Interview with Dan Fernandez: Aikido in the Modern Era

In this transcript of an interview done in the summer of 2019, Dan Fernandez of Tampa Aikikai discuses aikido in America and what the art currently faces in the modern era. All images provided by Dan Fernandez.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: Welcome, Fernandez Sensei! Thank you for taking the time to discuss the current state of aikido in America!

Dan Fernandez: It’s a pleasure being here and I look forward to our discussion!

MAYTT: When you first opened your dojo, how did you acquire new students? What types of methods/outlets did you use? Based on those advertising methods, what has been the dominate age demographic?

Close up
Dan Fernandez training with a bokken.

DF: Through the years, I have had my dojo in different places. All have been non-profit situations, e.g., universities, YMCAs, and a church. New students mostly came from listings of available classes that were published by the host location. A couple of times I did try putting an ad in a small advertising newspaper but that did not draw many students. For the most part, I made postings of the class on the host site list of available classes.

Age demographics has varied over time. When I was located at universities, the dominant age group was between eighteen and twenty-two. At the YMCA, it was more like between people in their twenties and fifties. At the church, we were in the Youth Ministry, but families participated.  We would have middle and high school students and their parents, age range forties and fifties. The most membership growth the dojo had was mainly in the 1970s and 1980s; there was more interest in martial arts then, for sure.

MAYTT: How does your dojo address developing new/future instructors? What then, in your opinion, separates a good instructor from a great instructor?

DF: I teach by example and give them an opportunity to teach classes. A great instructor has concern for the student’s best interests, ability to show and communicate the lesson, and ability to take students where they are and help them grow.

MAYTT: The late Stanley Pranin as well as Josh Gold have suggested, in Aikido Journal, that aikido needs instructors that can teach the art well and can offer insightful development and innovation to the art. One method they offer to achieve this is developing the instructor with in-house/dojo programs to discuss and implement teaching methodologies and strategies. Do you feel that this in-house development is the way to go or does this need to be done on a larger scale, possibly through organizations?

DF: Perhaps both. However, much of the innovation that I have learned came from attending Hiroshi Ikeda Sensei’s seminars. His insight regarding internal power and connection take aikido to a new level.

MAYTT: I see. In addition, French aikidoka Christian Tissier suggests allowing younger instructors to teach classes more often in an effort to attract and draw more of the much-needed younger demographics into the dojo. Do you feel this is a valid method of addressing the age demographic issue? What other options might you suggest or have you tried?

DF: There is the aspect of relatability. But as I mentioned in our previous correspondence, I think the bigger issue with the youth is the digital age and the evolution from crock pot to microwave expectations.  It would be a tragic loss to society if martial arts are completely lost.

MAYTT: How have you and your dojo adapted to such a change, if any?

DF: We are still in the process of adapting.

MAYTT: In your opinion, how can traditional martial arts, such as aikido, adapt to the changing modern martial arts landscape and the American industry model? Is there a way for schools to maintain tradition and integrity while staying current with the times?

DF: This is a hard question to answer. As a professor at a university, I have seen a change in the way students learn. Very few take notes. They are more tuned in to their smart phones, tablets, and laptops. Perhaps using some video in classes would help.

MAYTT: That’s a great parallel between the two groups of students. Given that the membership numbers of judo and karate remain at least consistent compared to aikido, how do you think judo and karate adapted to such changes or why have they not experienced the same decline in recent years as aikido?

DF: I believe that aikido is subtler and takes much longer and more patience to see progress.

MAYTT: When martial artists, particularly dojo owners, discuss the changes within the industry, many point to the rise of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) as two of the major factors. Do you feel that MMA and BJJ are contributing factors to the decline of traditional martial arts? If so, what do these arts offer in comparison to aikido and other Japanese martial arts like judo and karate?

DF: Yes, the MMA tournaments and movies with martial arts typically favor karate, with some Jiu-Jitsu. These arts get more advertising in that respect.

MAYTT: Besides competition, is there something that judo and karate offer that aikido does not?

DF: Some people like grappling arts and some like the kick-punch arts. The randori in judo and kumite in karate may also be more appealing to some.

MAYTT: Martial arts writer Nick Porter asserted that aikido’s curriculum has remained the same from its inception and asked the question, “why aikido has not changed or modified its curriculum as time went on, especially in relation to more modern styles that have seen a rise in popularity and numbers?” Do you feel that the overall curriculum of aikido could be updated for today’s modern era and martial arts industry? If so, in what ways?

DF: As I mentioned previously, I believe that Ikeda Sensei is evolving the art in a positive way.  In the early stages of learning aikido, it is more form over substance. Students that are new to the art typically find that the techniques “don’t work.” As they progress in their study, they learn concepts like kuzushi, or off balancing uke. They begin to develop substance or efficacy in the technique. To continue to train in a dance-like form over substance takes away the “martial’ from the art. Ikeda Sensei’s approach with “connection” and internal power has substance and efficacy.

MAYTT: That’s an interesting take on the subject. Has your dojo’s curriculum made any additions or subtractions to stay current?

DF: For the past twenty years I have been implementing Ikeda Sensei’s approach as I described.

MAYTT: Final question, Sensei. With you many years of training and teaching aikido, what advice would you give to someone opening a dojo today?

DF: Find a non-profit organization like a school, college, or YMCA. The cost of maintaining a dojo can be challenging. Non-profit organizations handle the overhead, including insurance, provide a place to train, and offer some limited advertising.

MAYTT: Thank you again for taking the time to talk with us!

DF: Thank you for having me; it was a great discussion!

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


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