Interview with USAF Technical Committee Member Andy Demko: The Early Years in the American Northeast

Andy Demko began training martial arts and combat sports while he was in high school. After seeing an aikido class at Youngstown University, he joined, eventually meeting Koichi Tohei and Yoshimitsu Yamada in the mid-1960s. He later opened his Aikido Center of New Castle in 1971. Today, Demko discusses the fledgling years of aikido in the Northeast, outside perceptions of the art, and its future in the midst of a pandemic. All images provided by Andy Demko.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Demko Sensei! Thank you for taking the time to talk about the early years of aikido in America!

Andy Demko: Glad to be here!

MAYTT: What led you to take up aikido? Were there specific aspects of the art you found intriguing compared to other martial arts of the time; what first piqued your interest? Did you have any prior martial arts experience before taking up aikido?

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Andy Demko.

AD: I became really interested in martial arts when I was in high school – that was 1964 through 1966. I lived in New Castle, Pennsylvania, about an hour north of Pittsburgh and at that time, nobody knew what a dojo was, literally. I did some searching because I was very intrigued by combat sports, like boxing, wrestling – any type of activity like that. I trained in judo, but since there were no real qualified instructors around, it was kind of helter skelter. I did, however, learn a lot from books. I did study karate the summer of 1965, when I was in San Francisco for the season. I studied Kenpo Karate there, which I loved very much. I was just enamored by all the arts. When I started reading about aikido, there was just something that magnetically drew me to it. To sum it up, it showed and allowed me to have a methodology where I could learn and protect myself and my family with good martial skills without developing a fighting mind. I think that was the key element in my decision and it was almost immediate. It was like I tuned into that frequency and off I went.

MAYTT: At the time you began your aikido training, how did the American public view martial arts in your opinion? Was there a certain mystique surrounding martial arts in general? Do you feel that same mystique still exists today or have perceptions radically changed?

AD: Now, I’m talking over a fifty-year span, basically, and I can tell you within that time span, martial arts were a lot different. In the mid to late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a counterculture movement going on. We had the Hippies, Woodstock, and Eastern thought was being investigated through yoga and the martial arts. Kwai Chang Caine [from Kung Fu] came on television, and it really stressed the more spiritual aspects of martial arts in general. It was, for the time, I think it was very appealing. Then Steven Seagal came in with Above the Law, which, I believe, was the greatest movie he ever made. The film really showed the true orthodox aikido initially and represented it pretty well. It really took off and people were in that mode – it’s a different mode today of thought, which every fifty years, things tend to change dramatically, and I think that proves true here. There’s a different view and value to the martial arts. I’ve been in aikido all my life, I have an older son who’s a godan, and my wife has been training as long as I have. I have a middle son who teaches BJJ and kickboxing, and he’s in his thirties. Things have changed, especially where the emphasis is and what people are liking today. There’s a big emphasis on MMA now, and with the publicity it gets, obviously those things are much more in the mainstream. Aikido has never had that much notoriety or publicity to it in that sense because it’s not a sport. Now, we’re talking about two different things, actually.

MAYTT: What have you found to have been the most important or memorable lesson you learned, both as an aikidoka and a person? What has had the greatest impact?

AD: That’s a great question. Overall, in training, to draw back a moment, when everything was in the formative stages, like the forerunner of aikido was aikijujutsu; the forerunner of judo was jujutsu, per se – I’m simplifying this, obviously. But when things went from jutsu, the way of killing or battlefield efficiency, when that was no longer in vogue and there was peace in Japan after hundred years of war, people kept practicing the martial arts but they found that there were a lot of positive residuals or benefits to the practitioner. They weren’t using it to protect the clan at that time, but you found that you stayed younger or stronger, you were in better condition, your mind was clearer, you thought better, and you meditated – you did things in a very positive way.

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Andy Demko teaching at his Aikido Center of New Castle.

The training in itself becomes a metaphor for life. We always say you can’t hide on the mat; you have to open yourself up. The training in aikido is a little different, generally, than a lot of the martial arts. I’m not saying it’s any better, it’s just a different modality of training. I think anyone can get into that if they commit themselves to the art. You’re going to find that you find yourself as an individual, and I think that’s one of the most important benefits of studying something like aikido. I mean, it can come from any martial art, really – any martial art can do it. I certainly can’t limit it in my mind. Anything you commit yourself to, and it serves God and man, and you do it from the bottom of your heart, I think you’ll earn more than you spent.

MAYTT: That’s an interesting way of looking at training. Rumors within the aikido community circulated that you and several others actually began learning aikido from a book. Is there any truth to such rumors? At a time when aikido in America was just starting out, finding a suitable instructor to train under was not all that simple; books were a valuable source of information and often where people first sought to learn. If such a rumor is true how did the book prepare you for live dojo training when the time came?

AD: Well that’s no rumor [Laughs] Living in New Castle and about twenty-five miles from the Ohio state line, I was very far west. Youngstown, Ohio was the largest city about twenty-five miles from me. I used to hitch-hike over there because they had a club there called the SAD Judo Club, “Scientific Arts of Defense.” This is where a hosh posh of different people came together. Somebody trained in Chicago for two years an Okinawan karate master, somebody did this, somebody did that. I got lucky and ran into a guy that trained two years at the Kodokan in judo and I trained with him quite a bit, extensively when I was just in my mid-teens. It was a place where all this came together. Then I saw some guys doing these exercises and movements, and I asked myself, “My God, what is that?” And that’s how it started; these guys who were two of my seniors, Charles Cycyk and Peter Tackage were pioneers. They got into aikido in the 1960s and would travel up to Chicago to see Hirata Sensei, who was the instructor at that time in the city. They came back and would train, then they’d go back up and repeat. That’s how we got started. They would go every once in a while, when they could.

When I started with them, our initial instruction was from the book, which was very difficult, given how complex aikido can be. To look at a book and try and figure it out was the fun part [Laughs] We actually had the chance to meet Koichi Tohei, who was, at that time, the founder’s chief student and head of Hombu Dojo. Charles and Peter met him in Chicago, then he came down to Cleveland, Ohio with Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei, who’s my teacher in New York. This was in either 1965 or 1966 when I met them, but they were so taken by us and our commitment to wanting to learn aikido; we even opened a dojo down in Youngstown in one guy’s garage. When we opened up our school, we were the first dojo in the state of Ohio to be recognized by Aikido World Headquarters in 1966. It actually warranted a piece in Black Belt Magazine, and I’m sure I still have that cutout somewhere. It was quite an honor, really. It was early in aikido’s development in the country; we were certainly pioneers in it.

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Andy Demko applying a nikkyo at one of the many seminars he attended.

When Tohei came down, he stayed at our dojo for about a week, which was an exciting experience, as Tohei was one of the top aikidoists in the world [Laughs] He was so enamored by our commitment and what were doing, then Yamada came down for about three days. It was just an incredible experience. We got connected like that. I truly believed that Providence works for you. William James, the father of psychology, said that the mind goes in the direction of your dominant thought. Anything you think about and dwell on ultimately becomes your reality, in essence. It’s obvious when somebody is committed to something – you know that, if you’re committed to your work, your job. You can recognize it. You can see if somebody is not committed – it’s very obvious. When you get in tune, then everything and happenstances goes your way.

Honestly, when you’re committed, you attract stuff you or I don’t understand, and probably never will. But you don’t have to. You just have to know it’s there and we can use it.

MAYTT: That’s an amazing story on how everything just lined up for you. Being based in the Northeast, how did you see aikido grow in the region? Was it a slow build over a long period of time, or an explosion of schools and talent over a short period of time?

AD: Going back to my teacher, Yamada Sensei who was a direct student of the Founder himself, who came in 1964 and he opened New York Aikikai, which is still there for about fifty-six years. It was a steady growth. Actually, it’s been an exponential growth worldwide, I will tell you that. I would say after the first ten years, it just started to take off. It’s got its foothold in a lot of the universities: Harvard, MIT, a lot of the major schools. A lot of people practice aikido: artists and scientists – it’s a lot of a certain type of person. Everyone has that frequency that they specifically resonate to. Aikido has its own frequency. If it’s for you, you’ll know it; if it’s not for you, that’s okay too. You go to whatever you resonate towards. It’s grown exponentially. I will say, though, in the last ten years, there’s been a decline of growth in aikido, probably in the U.S. Now, in Europe and South America, it’s doing very well. I don’t know if they’re undergoing the cultural change that we’re having here or the flux that’s going on here, or the ideology shifts. Like I said, it has grown exponentially all over the world, and I think that’s reflected in the Facebook friends I have. The limit on it is 5,000 and most of my friends there are all overseas.

MAYTT: When was the Aikido Center of New Castle founded? At the time of the school’s formation, what do you recall being the main pillars of inspiration to establish your own school? Was there something you felt was missing in the aikido landscape that you believed your dojo would be more suitable to provide?

AD: I established the Aikido Center of New Castle in 1971. There was no question, it was a given [Laughs] My wife and I were both going to Youngstown University at that time, so we were living, and we were training in Youngstown. When we graduated, we moved back to our hometown, which was, as stated before, about twenty-five miles away. Because of this distance, I was in a position to open up my own school. It wasn’t should I or would I, it was a matter of when – it was just a matter of course. This is what I had to do, and I didn’t even have any second thoughts: I’m moving back and I’m opening up a dojo, what’s the problem? [Laughs]

MAYTT: Upon becoming the head of your own school, how did that experience change your perspective on aikido and training as a whole?

AD: I’ve always been an extremist in a lot of ways, and when it comes to training, I’m an extremist. When it comes to quality technique, I’m an extremist. I guess some people can call me a perfectionist. But when I get on it, I’m on it. The experience now just intensifies; now I have responsibilities, more so because I’m the head instructor, and what can I do to provocate aikido? I didn’t lay out all of these things; they were all happenstance. It’s like if you have a son and you raise him, then they go off and get married, they are probably going to do a lot of what they saw their parents do, generally speaking. That’s their model. That’s the way it was for me and aikido. it was a normal part of the progression.

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Andy Demko, overlooking a seminar training session.

That encouraged me to train and I intensified my training. I would go up to New York, very often, and train, I would attend these seminars, I would travel around with Yamada Sensei. I did everything I could, besides have a wife, four kids, and a full-time job. I did everything I could to commit to aikido and my own involvement in it. I tell people this: I have never ever been bored doing aikido, teaching or training. This is because I will never know it all. It’s always changing, it’s always improving, it’s a new venue every day. It’s a new creation all the time. To me, it’s just exhilarating to continue the training and to reach the highest ideals you can. You’ll never know it all, but at least you know you don’t know and there’s always something to strive for. If you have a purpose, you’ve got a lot of good things coming.

MAYTT: I can see how that perspective could change over time. Since the 1970s several individuals have impacted the martial arts communities including Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and the Gracie Family, to name a few. What about Steven Seagal in your opinion? Did his movies in the late 80s and early 90s impact the aikido/martial arts industry as many had said or have things been slightly blown out of proportion regarding his contributions? Does Seagal have a role in the American aikido landscape and if so, where do you see him fitting into that picture?

AD: I think back in the day, when he was in his prime, his aikido was incredible, he was a pioneer, and he’s done a lot for aikido in the country. I respect his aikido and what he did for us.

Because of his early contributions, there’s no way in the world that you could or should deny him that. In the day, especially his first movie, Above the Law, it’s incredible! I’m telling you, it led a lot of people to the study of aikido. He represented it well. Then again, when Hollywood comes into the picture and changes concepts and all that, that’s a different story, but I respect what he did, especially early on. I think somebody has their head in the sand if they don’t think he had an impact on early aikido [Laughs]

MAYTT: You, along with a number of other practitioners had the opportunity to be early members of Yoshimitsu Yamada’s United States Aikido Federation (USAF). At a time when aikido was practically unknown, how did the organization and its members begin to tackle the dissemination of aikido? Was it a daunting prospect at the time?

AD: Everybody was just so immersed in practice and wanting to learn. One of the greatest things to have in any organization is enthusiasm. If you have that enthusiasm and, Providentially, things will go on your behalf, because you’re focused on the object of that enthusiasm and it puts things in motion for you. Everybody enjoyed training. Believe me when I tell you, that we used to drive twelve hours to our summer camps in New England or all over really.

As it grew, the USAF evolved into something like a big community and everybody is searching for community and connection and it’s a wonderful thing with a group. You find very few people that you would have any problem with. In all sincerity, if you’re not resonating to that frequency that I keep referring to, you’re not going to stay around because it’s not going to be beneficial for you – it’s not going to be gratifying. You find great groups of people, worldwide, to say the least, that practice aikido and other martial arts. I can’t leave them out, but I can speak specifically for aikido, as that’s where the majority of my time has been spent.

MAYTT: I had the chance to talk with George Kennedy of Aikido Center of Atlanta, and he mentioned that many schools during that period did not have much contact with others outside their respective regions. Did you experience a similar situation? How did schools within the USAF back then keep in contact with one another?

AD: In current times, obviously, we have websites, but I don’t recall how long it’s been now, but we’ve always had a sort of connection with other schools within the organization. We have seminars pretty regularly. Most of them are regional seminars, and we have the national seminars every so often as well. Every year, normally, we have a seven-day camp in the summertime. Unfortunately, it’s canceled this year, but it’s usually the last few days of July into the first week of August. There are a lot of people that come in during that seven-day time period. We get people from thirty different countries come, with hundreds of people coming in to train. We have, especially our group, as we are the most senior group in the country, networks stretched all over the place. These networks came gradually; it’s like planting – you plant, you weed, you seed, and pretty soon you got more than you really need, at times. Some of this stuff just happens. Like attracts like.

With these national seminars, we normally do one long weekend in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. We get a lot of people come up to train from South America, in addition to our local group. We are always connecting with each other. We have a great interconnection within the USAF. Now, it didn’t come overnight, but it’s developed over the fifty plus years of being in the aikido community.

MAYTT: I see. With being a longtime member and contributor to the aikido community, what are your feelings on the mounting negative views and comments on aikido? Are they truly warranted and, in your opinion, are there things the aikido community can do as a whole to battle or debunk such perceptions?

AD: Here’s what you have to look at: traditional martial arts and MMA are totally different. That’s like comparing the light and the dark. MMA is fighting, and, for the most part, speaking on a professional level.

Before I get any further, I would like to clarify that I’m pretty much a realist in my training. I won’t do technique if I don’t think they’re not going to work in reality. My whole focus has always been self-defense and self-preservation. The aspects are there. Now are they practiced by the community, as a whole; probably not. Everybody has a little bit of a different shade of it – on how you practice or what your end results are.

There’s no way in the world that somebody has a debate on whether a traditional martial artist can go into the ring with an MMA guy, even if the latter is an amateur, and expect the traditional martial arts guy to have a chance. That’s absolutely ridiculous! The guy’s a professional fighter; professional fighters train to fight. Generally speaking, they have no philosophy in mind – it’s a whole different venue. It’s like with a boxer: boxers are trained to fight. Now, are there limitations to martial arts, even the budo; yes, there are limitations. The way you train is what you do in reality. There are limitations when you go into the ring; there are certain things you can’t do, but in reality, you can do anything. There’s actual difference between combat fighting on the street or in a riot than one in the dojo or in the cage/MMA. It’s a whole different scenario.

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Andy Demko performing a kokyuho at his Aikido Center of New Castle.

It also depends on why you train. As I mentioned earlier, with the transition from the jutsu to the do, a lot of the more lethal types of techniques were taken out: Jigoro Kano took them out of jujutsu to make judo. Why, so he could provocate judo as a sport. Really, who many broken arms and legs can you take before you quit the dojo? You can’t like that. You’re going to have a short career. It’s like the Thai kickboxer; they take a lot of punishment [Laughs]

Actual fighting and actual martial practice are different. Now, does that negate a person’s ability, if they train in traditional martial arts, not to have those martial skills, no it doesn’t. You have to focus. In my class, I focus on things like that, things like adrenal stress training. Adrenal stress training is the missing link in the martial arts, in general. What that is, you are put into a scenario where it induces the flight or fight response, which we go into under stress. In this type of situation, a police officer might lose forty percent of his dexterity when firing a weapon if they’re into a situation like that. Their eyes narrow, the blood vessels tighten, the motor skills lesson tremendously. It’s not going to work out as you did when you were in the dojo, in the ring, or in the cage when your life is at stake. There are different venues you have to talk about.

Aikido, to me, is the ultimate in martial practice, probably because the way it develops the mind, body, and spirit. It does not need to be devoid of martial applicability, but it depends on the teacher and depends on what the training is. Can somebody find it in aikido, if they train with me, they can find it [Laughs] But that’s my focus. For the USAF, I’m on the Technical Committee and my classes are very well received, because I won’t let somebody do something that’s not legitimate.

You can train to fight, and you can train in a traditional martial art, but they’re not necessarily the same.

I believe strongly in cross-training. I cross-trained in my early days of martial arts. My children all cross-train. It’s important. If you’re going to focus on realistic self-defense, no matter what art you take, you have to be consciously aware of what’s in vogue today. You have to see how people are fighting today; how do people in prison fight now, what do they do, how do they shank; how does the criminal on the street work, here and there. You have to understand these things. Most importantly, you understand what a boxer thinks, what a kickboxer thinks, and what a grappler thinks. The best way to do that, in my opinion, is to cross-train. If you do some cross-training, your game will get really strong, because you won’t be operating on misinformation anymore; you’ll be operating on what is. You have to have that practical experience and that’ll make you much stronger once you do. It’s a lifelong journey, to say the least.

When I was a kid, you didn’t see people doing double-leg takedowns. At the playground, they’d try and replicate something they saw on TV before they did a double-leg takedown [Laughs] Think about it, people do what they see. That’s a natural form of movement. Let me draw a parallel here, in the past, many of the teachers that came right after the Founder were black belts in kendo, kenjutsu, and jujutsu. The majority of them had previous and additional martial arts experience. When you do something, and you have a background or a resumé of experiences, you can pull something off like aikido because you have the wherewithal and the depth to do it. You’re not operating on something like if somebody can throw them without touching them [Laughs] The more experience you can get, the better. It’ll make you appreciate what you do a little bit more.

When you talk about realistic self-defense, the guy on the street only has to know one thing: how to throw an overhand right, because all he’s trying to do is knock your head off. That’s what happens in reality, and you might not even see it coming. You have to prepare yourself for a lot of different things that go on. Most of all, it’s about being aware and controlling where you’re at, where you go, what you do, and how you act with people. I think, as a society, something like aikido is very good because it leads you beyond the fighting mind but still doesn’t devoid you of the ability to protect yourself, at least, my view of it.

MAYTT: Many believe that aikido requires a revamping in both its training philosophies and technical application methods, allowing the art to become truly valid and find its place in modern martial arts circles. Would such an “upgrade” stay true to the art and its founder’s core purpose, or would these kinds of changes be a disservice to the legacy of the aikido, thus no longer being aikido?

AD: I agree more with the last statement you made. If we change the basic structure of aikido, and I’m not talking about the traditional, classical art of aikido, you change the philosophy and the intent of the art, what the hell are we doing? Why should somebody from some other martial art or some other venue tell me how to train in aikido? Go do your own training, I’ll worry about my training.

MAYTT: Let’s bring the discussion to the present for the moment. Given the recent effects of COVID-19, how do you see Aikido Center of New Castle and other aikido schools reemerging from this pandemic? With the literal overnight rise of virtual training as the new norm, will physical training facilities become a thing of the past? What steps have you taken to maintain training for your students and school? Has the virtual format been a successful avenue for a program?

AD: Our first steps were to basically close down for three-and-a-half or four months. It’s challenging from an economic standpoint. I know of a few schools that are no longer in existence right now in aikido. I am sure other dojos are having some of the same issues also. It’s almost like the end of an epoch. There have been schools in business for thirty, forty, or fifty years, and with the decline in students and consciousness, they can’t go on. It’s very difficult.

We are back into very limited training with masks, open doors, and fans. We are mostly doing weapons training, with no close contact at all. The people were anxious to get back. We do a lot of outside training with the weapons. We just keep going. You wonder why, sometimes [Laughs] But, like I mentioned before, it’s in my blood; I got to keep doing it. One way or another, we’re going to do it. Even now, I’m discouraged at times that I see half of my people are back training. I miss that connection with the rest of the students. Sometimes, I want them all to be back and all to be well.

We’ve disinfected the school several times and, with the downtime, we’ve had the time to do the necessary repair and upkeep, most of all, making it as clean and germ-free as possible. We’ve been changing some of the cleaning habits, making it more intense, we’ve been checking people’s temperature when they come in, using hand sanitizers, and being extremely cautious. For most of the people in aikido, the mean age is over forty-five, so a lot of people could be in high-risk for the virus. That’s another issue you have.

A lot of people do martial arts as a business, I have nothing against that, but aikido is not a business, generally speaking. You have to have some business sense and align the books right, but it’s not for just a profit alone. You’re committed to wanting it provocated. In that sense, it’s beneficial. If I have one student or ten students or one hundred students, I’m going to do it. It’s a matter of commitment and what you’re interested in doing.

In a lot of the parts of the country, they’re not as open as we are now. We have big populations in New Jersey and New York obviously, and I’m not sure if they’re inside their schools yet. It’s hard everywhere, right now. There’s a lot of trepidation, but as things go, some will survive, and others won’t, unfortunately. Overall, we are fortunate, and we are blessed in this country. Things could be a lot worse.

MAYTT: With that in mind, how do you think aikido will survive if such social distancing practices continue? Can a training environment centered on an all virtual format really produce competent and effective aikidoka, in your opinion?

AD: I’m pretty optimistic. I think it’s going to survive. I think there are a couple vaccines that are getting high marks; there are some different ways to treat it. I don’t know when the delirium will subside. It’s all hypothetical at this point. I think we will get back to normal practice. You want to think back to 1917 to 1919, when they had the Spanish Flu, it literally killed half a million people. Guess what? In a few years, they were all back doing what they did before. Chances are, that’ll probably happen again.

Regarding the virtual, quite honestly, the virtual is good, but to me, it’s like looking at a commercial at a steak on television and being at the restaurant, cutting into that bad boy [Laugh] That’s the difference. That’ll never overtake the actual training, especially as complicated as aikido. there are some things that you can’t learn without direct transmission at some point. We started learning out of a book, but we didn’t start learning them until we got our hands on them and really started to be thrown by them, taking ukemi with them, and hanging with them – that’s how you learn. There are some things you can’t transmit the other way. It’s a good adjunct and a good temporary thing, but it’ll never replace actual practice.

MAYTT: Final question, Sensei. With over fifty years in training, teaching, and running an aikido school, what advice would you give to someone wanting to open an aikido school today, barring the current COVID situation?

AD: Save your money [Laughs] I’ve been subsidizing dojos for fifty years. If it’s your heart to do it, do it, but timing is going to be the essence of something like this. I’m all for it! If you have a desire to train and to teach, and you have the ability and connections, I’m all for it and whatever it takes. Obviously, this wouldn’t be the time to do it. Unless you’re going to do it on a very limited basis, and you understand that it’s going to be nip and tuck.

MAYTT: Thank you Demko Sensei for a very interesting discussion about your early years in aikido!

AD: Thank you for having me! It was a pleasure!

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

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