Aikidoka in California have long been fortunate in the number and quality of teachers who work together there in a cooperative and mutually supportive atmosphere. Three of these teachers, Bernice Tom, 5th dan [presently 6th dan], of Sunset Cliffs Aikido, Danielle Molles Evans, 3rd dan [presently 5th dan], of Aikido of Monterey, and Pat Hendricks, 5th dan [presently 6th dan], of Aikido of San Leandro, were together in Japan last November and Aiki News took the opportunity to talk with these three outstanding aikido instructors.
Pat Hendricks, Bernice Tom and Danielle Evans [Molles Smith]
How did each of you come to operate your present dojo?
Tom: I moved to San Diego in 1985, right after I came back from Japan. My present dojo was then operated by Wes Leavens and he invited me to come help him teach. So I would teach once a week on Sunday, while going to acupuncture school at night and working a full-time job. As I was finishing up my acupuncture school, the students asked me to come and teach more because I had more experience in the Iwama-style that Wes was teaching than any of the other teachers there. I came in and taught once in the evening. They kept asking me to come in and do more and more. When Wes Leavens decided to pull out of the dojo financially, it was left in the hands of the students at that time because I could not take it over. Then Satoshi Takamori was invited to come and help teach. Suddenly, I found that I had finished school, and there was Wes, myself, and Satoshi running the dojo. Then Wes pulled out completely because of work and Satoshi left America for visa reasons, so I was left with the dojo. That was in about 1987. Then the dojo underwent a number of changes as it was still in the hands of the students and was a corporation at that time. Finally, in 1989, we started to dissolve the corporation and completed the process in 1990. Now I own the dojo.
Evans: Actually it all started in 1976, when I was your student in Monterey. The day after my shodan exam you announced that you were leaving. The students arranged to buy the mats, and there I was, sempai of the dojo, and even worse, I was a black belt, a big responsibility. So I had Jack Wada come teach once a week, and I’d teach classes once a week just to keep the dojo open. One year later Bill Raike and my husband Dennis Evans took their shodan exams. The students all used to run the dojo together, but I was always the most advanced student there. As soon as somebody would get their shodan, sometimes even when they were only brown belts, they were expected to teach. We were all equals. I always felt like a student even though we had no sensei in the dojo. I had gotten my shodan in two years and eight months of training, and I was really a beginner. Actually, it wasn’t until years later when students who had begun after you had left the dojo began to be ready for shodan and nidan, that I experienced a shift that allowed me to choose to take the responsibility as head of the dojo. I still consider myself a student and to many people I am also their teacher.
Hendricks: When I graduated from UC Berkeley, I was lucky enough to get one of the best jobs that I could with a degree in Japanese, which was at the Japanese consulate in the economics section. I had it all. I had a good job in the field, and I had a chance to eventually take the test to be a foreign diplomat. There were a lot of opportunities. All through that time of being at the university and being at that job, I trained full-time in aikido. My teacher at that time, Bruce Klickstein, encouraged me to start a dojo, but I really didn’t think I could make a living from running a dojo, so I was a bit hesitant. I was at the consulate for two years, and I looked around one day, and saw the people that I worked with who were diplomats, and I said, “This is not the lifestyle that I want.” My first love was always aikido, and I decided then to start slowly and teach at some clubs and some YMCAs and gradually work my way up to a dojo. But it didn’t go exactly the way I thought it would. Very soon after I quit my job and started teaching at a YMCA, a building that was run by a taekwondo teacher opened up. He wanted an aikido instructor. I went in, put a mat down, and taught there on a pretty regular basis. Within four or five months I realized that he was just not able to keep the building. He didn’t pay any of the bills, and was going to be evicted. Late one night, I sat in the dojo. There were no lights on, and I said, “What am I supposed to do here? Am I supposed to have a full-time dojo?” I didn’t think it was even going to be possible. And the answer I got was, you’re here for a reason and this is what you’re supposed to do. I got some people to help me out at first financially. I had a couple of financial breaks with the landlord. Within a year I was able to more than pay the bills, and I never lost money. That was seven or eight years ago, so somewhere between 1983 and 1984 is when the dojo actually got started.
Being in leadership positions, how do you deal with strength differences on the mat? In other words, you are female teachers, and perhaps you get some muscular young guy who comes in and wants to throw his weight around. I’m sure you’ve had experiences like that.
Tom: This is interesting because before I had a dojo, this was my biggest concern. What happens if someone comes up to you and challenges you with strength? It’s interesting because in the dojo it became really easy for me to say, “Look, just learn the form first and then when you learn the form and you know what you’re doing, you can put more power and strength in it. But first you must learn the form in order to be able to study here.” Because if they don’t know the form and they start challenging with strength, then it’s not really aikido. It becomes something else, street-fighting, or whatever. I just don’t allow that in my dojo.
What if somebody challenges your position, taking advantage of the fact that you’re a woman? Someone who is physically large, or maybe somebody from another art. It can happen to male teachers too, of course, but it seems more likely to happen to a woman. Or maybe it isn’t?
Evans: If I’ve been challenged, or if somebody’s tested me, it hasn’t been in a direct, confrontational way. I make it clear that I’m not teaching about strength, so it’s not something that I feel I create a contest about.
Perhaps it is your attitude and how you explain it which accounts for the fact that you haven’t had to deal with that kind of thing.
Evans: While I don’t know of any concrete examples I can imagine there have been men who have come into a dojo, who in their own sense of identity need to feel a sense of strength and become threatened [by a woman instructor], but either they’ve worked it through and they’re doing what we do, or they just haven’t stayed.
Hendricks: My dojo has a large number of male students and most of them are pretty large in stature and the situation has never come up. I feel that the men really are a little bit in awe of the fact that a smaller person can even do the technique. What they are looking for is a technique that does not use strength. I think that’s very popular in martial arts right now. Usually beginner men are very shocked that I’ve thrown them. I feel completely supported [by my students]. I don’t think I’ve ever been challenged in that way.
I often feel very fortunate to be a woman, because first of all, as I grew up in aikido, my technique had to be good, otherwise they wouldn’t have worked, and secondly, because I am female I don’t evoke the competitive response that comes up between male student and male teachers.
Casually you would think that women in leadership positions would have a real tough time. Maybe it’s more diffcult for men. In my teaching days I was challenged many times.
Tom: I do have really strong males who are senior students and they act as role models for the other students. They don’t challenge me at all. They’re very supportive of me, so the other students see that. One of the comments that I get in my dojo is that people are really surprised at the respect that is given each other during training and also when other teachers come. They don’t even think about challenging on that level. Like Danielle said, if there’s no conflict in me about that strength, then it’s quite easy for me to do the techniques to them.
What are the main technical influences in your training?
Tom: I’ve been very fortunate to have two great teachers. One of them is no longer doing aikido, but I feel that Bruce Klickstein gave me a really good foundation in the Iwama-style and introduced me to the best teacher in the world, in my opinion, Morihiro Saito Sensei. With his system I am able to feel very secure in my teaching of techniques. He’s given me such an incredible foundation to build from and to help my students build on, that within a couple of months, although they might not know and completely understand it, they can see the system and see that they are going someplace, which is really helpful for the beginner. It makes it easy for them to understand that there is a larger picture for them. It’s something to work towards, rather than just fumbling in the dark. That’s why I’m here now in Japan, studying with Saito Sensei, to continue my own training and connection with Saito Sensei.
Evans: My technical influences have varied over the years. At one time you were my major technical influence. I’d say that for the last ten years my major focus in training has been with Frank Doran Sensei, Mitsugi Saotome Sensei, and Hiroshi Ikeda Sensei. That’s the main group. Frank Doran is my direct teacher. Then I’d have to say that for weapons work my technical influence is the Iwama-style. That started when I first began aikido and Saito Sensei came to California, back in 1974. That keeps on going deeper and deeper. Most recently I’ve trained with Pat. I find [the weapons system] to be a really good base. It technically influences my taijutsu too.
Hendricks: Of course, you were my first teacher, then Bruce Klickstein, and Saito Sensei. Both yourself and Bruce are students, or were students, of Saito Sensei. So my technical influence has been through the Iwama Dojo. But there’s so much more. I feel that the main influence I’ve gotten is through the weapons. Saito Sensei was lucky enough to do one-on-one training with O-Sensei, and I’m fortunate to have trained in morning weapons classes quite a bit with Saito Sensei. The feeling that comes from the weapons has completely changed my taijutsu and has helped me to understand where a move will go and why it originates here, and what the next logical move would be. The system of weapons that Saito Sensei has created as a result of all his private instruction from O-Sensei is what has helped me understand the rest of the taijutsu.
Tom: When I first came to Japan in 1975 with Bruce to meet Saito Sensei I was just blown away by the heartfelt welcome that he extended to us. But right before I got shodan I remember thinking that if I really wanted to be good in aikido, I wanted to go where it originated. So that’s one of the reasons I came back the second time, because I asked myself, “Where did aikido originate?”Well, it originated in Iwama with O-Sensei and then extended to Saito Sensei. So I wanted to go there, I wanted to come back to Iwama and continue my training with Saito Sensei. I remember having made a very clear decision, for technical reasons and technical study.
Were there any female role models early in your aikido career, any women practitioners that you particularly looked up to?
Tom: When I began I was really amazed at the fact that at our dojo in Oakland there were some very strong women. But as I continued to train and went up in rank, they stopped training for various reasons, and after a while, there weren’t any more role models. I found myself to be the women’s sempai of the dojo. Then when I left Oakland in 1980 and went to Iwama to train and to live, there were hardly any other high-ranking women in the dojo.
Evans: When I first started, I felt that aikido was a wasteland as far as females went. I remember being at the dojo in Monterey, and you were showing a movie from Japan. Some women came on the screen with hakamas on, and one of the guys in the class said, “You mean there are women black belts in Japan?” I remember being so insulted by his being so shocked that there would be women black belts. Actually, you were quite consciously supportive and said, “Yes, there are, and actually there are a few in the United States too.” At that time there were very few. Betsy Hill was a shodan. She’s the only one I can think of. Then Mary Heiny came back from Shingu and she was a sandan. I was really blown away by her. I was excited to hear about her coming. Linda Hultgren [Holiday] also came back at the same time from Japan as a shodan. So I remember these two women when they came to the dojo early on when I was a 4th kyu. I trained with both of them, and it was the first time-but not the only time-ever on the mat that I thought maybe I was going to die. They kept on throwing me and it was so intense and I got so tired by the experience, but was very inspired. I was very impressed and they were really good role models. Then I asked Mary Heiny to teach a class, since she was going to settle in Santa Cruz. She agreed to come down on Saturdays and then told me that I would teach a review class two times a week in the middle of the week. Pat was in that class. Since then, Pat has been a role model for me. Linda Hultgren and Mary Heiny have continued to be. Then there are other people who have come up since I started training, for example, Jamie Zimmeron. All my women students are role models. They come in with a fresh beginner’s mind and I see how they respond to the way that aikido is presented now. I relearn and feel really touched by the experience.
Hendricks: Well, the very first person I ever saw do aikido was Mary Heiny. I always remind her of that. So the very first person I saw doing aikido was a woman. And then Danielle and Linda were there. There were a lot of women around here that I’m very connected to and I feel a real comaraderie with. So they are all role models for me. I do remember coming to Japan and feeling the lack of that. There were none within my system. Actually what I feel is my role model is my own higher female self.
Would you care to elaborate on that concept?
Hendricks: The part of me that I will refer to as my wiser self. This is the authentic female higher consciousness that guides me.
What you’re striving for in an idealistic sense?
Hendricks: No, the spirit part. When that manifests, I have no need for a role model. I was looking outside myself for a role model and it took me a long time to realize that it was inside of me. All the women that I’m connected with reflect that, but it comes from me.
Evans: I agree. What I find is that the more I’ve gotten in touch with my own higher female self, the more reflection I see in other people.
Tom: I can really appreciate what Pat said about looking within, when there isn’t someone out there. One tends to look within for the answers or the role models that they want. Also, it’s not as if you can’t see that in men, and see how they also handle a similar situation. So everybody becomes to me a role model in that sense. Also, I watch Pat and how she handles certain situations. So Pat becomes a role model. And if I see Danielle handle a certain situation, she becomes a role model. Everybody is my role model. And my students, I learn an incredible amount from them. To me then it becomes like the universe teaching me.
Evans: We’re doing it right now, we’re role modeling.
Bernice, you’ve already mentioned that you’ve been to Iwama on a number of occasions, and you have six, seven, eight years worth of time in Japan.
Tom: Certainly visits, but I don’t know the time all total. I did live in Japan for a number of years.
I’ll modify the question for you, Danielle. This is your first visit to Japan for aikido. This is different from a lot of people who come earlier in their careers. You’ve been involved now for more than 15 years.
Evans: 18 years.
What are your impressions, then, of the aikido you see in Japan?
Evans: I was really impressed when I went to Iwama. I had seen Saito Sensei’s aikido before, so what struck me more, because I had never before had the opportunity of being exposed to it, was his graciousness and warmth in his own dojo. That impression I guess would cover aikido in a larger sense. I was really moved with the genuineness.
Hendricks: I’ve been here seven times, and I’ve lived here twice for a long period, a year and a half one time, and over a year the other time. The other five visits have been from anywhere from a month and a half to three months. So for the past 16 years I’ve spent a number of years here. It’s all been at the Iwama Dojo, and it’s all been as a private apprentice to Saito Sensei. I never lived outside the dojo, I was uchideshi the whole time. That’s basically it.
Evans: I’d like to say one more thing about my impressions. It was my goal to go to Japan years and years ago, but my plans changed when I had a child. I really looked at the quality of our seminars in the United States and the people I trained with and I began to feel that it wasn’t something that was necessary. This last year I got back in touch with the draw to go, and felt compelled to come. I’ve had some just wonderful experiences, not only with Saito Sensei, but meeting Isogai Sensei, who has a shrine to seals. He uses his ki to read a person’s seal, much as one would analyze a signature. He is in his 90’s and was a personal friend of O-Sensei’s. I listened to him talk about O-Sensei for hours. I could feel some internal shifts going on; some places were filling up that I hadn’t really realized were quite empty and that had to do with making a direct connection to O-Sensei and the people he dealt with. It will probably be some time before I’ll even know or have a sense of the consequences of that, but I know that I feel a difference in having come here.
Hendricks: I’d like to add something, if I may. Every time I come back to Japan and especially to O-Sensei’s dojo, I feel this incredible internal connection to the source. Aikido was created in Japan and a lot of it was created in O-Sensei’s dojo. Many of the customs that we have in our art and a lot of the feeling that we put into our art, comes from the culture here. Coming here integrates it deeper and deeper every time.
[To be continued]
Danielle Evans [Molles Smith]
Born in 1947. 4th dan Aikikai. First taught by Stanley Pranin in Monterey, California in 1974. Active as an instructor of Model Mugging, a practical form of self-defense for women. Currently chief instructor at Aikido of Monterey.
Born 1946 in Shanghai. 5th dan Aikikai. MA in Architecture from University of California, Berkeley. Began aikido in Oakland, California in 1974 with Bruce Klickstein. Spent four years beginning in 1980 in Iwama studying with Morihiro Saito. Authorized in 1989 by Saito Sensei to administer weapons certification examinations on his behalf. Professional aikido instructor. Owner and operator of Sunset Cliffs Aikido.
Born in 1955. 5th dan Aikikai. BA in Japanese language from University of California, Berkeley. Began aikido in 1974 under the instruction of Stanley Pranin, and later Bruce Klickstein. Has made numerous trips to Japan to study in Iwama with Morihiro Saito. Holds a 5th dan in aiki ken-jo and has been authorized to administer weapons certifications examinations on behalf of Saito Sensei since 1988. Professional aikido instructor. Owner and operator of Aikido of San Leandro.