**I wrote this in 2011 when I was preparing for my second degree (nidan) black belt test. If you’d like to read the essay for my shodan test, it’s here.**
“Move like a beam of light;
Fly like lightning,
Strike like thunder,
Whirl in circles around A stable center.”
The above quote perfectly encapsulates how the past three years of dancing and practicing aikido have felt to me. I’d been a shodan for about two years when I decided I needed a break from aikido. My practice felt a little stagnant and I felt a little lost. It wasn’t something I could put into words so I didn’t really discuss it with anyone in the dojo. I didn’t feel physically or mentally prepared to keep moving forward in my aikido practice. If aikido is a “do” or a “way” then I’d lost sight of my way.
At this time a friend of mine was involved with a local Afro-Brazilian dance and drum group. She’d talked to me about the dance class that was open to the community–raved about it is more exact. She tried to talk me into joining the class. I did not feel comfortable dancing in some unfamiliar dance style….in public. But the day came when it was her birthday and she asked me to come to class again, and I couldn’t refuse because, well, it was her birthday.
I knew I’d found a place where I could be comfortable because I saw the lead drummer and group’s director bow before he entered the room. Truth is, I too, quietly and unobtrusively bowed before I stepped on to the raised dance floor. I couldn’t explain why other than habit. However, when I asked the director later (not that night) about why he bowed before entering the room, he explained that he thought of that dance and drum space as sacred.
Clearly I’d come to the right place.
I discovered that I loved this style of dance, loved the rhythms of the drums, and loved the way I felt after class. I started going to dance class every week. There came a point where I realized that my focus was this dance and drum group, not aikido. I thought long and hard about what to do because I couldn’t do them both, and decided that since I was feeling lost in aikido anyway, that I’d take a break and dance instead. I knew the break was temporary. I knew in my heart that I’d return to aikido.
I was gone for 1 1/2 years.
The funny thing is, is that aikido kept popping up in my dance. I never thought that a martial art and the art of dance would have anything in common. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Dancing and aikido “blend” well. The first time this came to light was when I did a seminar with a guest teacher. I was new to this style of dance, but was convinced to go (much like we tell new aikidoka to attend seminars with visiting teachers no matter their rank). The dance she taught was an Orixa (Oreesha) dance, which was based on the gods brought to Brazil from Africa. This particular dance was a representation of the god Ogum who is a god of war, iron, and blacksmiths. He is often portrayed carrying a machete. The first move she taught was Ogum cutting with a machete. It was remarkably similar to yokomen uchi! We were also supposed to “channel” the energy of this war god into our dancing, meaning an intensity and preciseness in our movements. We were supposed to be warriors. I could handle that. My friend told me I picked up the moves quickly. I told her they were like aikido.
After that experience I noticed aikido in so much of my dancing. I learned to samba and found that the steps in samba kept my feet in hanmi. I learned a basic salsa step and laughed because it was a similar movement to the hasso–hips up and then hips back with a nice little swing. Whenever we danced any of the warrior or hunter Orixa’s I fell immediately into an aikido mindset. Often when I’d dance I’d find my hands in front of my center and when a move was difficult or fast or both I’d drop my weight and focus on my center.
I also found a type of ukemi in my dance classes. In this style of dance the dancers move in lines of 3 or 4 people across the floor up to the drummers. We engage in a conversation with the drummers. The dancers communicate with the drummers and the drummers communicate with the dancers. I’ve had the privilege to be on both sides of that conversation and it’s a beautiful experience. There is a point when I am moving across the floor towards a drummer and I make contact with him/her. It doesn’t necessarily mean eye contact, but a connection with a particular rhythm that a particular drum is playing. My body connects to that rhythm and moves to it. Sometimes the drummer picks up on that connection and we move and play in harmony. There is a true aiki moment, a coming together of our two energies. It feels to me like I feel when I take ukemi and there is a real connection between nage and uke. It’s a beautiful feeling.
There is also a connection between all the dancers in my line. We are supposed to dance together. We move up towards the drummers together, we try not to break our line with someone lagging behind or moving ahead, and we try to do the choreography in perfect sync. I can feel it when it works. There have been moments when we all dance in harmony. There are times when we would connect as dancer to dancer and dancer to drummer and I would think later about the meaning of the word “ai” from aikido. We often call it harmony but I like the definition of “coming together” better. It better fits the action of two people–nage and uke, dancer and dancer, dancer and drummer, drummer and drummer–coming together to meet in one unified sphere even if it’s only for a moment.
I danced 2 or 3 times a week for that 1 1/2 years. But there came a point when it was time to return to aikido. I found myself talking about and relating everything in dance to aikido. I couldn’t focus in the group; did I want to dance or drum? If I drum, which drum? I was all over the place. My friend who got me into the group said she recognized my restlessness as a need to get back to aikido. I did too. So back to aikido I went!
My aikido was not the same when I came back, not at all. There were classes when I did tai no henko and wondered whose body I was in. It didn’t feel the same. I didn’t feel the same as when I left. It was to be expected, of course. In most ways I liked the way I changed. My body felt more relaxed and I felt a greater connection to the ground. My hips were definitely more relaxed because they got worked a lot in dance classes. I’d go to a dance class and samba one night and then go to aikido the next night. My hips were definitely loose. The change was internal. I didn’t feel as wound up inside when I’d do a technique, but instead felt a sense of having unraveled a little bit. It was nice.
There were a couple of areas in aikido in which I struggled. My aiki weapons were not very good when I came back. Where my open hand techniques seemed to be able to handle the time away, my weapons did not. My sword strikes were sloppy. When I worked with the jo, my hands were constantly out of place and falling off. It was disconcerting to me because I love aiki weapons. The only thing to do, of course, was to practice. I’d practice sword strikes before class to re-familiarize myself with the weapon. Same with the jo. It eventually started to fall into place. Honestly, it is still a work in progress.
The other area in which I struggled was that sometimes my hips and lower back were too loose! I’d come to class and Robinson Sensei would notice that my lower back was too arched, and as soon as she told me I’d feel how that arching was making me weak. I couldn’t handle a strong attack by uke with my back arched–I was easy to push over. I worked very hard to be aware of and to correct this arch in my lower back. I could feel my strength when I’d make the correction. I’d also work hard to make sure my upper body was straight and aligned with the earth. Then I’d go to a dance class and be told to stick out my butt and move my upper body like a snake! It’s been a challenge, to say the least, to balance the two energies and styles.
One of the ways in which it all comes together for me is with energy. Of course, ki is a major part of aikido, so much that it is a part of the name. Ki is usually defined as “life energy.” The dance group in which I belonged was called Batucaxe (bah-too-kah-shay). Batucaxe, like Aikido is a word made from different words. In this instance, “batuca” which means the beat and “axe” (ah-shay) which means…life energy or life force. Some of the dance moves are designed to generate “axe” in much the same way as our aikido moves generate ki. When we dance we lift our arms to the sky and then drop down in a low crouch to connect with the earth. We reach up to the sky to grab lightening and then strike it down on the ground and when I do this I can’t help but think of the energy of ken suburi three–reaching up with the bokken to take in the sky energy and then striking it down.
Aikido and dancing. Ki and axe. It’s all about energy and movement. It’s all about connecting with the world around us and with the people around us. There is a Batucaxe song called “Let it Out” done to one of my favorite rhythms, and when I hear these lyrics I think of aikido:
“Let it out, let it out, let it in/Just surrender or you’re never gonna win/You’ve got to take a chance, move your body and dance, Everybody feel good together.”
And as O’Sensei said in The Art of Peace:
“Your mind should be in harmony with the functioning of the universe; your body should be in tune with the movement of the universe; body and mind should be bound as one, unified with the activity of the universe.”
Ultimately everyone is in harmony with the universe, and everyone is feeling good together.