Interview with Aikido Shihan Darrell Tangman: Aikido with Akira Tohei and Rodney Grantham

Darrell Tangman began aikido while a student at the University of Illinois, unknowing that the art would become a lifelong pursuit. In 1975, he helped establish Twin Cities Aikido Center, and later Augusta Aikido Club in 1985. Throughout his journey, he has trained with pioneers like Akira Tohei and Rodney Grantham. Today, Tangman discusses training under those pioneers.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Thank you for joining us to discuss some aikido history, Tangman Shihan!

Darrell Tangman: It is my pleasure to assist in any way I can.

MAYTT: You began training aikido while you were in the graduate program at the University of Illinois in 1970. What first drew you to the art of harmonizing energies and did you ever think it would be a lifelong journey and commitment when you first began? What continues to motivate you to train and teach aikido today?

Darrell Tangman. Source: Augusta Aikido Club

DT: It was more a case of aikido finding me than the other way around. I was looking for some sort of physical activity to balance all the time I was spending at the computer lab and happened to see a poster advertising the University of Illinois Aikido Club. I had a difficult time learning front rolls, and I certainly never thought of it as a long-term activity until I’d been practicing for several months. The turning point for me came the day I realized that I was enjoying taking ukemi, which had been just a necessary part of training before that.

Now I continue to train and teach, to the extent my body permits, because I don’t want to lose what I’ve gained from the training and out of a sense of obligation to my students and to those who gave me the opportunity to train in aikido.

MAYTT: How have you seen aikido training evolve and change since you began the art? Have these changes in training methods and curriculum helped produce a more well-rounded aikidoka or have they shortchanged the modern aikidoka?

DT: I think most aikido dojo these days do more to teach good ukemi than I saw when I was first starting, and I suspect I would be in better shape today if I had had that sort of training when I was young enough to benefit from it. Beyond that, the differences from one dojo to another are great enough that I don’t discern any consistent change over time.

MAYTT: Your first instructor was Akira Tohei, a pioneer in spreading aikido in the Midwest. Could you tell us about your time under him; what was he like as a person and an instructor? In your opinion, what differentiated him from the rest of his contemporaries into both his individual style and his contributions to aikido?

DT: Actually, my first instructor, at the University of Illinois in Urbana, was professor Taitetsu Unno. Unno Sensei had studied under Tohei Sensei at Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. At the time I joined the aikido club, Tohei Sensei had not yet come to the United States. I first saw him at a seminar at the Illinois Aikido Club in Chicago in the summer of 1971. The Illinois Aikido Club was in the process of finding a new chief instructor, Hombu Dojo had recommended Tohei Sensei, and the seminar was part of his trip to Chicago to meet with the Board of Directors and let both sides decide whether or not he should take the position.

I was never a student in Tohei Sensei’s dojo. When he started teaching in Chicago, I was already living in Minnesota. My second encounter with Tohei Sensei was at the seminar he organized at the Illinois Aikido Club as part of setting up the Midwest Aikido Federation (MAF). From that time forward, I saw him about a half dozen times a year, at seminars and at the annual MAF summer camp, until I moved to Georgia in 1985, after which I mostly saw him only at the summer camp.

My initial impression was that he was very serious and strict. I eventually came to understand that a big part of that impression resulted from his lack of facility with English and his knowledge that he was representing Aikikai Hombu Dojo and aikido to a third of the United States, a responsibility that he took very seriously. As I got to know him a little better, I came to realize that he had a strong sense of humor and enjoyed word play – he is the only person I’ve known to make multi-lingual puns combining English and Japanese. I recall watching him demonstrate a technique at summer camp and comment on what he was doing; I was struggling not to laugh at his comments, and I’ve sometimes wondered if he was disappointed that so few people seemed to recognize his humor for what it was.

Tohei Sensei was fiercely loyal to Hombu Dojo and dedicated to passing on the best understanding he could of everything he had been taught. He spent years teaching weekend seminars at the member dojo of the MAF for little pay, putting up with treatment that I am embarrassed now to recall. He organized trips to Japan as MAF activities, both to strengthen our ties to Hombu Dojo and to broaden our experience of aikido. On the first trip, we spent several days in Yamagata training with Rinjiro Shirata Sensei, in part because Tohei Sensei wanted to meet Shirata Sensei.

MAYTT: In 1975, you founded Twin Cities Aikido Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. What prompted you to establish a school of your own? Did you feel that something was missing from the aikido landscape at the time or was there a lack of aikido schools to match the demand for the art in the area?

DT: Twin Cities Aikido Center exists largely because the University of Minnesota was reluctant to have too many non-students participating in one of their IM sport clubs. As members graduated, many of the ones who didn’t move away chose to continue participating in the club, and eventually we reached a point where the majority of the club members had no current association with the University. We were informed that the University would not provide access to the facilities for more than a small number of outside members. We came to the realization that we had enough members to support a public dojo, and most of the senior members left the University club to open Twin Cities Aikido Center. That was the first dojo dedicated to aikido in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

MAYTT: During this time, you also served as the President of the Midwest Aikido Federation (MAF). Could you tell us more about the MAF, how was it was founded, how it helped solidify aikido in the Midwest, and what actions you took to help elevate aikido within the community?

DT: I served as president of the MAF for only a short period following the resignation of Richard Reed, who had held the position for a number of years; I had to resign after about two years when I left the Midwest and moved to Georgia.

When Tohei Sensei came to Chicago, Kisshomaru Ueshiba Doshu had instructed him to create a regional organization, to strengthen ties between the individual dojo and Hombu and to ensure common standards of instruction and ranking. A few months after his arrival in Chicago, Tohei Sensei organized a seminar at the Illinois Aikido Club, sending invitations to every dojo they had been able to identify to come to an organizing meeting for the MAF. As a result of that meeting, the University of Minnesota Aikido Club became one of the founding members of the MAF.

The MAF served two main functions. First, primarily through Tohei Sensei’s efforts and encouragement, it offered training opportunities through Federation seminars and the annual week-long summer training camp. Once the MAF had become large enough to support them, seminars in Chicago and the summer camp began to feature guest instructors from Hombu Dojo, as well as others, such as Shirata Sensei. The summer camp and major seminars were often accompanied by public demonstrations; Tohei Sensei also encouraged the member dojo to arrange for public demonstrations when he taught seminars outside Chicago.

The other function of the MAF was to serve as the regional organization for the United States Aikido Federation in the Midwest. This provided the member dojo with their official connection to Hombu Dojo, although most communication went directly from the MAF to Hombu.

MAYTT: You bring up Yoshimitsu Yamada’s United States Aikido Federation (USAF). How much communication did you have with them and other dojo and clubs outside your area? What was the primary mode of contact with such schools and practitioners?

DT: Personally, I had little contact with dojo outside the MAF. After I became the chief instructor at the University of Minnesota Aikido Club, I sometimes traveled with Tohei Sensei to USAF functions as one of the regional delegates to the USAF. Tohei Sensei did not encourage his students to travel to seminars outside the MAF, preferring that they support the other dojo in the Midwest. Some of the other senior students did travel considerably more than I. My impression is that most of the communication between members of the MAF and other dojo was a result of personal connections rather than any organizational effort.

MAYTT: Later, in 1985, you moved to Atlanta, Georgia, training under the tutelage of one the art’s pioneers in the Southeast, Rodney Grantham at his Aikido Center of Atlanta. What can you tell me about him as an instructor? Was he a powerful instructor, able to take command of the room or did he allow his technique to speak for himself and his martial knowledge?

DT: Grantham Sensei was an interesting character. He started out in judo and was running his own dojo when he first encountered aikido. Koichi Tohei Sensei was touring the United States and was to do a demonstration in Atlanta. I don’t recall how it happened, but Rodney was invited to take ukemi for Tohei Sensei in the demonstration. He soon began his study of aikido, often making weekend trips to New York to train with Yamada Sensei.

Aikido Center of Atlanta was fortunate to have Rodney as its founding instructor. He was very good at both the organizational and instructional sides of the role. His instruction was generally very clear, and he had no difficulty keeping a class organized and on track.

MAYTT: Grantham later retired from teaching at his school and moved to North Carolina. From your recollection, what was the overall emotion of the school losing its founder and adjusting to the new head instructor, George Kennedy? Was there tension between certain groups of students and instructors or was it a seamless transition?

DT: The transition actually happened over an extended period. Rodney had planned to hand over the reins for a while, so everyone knew it was coming, but his builder in North Carolina messed something up that ended up forcing him to postpone retirement for a year so that he could afford the new house. As a result, by the time the transition happened everyone had been expecting it for about a year and a half. When Rodney left, the dojo lost a few students, but very few; it all happened about as smoothly as anyone could have hoped.

MAYTT: In that same year, 1985, you founded your current school, Augusta Aikido Club, in Augusta, Georgia. Did similar factors motivate you to establish this school as did the Twin Cities Aikido Center or did reasons inspire you?

DT: Once again I was more acted upon than acting – The Augusta Aikido Club was actually founded by my boss, Dr. McLowery Elrod, with whom I had trained for a time in Atlanta. He moved to Augusta to head the product development operation at the National Science Center Foundation, then turned around and recruited me to be his senior software developer and to take over teaching duties at the Aikido Club.

MAYTT: Could you tell us a little bit more about Dr. Elrod? What was his background and what led him to establish the Augusta Aikido Club? What was the transition like when he moved out of the area?

DT: When I met him, Dr. Elrod was teaching mathematics at the University of Georgia, in Athens. We worked together for about a year and a half at the National Advanced Systems development center in Atlanta before he moved to Augusta and recruited me to join him there. I believe he started his Aikido training with Rodney Grantham. He was quite enthusiastic about continuing to train. When he moved to Athens, he started an Aikido club at the university, so he already had experience organizing a dojo from scratch. He did the same thing in Augusta, arranging to hold classes at a YMCA. He had set things up with the intention of installing me as chief instructor if he could persuade me to move to Augusta, so when he left, I lost my senior student, but there really wasn’t much of a transition involved for the dojo.

MAYTT: 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?

DT: I have little contact with martial arts outside the local Aikido community, so this is news to me.

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?

DT: The Founder himself said that he had only begun to explore Aikido and that those who would come after him must develop it further. Whether any given change would be consistent with his understanding of Aikido would obviously depend on the nature of the change.

MAYTT: Besides the ones mentioned above, who do you think were instrumental in helping disseminate aikido in America? What made these individuals stand out from their contemporaries?

DT: Isao Takahashi, Chief Instructor at the Illinois Aikido Club when I joined the University of Illinois Aikido Club. He built a strong dojo that made it possible for Tohei Sensei to move to the United States; he is ultimately responsible for a lot of the history of aikido in the Midwest.

Clyde Takeguchi, founder of dojo in Madison, Wisconsin, Charleston, South Carolina, and Washington, DC, and one of the smartest aikido teachers I’ve ever met. At a seminar in Charleston, one of the participants was in a wheelchair. He had no use of his legs, the result of a spinal injury. By the end of the day, Takeguchi Sensei had that guy taking front rolls out of his chair.

Peter and Penny Bernath, Chief Instructors at Florida Aikikai, which has hosted one of the major annual seminars on the east coast for forty years.

MAYTT: With over fifty years of training and teaching in aikido, what do you think the future holds for the art? How will the art change and adapt to a post-COVID world? Will those modifications come from Aikikai Hombu or from the various regional and country organizations?

DT: As someone famous remarked, it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future, but I suspect there won’t be much COVID-specific change in aikido in the long term. It seems to me that it is in the nature of aikido to require in-person training for continuing improvement, which limits the extent to which the art can make long-term adjustments to COVID or the possibility of other pandemics. I am also reasonably hopeful about the continued development of medical technology to deal expeditiously with such things.

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

DT: I enjoyed the experience!

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

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