I do a lot of solo kata practice in my iai schools, and a lot of partner kata practice in the iai and kenjutsu schools. I get pretty good at it with a good partner, it looks quite spiffy when we get playing with timing and distance and start pushing each other to the edge of control.
I could almost say I’m good at this stuff… no actually I am pretty good at it I suppose. It’s not hard to look good with a partner who looks good.
I am also doing a bit of aikido teaching these days and with an advanced level partner who knows how to attack and how to fall down, I’m also pretty good.
Thing is, I keep running up against beginners and all my pretty pretty moves become ugly. Beginners don’t follow the script any more than life does, they veer off in strange directions, stop in the middle of an attack with their back turned, fall over way too early or like a plank. No lovely rolls for them, no they go over like a 2×4 board, hitting all at once or straight down on their heads if you let them. It’s enough to make an old guy depressed.
Have I learned nothing in 30 years except to be a good dance partner?
Now, in my defence, we did a public demonstration a few weeks ago and I got together with a shoto and one of my seniors (not my regular partner but at least she could cut a straight line at my head) and improvised for ten minutes. Thing is, it was all step out of the way and smack her or poke her or knock her over. No fancy ten move dances on this card, just walk in there and hit her in the head.
Afterward she said “was that Niten Ichiryu we were doing” and it was, to a large extent. Musashi didn’t get much more fancy than “walk up and smack him”. Problem is, that sort of thing isn’t very intersting to the punters, they can see much more entertaining stuff at the movies which is why we should always use 10 or 12 move kata in demonstrations. After all, who’s going to spend time learning something they just got shown, step aside and hit him on the head… anybody can do that.
The other thing that bothers me is the treachery of beginners. I tell them to cut straight down on my head, I step to the side as they start to swing down and whack, they hit me on the kidney in some sort of curving sliding strike that I’ve never seen before. It’s distracting to say the least and it disrupts my teaching because now I have to watch what they’re doing rather than demonstrate what I want the rest of the class to do.
I mean seriously, have you ever tried to get a class of beginners to cut straight down? It takes months, and you can’t let them swing at each other until you’re sure they’ll hit their partner’s head when they’re aiming at it. It’s been four classes so far with my latest batch and they are getting better, they are within a body-width of their targets aout 60% of the time and sometimes they start the cut from above their shoulders.
Now the other night we were doing some kata that involve both swinging at the upper corner of the head, and the blades meet (so you can go another step further in the kata). Yep, you guessed it, they started flailing at each other’s swords like a bunch of kids playing Errol Flynn behind the barn. That’s how you get busted bokuto, which I don’t usually mind, except that they borrow them rather than buy them.
I made a cedar bokuto and with my usual partner I can go through all 12 the seitei jodo kata “full contact” without much more than a dent but these guys would have it in two at first contact. No finesse at all I tell you.
Now I don’t mean to complain, after all this kind of messy isn’t quite like the 15 year olds walking by the Tarjjet here (I’m drinking a coffee in Starry-eyes) with their strollers and their 16 year old boyfriends slouching along behind. And honestly, I love the beginners to death, they’re so wide-eyed and eager.
If only they hadn’t played baseball when they were kids!