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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.

I was honored with the rank of Shodan, by Mark Ahlquist Sensei, Osameru Aikido.  I was introduced to Mark Sensei in Spring of ’07 by a mutual friend Frank Spera Sempai, Sandan under Osameru Aikido.  Looking back, it has been a long journey, and yet so much more lies ahead of me.  I believe that the rank of Shodan merely places one on the bottom rung of the ladder; all prior ranks were merely jumps at the first rung.  For those who persisted and managed to grasp on to it, and have pulled themselves up, it is but the first step toward a long, long, long climb up!

This brings to mind a story I read long ago, it denotes well the subject at hand rather poignantly:

There is a famous story about Yagyu Matajuro, who was a son of the famous Yagyu family of swordsmen in 17th century feudal Japan. He was kicked out of the house for lack of talent and potential, and sought out instruction of the sword master Tsukahara Bokuden, with the hope of achieving mastery of the sword and regaining his family position. On their initial interview, Matajuro asked Tsukahara Bokuden, “How long will it take me to master the sword?” Bokuden replied, “Oh, about five years if you train very hard.” “If I train twice as hard, how long will it take?” inquired Matajuro. “In that case, ten years”, retorted Bokuden.

I’ve been told that you grow into the rank of Shodan, and yet it feels familiar, comfortable, more of an effect on others rather than me.  I am continuing on the path and know that an infinity of learning lies ahead for me.  This can leave one quite humble.  It is not the attainment, but rather the journey, the people, the memories, the life experiences that culminate and coalesce into what becomes your unique path.  The teacher merely points the way; it is up to the student to take that first step and walk the path.  A great teacher of mine, Anthony Pallante always maintained that you are responsible for your own training. I have been fortunate to train with and be taught by wonderful, humble, talented,  proficient, and giving teachers throughout my journey thus far.  No one achieves anything alone.

In America, it seems that Black Belt is a quasi final stage or ultimate attainment; while in Japan, it is regarded more so as a serious student.  While it may take considerably more time here in the US to attain rank, more than double the time, it is regarded to be on equal footing at best, or even less from a Japanese perspective. In Japan for example, one can achieve Shodan rank in about three years where here in the state it takes about seven years and the number of days required to attain rank is considerably less. Here is a link to both the Aikikai site in Japan and the USAF’s American version as follows:

Aikikai Grading System:    http://www.aikikai.or.jp/eng/information/review.html

vs

USAF Aikikai:     https://www.usaikifed.com/static/images/USAF_09_test_req_4.3.pdf

SJAA SEMINAR

If there is one thing Sensei has taught us it is kuzushi, the initial taking of balance. It is a living mantra here at Vineland Aikikai. Everything begins with kuzushi, no technique can be easily performed without it. You ‘ll know if and when you capture it and when you don’t, you’ll feel it and you’ll either be muscling through a technique or it will seem effortless.

Sensei provided a great analogy in class that is well worth repeating and writing about. Sensei related the body to a window, much like the one you and I have in our homes. Like the quote in the beginning says, if you were to affect the top part of the body, you’d create an unbalancing in the bottom. If you looked at the body like a window, if you were to affect the bottom, you’d raise the window up.

Every window has a locking mechanism that is located across the center of the window; much like your own body, you have a center balancing point that you can unlock and capture balance. What you do with that balance is up to you if you chose to open up or open down. Windows, don’t just open, they close too, so the same strategy can be employed. When to first begin to take balance, you open the lock and whether you are affecting the top window or the bottom one, you must remember that once you capture balance, you own it, it is yours, and you must never give it back.

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