Interview with Bruce Wonnacott: Experiences Under Frank Doran

Bruce Wonnacott, a long-time student of aikido pioneer Frank Doran, began his training in 1991 at the height of Steven Seagal’s popularity while in college. By 1997, he found Doran and accompanied him on his many national and international seminars. Here, we discuss what it was like training during the height of Seagal’s popularity and his time experiences under Doran

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Bruce Wonnacott Sensei! It’s a pleasure to have you here!

Bruce Wonnacott: I’m happy to be here!

MAYTT: You began your aikido training in 1991, a few years after the Steven Seagal film explosion. What made you gravitate towards aikido during this time? Was aikido your first martial art or did you have prior experience in other styles?

BW: I started studying Tang Soo Do Karate when I was six. I first encountered aikido when I was about ten years old (in the early eighties), when my oldest brother took it up as an undergraduate. The concept appealed to me immediately, but there were no possibilities for me to practice at that time.

When I went to university myself, I was on the lookout. This was before the web, so things were a little hard to find. One day I saw a flyer for a free class at one of the gyms. I was lucky that it was a good group of people, some of them still my friends to this day.

MAYTT: At the time you started training, how did the American public view aikido? Did people immediately think of Steven Seagal or did they revert to the age-old comparison, “Is it like karate?”

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Bruce Wonnacott Sensei at Aikido West. Source: aikido-west.org

BW: I’m not sure that I know. Certainly, Steven Seagal was highly visible, so he was probably the first way that many Americans heard of aikido. I remember people asking me about him when I was practicing in college.

MAYTT: Whatever the opinion on Steven Seagal, one cannot ignore the impact he had on aikido in America during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Given that you began your aikido journey during Seagal’s popularity, how do you view him in relation to aikido?

BW: My understanding is that there were two major waves of students joining American aikido. The first was in the sixties and seventies as part of the “human potential movement.” I know that California was an epicenter of this, but I’m not sure how widespread it was across the rest of the country.

The second was during the nineties after the Seagal movies. One perspective is that exposure and publicity are inherently positive, and that if something triggers people to seek out competent aikido teachers, then this is a good thing. I have never met Steven Seagal myself.

MAYTT: Upon moving to California in 1997, you found your current instructor, Frank Doran Sensei. What was your first impression of him and what differentiated him from previous instructors?

BW: I actually first saw Frank Doran in 1994 at a seminar in Washington, DC. He really stood out in terms of his down-to-earth communication skills while teaching. I was still pretty new to aikido at the time, so I felt like a lot of what the other teachers were doing was lost on me. But I walked away from Doran Sensei’s class feeling like I could take what I learned back to my daily practice.

My parents and much of my extended family are teachers in academics, so I recognize teaching as an art form unto itself. If you look at a really genius teacher, someone like Richard Feynman, there is an ability to take complicated subjects and distill out their essence. It’s probably unfair to compare anyone to Richard Feynman, but it’s an ideal that teachers can aspire to. I very much got the impression that this is what Doran Sensei was doing.

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Wonnacott Sensei training with another senior student at Aikido West in 2006. Source: Bruce Wonnacott

MAYTT: I see. It is remarkable how you felt that way after learning from Doran Sensei. You had the opportunity to travel extensively with Doran Sensei to his numerous seminars, both nationally and internationally. How did you find yourself in such a position and what was that experience like for you?

BW: I was lucky to have the time available. In addition to traveling to seminars with other teachers, I started to travel to his seminars as well. Before long he asked me if I would accompany him in a more official capacity. I was also lucky that my wife (whom I met at Aikido West) was also traveling to many seminars at the time, so we did a lot of that together. She was probably even more intense than I was back then.

Traveling with Sensei was absolutely a foundational experience for me. Not only did I really absorb his technique with my body, but I got to learn the professionalism that he brings to his teaching. He is constantly “listening” to the class; adjusting what he says based on what the students are doing (or not doing). I’ve seen him teach “the same” class many times, but it always comes out differently. He will plan something carefully, and then pivot on-the-fly based on who shows up and what they are doing – aiki.

MAYTT: How did this position affect your relationship with Doran Sensei? What did you learn about Doran Sensei and aikido in your travels with him that you may not have learned solely training at the dojo?

BW: When a beginner or a stranger approaches Sensei, he always takes the time to talk to them and treat them with respect. He does this even if it means answering a question, he has heard a million times.

There are many aikido instructors in the world who have amazing technique. Of those people, some of them are able to teach what they know effectively. And of those people, some of them are truly honorable people who treat themselves and others with respect. Many teachers achieve two out of three, but getting all three is rare. I am profoundly lucky to call him my friend.

MAYTT: That is incredible. In the twenty-odds years of training under Doran Sensei, what do you recall being the most important lesson he taught and how did that lesson impact you both as an aikidoka and a person?

BW: He has told me that when students come into his dojo, they sometimes act impressed with his ability. But what if that student is a surgeon, or a pilot, or an engineer? If Sensei were to go visit that student at their workplace, he would be just as amazed by what they do.

I am speculating now, but I imagine his concept of rank must be totally informed by his time in the Marine Corps. He has told me that a senior marine always eats with the troops; there is no sense of being “above” those who are junior in rank.

He definitely makes mistakes. But he has not surrounded himself with “yes-men.” When his students bring problems to his attention, he listens and takes them seriously. This is true leadership.

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Wonnacott Sensei discussing with Frank Doran at Aikido West in 2009. Source: Bruce Wonnacott

MAYTT: With many practitioners now limited I to their homes and essential travel, how has Aikido West responded to the recent COVID-19 pandemic? What advice would you give to aikidoka who are currently homebound and unable to train at the dojo?

BW: Many of the students at Aikido West have been coming together for classes online. Although this has obvious limitations, sometimes we find lessons in unexpected places. And it is a good way to stay connected socially, which is a critical part of any dojo.

Personally, I have been practicing with my kids. One of my daughters is particularly interested in sword work, so we have been doing paired practice with shinai in the street.

For people who are alone, try carrying bokken around the house everywhere with you. Don’t do anything special, just carry it Over time, you will learn new things about its weight and balance. Eventually you will become so comfortable with it that you’ll forget you are holding it; it will feel like part of your body.

You can also practice standing on one foot for as long as possible. If that’s too easy, try doing it with your eyes closed. It’s surprisingly hard to do! [Laughs]

MAYTT: That’s great advice! According to your biography on the Stanford Aikido website, you trained in karate, jujitsu, and fencing, in addition to aikido. How has cross-training in these arts helped you grow as a martial artist? How such an experience benefited your overall understanding of both body mechanics and the martial arts?

BW: It has been critical to my aikido practice to train with many different teachers. You have to see the same thing from many different perspectives in order to gain some understanding of it yourself.

Practicing other arts is just the same principal at a different scale. I remember a time when I was studying tea ceremony and another student from my class tried joining us at the Aikido dojo. We were practicing kokyuho together at the end of class, and she was having difficulty. I suggested that she move as if she were lifting a tea scoop instead. She let go of the fight and her motions became natural – it was surprisingly effective! These arts are all related – all some piece of a bigger whole. If you open your mind, you will feel it.

MAYTT: Final question, Sensei. Just last year, you received your godan. With this recent achievement, do you have any plans on establishing your own school in the future?

BW: I am comfortable with the mechanics of running a dojo, but I prefer being part of a community of diverse teachers. The reason that I stay at Aikido West is not just because of Doran Sensei. There are more than a dozen students here who are easily qualified to run their own schools, all with different personalities and different approaches. But we all prefer to stay and learn from one another rather than to go out on our own. My hope is that Aikido West will remain that place for me for decades to come.

MAYTT: Thank you Sensei! It was enjoyable discussing aikido with you!

BW: Thank you for having me! It was very fun!

To find out more about aikido and its history in America, click here.

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