as reported by Dwight Sora
Something out of the ordinary about this picture
Several months ago, Chicago Aikido Club received a rather unusual request.
The maid of honor for an upcoming wedding was looking to do something different for the bachelorette party weekend. Something off the beaten track from the usual drinks and clubbing (though presumably there’d be plenty of that) or staid activities like pottery making or a group yoga session.
The maid, Lilly, had hit upon a novel idea. She had come across some Airbnb listings in Japan offering unique “experiences” with samurai themes, one titled “Samurai Sword Artist” and another labeled “Samurai Swordplay.” In each, participants paid for one or several training sessions in Japanese swordwork with a professional instructor. It would all be for fun (and education) with no expectation of grading or continued study.
Lilly apparently hunted all over Chicago searching for a place that might offer a similar experience, eventually leading her to the front desk of the Japanese American Service Committee (JASC), where our club is based, who in turn directed her to us (and me, who took the call).
I must admit, I was taken off guard by the request. Other than general inquiries about membership or Aikido itself, the calls I receive at the dojo are for demos, kids classes (which we don’t have) or self-defense workshops. Technically, this was for a combination demo and workshop, but for a different sort of audience than we’d had before (school Japan day events, guest appearances at meditation centers, Chicago Asian American Heritage month, among others).
I was also concerned about the propriety of such an event; whether we might be violating some precepts about the sanctity of Aikido or the dojo space. I had a hard time imagining some of my elder instructors sanctioning it (I’m pretty sure a few older ones from Japan might have slammed the phone down in response). I also wondered if I would even be able to get anyone to assist. This concern became particularly acute when I checked and found that our regular training space (borrowed from Tohkon Judo Academy within JASC) would be unavailable on the scheduled date, and decided to try and call our friends at Chicago Aikikai and see if they would be interested in hosting.
Much to my surprise, Marsha Turner, the head instructor of Chicago Aikikai, gave me a thumbs up to go ahead. And even better, a bunch of Aikikai students expressed an interest in helping out.
This bolstered my confidence, and I went ahead and made the arrangements with Lilly. My hesitancy notwithstanding, I sincerely believe that for arts like Aikido to survive, there needs to be some serious out-of-the-box thinking in terms of public relations and advertising. And although I take my own training seriously, and respect the admonishments of shihan (master instructors) and others to not consider Aikido merely a form of recreation or a sport, I feel that we must also remember that in the contemporary United States, whether good or bad, what first draws many people to anything is an element of fun. And I was going to make sure that Lilly and her friends would have a fun time.
The date and time was set for 3:00 pm on Saturday, June 10. It would be a single 90-minute session. We would have nine participants (including one woman deep into pregnancy), and five Chicago Aikido Club and Chicago Aikikai volunteers teaching and assisting. Per Lilly’s request, there would be an emphasis on swordwork (inspired by the Airbnb listing), but we would also incorporate empty-hand techniques and expose the group to the fundamentals of Aikido (relaxing, breathing, moving in harmony with the attacker, etc.).
Demonstrating for the bachelorettes
The session ultimately breezed by smoothly and effortlessly. Helped in no small part by the positive attitude and skills of the experienced Aikidoka, the attendees were given a chance to handle bokken, run through some basic drills, and try a handful of basic techniques. And much to my surprise, there was a high degree of probing questions from the gathered guests (honestly, I’ve been to plenty of regular intro classes with blank faces at the end).
As Lilly and her crew gathered to depart (and give their thanks and compliments), we all posed together for some snapshots. Made all the more memorable by the heavy metal-themed attire they had donned for the remainder of their bachelorette night.