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I wanted to practice a martial art for many years but was not sure which one I wanted to practice. I was not even sure how many martial arts there were. I knew about karate as I had heard the term in television shows and movies. There was also Kung Fu. Many people who are around my age grew up watching David Carradine in the television show “Kung Fu”, Bruce Lee movies, and Kung Fu Theater on Saturday afternoons (the bad English voice overs and the grainy footage gave it a quirky appeal, but I hardly ever missed it). Other than the movies and trying to copy the moves I had seen in them I really had no exposure to martial arts. I did not know anyone who trained in one. Later I found there was a karate school close by but never went in to look at the classes or talk to the instructor, maybe someday.

When I graduated college in 1993, I decided to give myself a graduation present and finally start training in a martial art. I walked into the karate school that I knew of and sat down with the chief instructor. He explained to me what style of karate he practiced and what the fees were and times for classes. He said I had to sign a contract and pay whether I showed up for class or not. “What if I hated it”, “What if it was not for me” I thought to myself. I told the instructor I had to think about it and left. If I was going to train I needed money, I had to find a job first. Training would be put on hold for now.

I lived near Collingswood NJ and while driving one day I saw a sign for a martial arts school. The building did not stand out much at all from the rest around it, other than the sign out front which I had not noticed for quite a long time. I kept the location of the school in the back of my mind. When I finally got up enough nerve to check it out I walked in. I was greeted by Sam Carney Sensei, who at the time was the dojo manager. He invited me to sit down and watch and said if I had any questions I could ask. The mat was packed with students and a lot of action and movement. I saw one person come in and attack and then be thrown away with what appeared to be just a waving of arms and turning of bodies. Another would come and be taken to the ground quickly not being able to get up. There was a lot of swirling of white and black with the uniforms that some of the students wore. The action was fun to watch. The more I watched, something about the art spoke to me. I only had one question, “Where do I sign up????” My Aikido journey started in July 1994 at the New Jersey School of Unarmed Self Defense located at 527 Richey Avenue in Collingswood NJ under the guidance of chief instructor Robert Danza Sensei, Rokudan (6th degree black belt).

Here is some background information about Danza Sensei. He served in the United States Air Force and after World War II he served as a member of the U.S. Occupational Forces. He began his martial arts training in Judo earning the rank of shodan in 1957. A friend from Judo introduced him to Aikido and he began training in a Tokyo area dojo. Danza Sensei received his Shodan (1st degree black belt) in 1959 and his Nidan (2nd degree black belt) in 1965. He was the first American from the continental United States to be awarded a black belt in Aikido. He was also one of the few American instructors to have certificates signed by the founder of Aikido Morihei Ueshiba Sensei.

Prior to his retirement from the Air Force, Danza Sensei taught both Aikido and Judo at McGuire AirForce base in New Jersey. He opened the New Jersey School of Unarmed Self Defense at 34 Tanner Street, Haddonfield NJ in 1964 and moved his dojo to Collingswood NJ in 1969 and remained there until his retirement from teaching in 1998. Danza Sensei taught many students through his teaching career including Terry Pierce (7th Dan – Ki Aikido) and Vince Salvatore Sensei (6th Dan – Iwama Ryu Aikido). He has also appeared on television shows such as 10 Around Town and the Mike Douglas show. He has also appeared in Black Belt Magazine on a few occasions in the 1960s.
You could recognize Danza Sensei as he was the only practitioner who wore all black in the dojo, all others wore white uniforms. He was a small man, you could classify him with the line from Rudy, he was “5 foot nothing, 100 and nothing”. The dojo had a policy that the first 10 lessons Danza Sensei would teach and only then we would be able to train with the other instructors. I remember being nervous in the first class and everything was a challenge. I felt like I did not know my right foot from my left and sometimes proved that thought to be correct. Danza Sensei walked me though the etiquette, the process of bowing before and after classes. He had me work on my falling, constant front and back rolls. A completely awkward sensation when I did it.

Then came the techniques, Ikkyo (first control technique) was an interesting one. When I was taken down and getting pinned it felt as if my shoulder joint was getting pulled out from the angle and the stretch in the arm. Danza Sensei positioned his knees when pinning a person to the ground with one knee at the ribs and one at the wrist. The way the knee felt like it was being driven into the ribs I was not really sure he needed the one securing the wrist.

Next was Nikkyo (second control technique). He showed me the technique and how to apply it. He applied the technique to me and it felt like my wrist was going to snap. Then it was my turn. I grabbed the technique and started to apply the pressure, no reaction. I applied it harder, still no reaction. I applied it as hard as I could (at this time my body was visibly shaking as I struggled to make it work). Danza Sensei looked me in the eye, smiled, even patted me on my head and said it was a good start. How was this happening?
Sankyo (third control technique) was not any better, as I applied the technique on him twisting his wrist he just walked back in a circle and at one point he said “Ok, Just throw me over there.” From there he took his own fall as I am sure I did not do that with as calm as he rolled away from me. All of the techniques from there were pretty much the same way, he threw me like a rag doll and I barely moved him. It was a humbling experience but a valuable one and I am very thankful that I was able to experience it.

The more I trained in Aikido, the more I wanted to learn. This was just the beginning, more fun was coming.

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