalry—but what stuck with me was that Sensei's posture made an indelible impression on that Ranger, all the way across the National Mall. It's my experience that this presence—a combination of awareness, integrity, and command—pervades Doran sensei's aikido, charging even the most simple technique with an intensity of spirit that allows both nage and uke to practice aikido as a budo.

For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
  • Only people who have actually taken ukemi the teacher who is the subject of this thread, may post
  • Simply post your direct experience of taking ukemi. This can include the nature of your relationship with them, as ukemi is more than merely taking falls.
  • Do not engage in back-and-forth with other posters, disputing their experience, or trying to prove why yours is more real. Just post your own experience. Trust your readers to take in each writer's account on its own merits.
  • If, for any reason, you find something to praise or condemn in anyone's description or wish to amplify your insights and perceptions, do so elsewhere. Start a thread about that subject in the appropriate section of Aikiweb.
  • Follow-up posts should be substantive, striving to equal the depth of the original essay. Simply agreeing with the writer, or a brief comment that, yes, the teacher in question was really powerful or had a wonderful shihonage or the like, are not congruent with the purpose of this archive.
Jim Sorrentino began his martial arts training in 1977 with Uechi-ryu Karate-do under Robert Galeone-sensei in Annapolis, MD. In 1984, he started his study of aikido with Mitsugi Saotome-sensei at the Washington, DC Aikikai (now known as Aikido Shobukan Dojo). He practiced both arts actively until the early 1990's, when aikido ate his life. He is the Chief Instructor of Aikido of Northern Virginia, and a Senior Policy Adviser at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.


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