Danielle Smith began training under Stanley Pranin in 1973, eventually taking over Pranin’s Aikido of Monterey three years later. As she continued through her aikido journey, she had the opportunity to experience many different early instructors, like Frank Doran, Mary Heiny, Linda Holiday, and Motomichi Anno. She also trained in Hakko-ryu Jujutsu, Seibukan Jujutsu, and iaido, and helped create a Model Mugging curriculum. Today, Smith joins us as she discusses her aikido journey through the years. All images provided by Danielle Smith. This is the first part of a two-part interview. View the second part here.
Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome and thank you for joining us Smith Sensei!
Danielle Smith: Thank you for inviting me; I am glad to be here!
MAYTT: You began training aikido in 1973, during a time of social unrest and change. How did you come across the art and what continues to motivate your training today?
DS: I did begin my training in 1973. I was living and working in Cleveland, Ohio, having graduated from Miami University in 1971. I first became aware of aikido from an article in the Atlantic Monthly Magazine. As I recall, the article referred to two disciplines, aikido and tai chi. The foundation of both arts is that utilized a power that does not depend upon purely physical strength, ki (aikido) and chi (tai chi). As an athlete and as a woman, I became intrigued by the thought of developing this power and I promised myself to seek out these mysterious arts. I was not aware of the active aikido training that was available in Cleveland at that time.
I left my corporate position, loaded up my BMW 1600 and drove with my sister and two cats to Monterey, California, where Dennis Evans, my primary relationship from Cleveland, had accepted the position as Clinical Director of the Mental Health Center at the Community Hospital. My intention was to visit until ski season and then go to Colorado or Utah to teach skiing. What changed my mind, and the course of my life, was that Stan Pranin had settled in Monterey and had taught an aikido workshop of several sessions for the mental health workers, “How to be Safe While Keeping Patients Safe.” As a follow on, he began an open-ended aikido training program in a local judo/jujitsu dojo. It began in September 1973. I arrived in Monterey in October. I visited one class, signed up, and took my first steps in the direction of learning about that power that I had read about. Stan Pranin became my first aikido sensei. He had trained for ten years, and, like all the highest ranked people in Northern California, he was a sandan. It was his enthusiasm about aikido and its potential that inspired me to train daily.
The entire twentieth century, up to that point, had been churning with social unrest. 1973 was six years after the “Summer of Love;” four years after Woodstock, and two years before the ending of the Vietnam War. The decade before had seen the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. O-Sensei had passed away in 1969. Aikido was new in California. The atmosphere amongst the people I met was one of creativity and potential for greatness. There was that feeling of hope and energy expressed through aikido and the teachings left by the founder, Morihei Ueshiba, O-Sensei. We felt we could change the world. Aikido offered a path from the darkness of war, inequality, and death, to one of a new making, based on oneness; with no one excluded. It was very exciting. Aikido dojo sprang up all over. In 1974, we moved out of the judo dojo, purchased mats, and became known as Aikido of Monterey (AOM), setting up our dojo in Pranin Sensei’s two car garage at his home in Monterey. We trained several hours each day, seven days a week.
In June of 1976, I received my shodan at the dojo on Turk Street, before a board made up of instructors from the Aikido Association of Northern Californian (AANC). Dan exams were conducted quarterly. The day following my shodan test, Pranin Sensei surprised the members of AOM by announcing his intention to relocate to Oakland. Instead of being sempai in the dojo, led by Pranin Sensei, I was sempai and the highest ranked member at AOM. I taught the classes, and Linda Holiday (Hultgren) Sensei and Jack Wada Sensei alternated coming down once a week from Santa Cruz to teach. A small group of AOM students collaborated on the running of the dojo. By June of 1977, three of us held the rank of shodan. We continued to train daily and grow.
MAYTT: What was the aikido scene and community like when you first started training? Who were some of the individuals and instructors that practitioners gravitated towards and how did they help further disseminate aikido in Northern California?
DS: We enthusiastically attended as any seminars as we could, especially those taught by visiting Japanese sensei. These included seminars with Mitsunari Kanai Sensei and Mitsugi Saotome Sensei, who developed their own dojo in the US. We were also excited by the early seminars of Michio Hikitsuchi and Morihiro Saito Sensei from Japan. In addition to my teacher, Stan Pranin, there were a number of dedicated local leaders — senseis Robert Nadeau, Robert Frager, Frank Doran, William Witt, and Terry Dobson. We were hungry to train with all of these teachers.
Women in aikido. One of the developments that affected the dissemination of aikido in Northern California, and beyond, was the introduction of and the growth of women in aikido at that time. When I first began training in aikido, Pranin Sensei showed our class a movie of people training in Japan. It included a brief clip of women training in a mixed class. The women were all wearing hakama which, unlike our area, was not an indication of rank. The men in our class, mostly soldiers and officers from the Naval Postgraduate School. expressed shock. “You mean there are women black belts in Japan?!” They were shocked to see women training in Japan, let alone that they may have attained black belt level. Times were different then. It was far less usual to see women on the mat and almost unheard of to see a woman yudansha. When I first started aikido, the only woman black belt that I knew of in Central/Northern California was Betsy Hill Sensei, now rokudan. I’m grateful to her for starting the ball rolling and being an inspiring pioneer in aikido. Other women instructors began to emerge as the aikido population grew and more women were attracted to the “Art of Peace.”
Mary Heiny Sensei was an early inspiration to me and many other aikidoka. Mary Heiny Sensei, as a sandan at that time, was one of the highest ranked women in the world. She and Linda Hultgren (Holiday) Sensei, then a recent shodan, and both recently returned from training in Shingu, Japan, were in Monterey at my very first kyu test. The intensity with which they trained, and their skill level, was awesome and inspiring to me. I longed to experience more enthusiastic training with women instructors, and for other women to experience these pioneers as models. Upon learning that Heiny Sensei was planning to move to Santa Cruz, I took the opportunity to arrange for her to come down once a week to teach a class on Saturdays, which she graciously accepted. I called the class, “Women in Action Aikido.” I wanted to make available the images of women powerfully training in aikido. So, I made two, 8-millimeter movies, one featuring Mary Heiny Sensei and Linda Holiday Sensei, and one of women in general who were training at that time. In the closing circle of the first “Women in Action Aikido” class, Mary announced that I would conduct two review classes during the week. And so it was that I began teaching, as a blue belt, in 1974. In 1976, when I was preparing to test for shodan, Mary Heiny, then living in Seattle, traveled to Monterey to train with me for a week before I took my shodan test — so much generosity and support.
Pat Hendricks Sensei started training in the “Women in Action Aikido” classes on Saturdays with Mary Heiny Sensei. Pat Hendricks was a resident of Monterey at the time. Eventually, she became a student of Stan Pranin Sensei at AOM. Later, she traveled to and resided in Japan, and spent decades as a direct student of Morihiro Saito Sensei. She is now seventh dan, shihan, and head of Division 1 of the CAA, and is responsible for many dojos world-wide. She teaches all the classes at her dojo. In addition to adults, she has led hundreds of children from early childhood to adulthood through aikido. Many achieved the rank of blackbelt as children and remain practicing members of our aikido community today. She is the very first woman to be on the International Aikido Federation board.
Linda Holiday Sensei is now seventh dan, shihan, and is the head of a large, well-established aikido dojo in Santa Cruz. Holiday Sensei and I referred to Aikido of Santa Cruz and AOM as “sister dojos,” sharing opposite sides of Monterey Bay. Aikido of Santa Cruz also developed a large annual retreat that draws practitioners from around the world. Motomichi Anno Sensei, Linda Sensei’s teacher from Shingu, Japan, became a regular teacher at these weeklong events. Having trained with Linda and Mary Heiny Sensei shortly after their returning from Shingu, the heart and spirit of aikido in the Kumano region, has profoundly influenced my training.
Years later, Michael Smith Sensei and I traveled to Shingu and trained with Michio Hikitsuchi Sensei, tenth dan, Linda’s first teacher there. It was a wondrous, almost daunting, experience to train with Hikitsuchi Sensei in the Kumano Juku Dojo, the dojo that O-Sensei helped to build. We stayed in the frigid loft above the dojo and enjoyed early December morning classes with Anno Sensei, after which he would take us on excursions into the mountains of this deeply spiritual and incredibly beautiful area. The images I remember of Anno Sensei embracing ancient trees helped me to realize the importance of nature in aikido and its origins, and that opening the heart is opening to “Great Nature” in each individual. Since then, Holiday Sensei, Michael, and I have traveled there together on numerous pilgrimages.
Holiday Sensei wrote a book about Anno Sensei’s teaching, of what he learned from his training with O-Sensei. The book, Journey to the Heart of Aikido, is compelling and inspiring. She travels world-wide, sharing her teaching and her book, giving practitioners the courage and excitement to delve deeply into the gifts of aikido training.
In the early to mid-70s, women training was all new and exciting. Now, there are many talented, highly ranked women on the West Coast. We can see and experience the outcome of our early dedication and enthusiasm. The support of all the leaders I’ve mentioned, men and women, really fostered this kind of growth – the proliferation of many of us having dojos, and our continuing to train and teach for so many years. I have deep gratitude to all of those who supported us.
MAYTT: It is great to hear that there were great people in the community! One of your major instructors was Frank Doran, who, in his own right, was a pioneer of the art in Northern California. Can you tell me about Doran as an instructor and a person? In your opinion, how did he help disseminate aikido?
DS: Frank Doran Sensei has such integrity and sincerity. His aikido has always been inspiring and beautiful. His clear way of teaching always offers precise movements and concepts that are accessible to beginners, while also challenging to experienced students. His masterful presentation of technique inspires us as we grow in aikido. Because of his integrity, and the caring and support that he has given people over the years, people naturally want to follow him. He is demanding in his teaching, while also having a wonderful sense of humor, and is supportive of his students training with other teachers. So, he models openness and inclusiveness.
When I started training in aikido, Doran Sensei shared a dojo on Turk Street in San Francisco with Robert Nadeau and Bill Witt Senseis. He also taught at Stanford. In the early ‘80s, he opened the Aikido West dojo in Redwood City. To this day, Aikido West hosts an annual meeting and training of the California Aikido Association (CAA), the association that began in the ‘70s as the aikido leadership in Northern California. These gatherings bring together members of dojos nationally and internationally. The CAA has also hosted Moriteru Ueshiba Doshu on a number of occasions. Sometime in the late ‘70s, Doran Sensei and Nadeau Sensei began the Aikido Summer Camp, which was held for many years at San Rafael College. For more than thirty years, this camp attracted hundreds of students from all over the world.
The Northern California leadership (AANC) was very supportive of AOM. As I mentioned earlier, the day after I took my shodan, Stan Pranin announced that he was leaving the Monterey area, and AOM. I had expected to be sempai in the dojo. Instead, I was AOM’s only black belt teacher. I have been told that area leadership considered inviting a Japanese teacher to come over to run and develop the AOM dojo. Bob Nadeau Sensei instead suggested: “Let’s see what they can do.” Their support was absolutely essential to our thriving as a fledgling dojo. In those early days, Jack Wada Sensei and Linda Holiday Sensei came down to teach at AOM once a week, to help out and instill their energy and expertise. I received supportive calls and visits from Doran Sensei and Nadeau Sensei, Mary Heiny Sensei and others. We pulled through that year and in 1977, three of us had our shodan ranks and we continued to train, teach, and grow.
In the early ‘80s, the CAA (then the AANC) had grown to more than one hundred dojo. It was decided that it should be divided into three divisions, each led by one of its three leaders: Senseis Frank Doran, Robert Nadeau, and William Witt. Membership was open to any dojo, as long as their relationship was one of student/teacher with a division head. When the association divided, all member dojos were instructed to choose a division – a teacher. I chose Frank Doran’s division.
I feel it is an honor to be a student of Doran Sensei. He teaches, guides, and supports me on and off the mat. We hosted him twice a year at AOM, and I trained in all of his seminars that I could – annually attending the Summer Retreat, the Boulder Camp, and once to Switzerland. I never asked for a promotion. I believed in trusting my teacher and focusing on training. Indeed, I trust Doran Sensei, and he has acknowledged my growth and given me many opportunities to develop as a teacher. Doran Sensei encouraged me to run for the president of the CAA, and I held that office for eight years. I am deeply grateful for my life in aikido and that I am a student and friend of someone I consider to be a great man.
MAYTT: What inspired you to campaign for the office of president in the CAA? How has the political side of aikido affected your perception of the art? Looking back, how would you characterize your time in that position?
DS: I did not campaign for the office of president of the CAA. I was nominated for the position by Doran Sensei and was voted in by the membership. At that time, there wasn’t a campaigning period, per se. I envisioned my serving as president as an opportunity to open the stream of CAA leadership to any CAA yudansha, regardless of rank. As president, I made it my role to be the voice of the membership to the executive board.
My perception of the art hasn’t changed. The political side represents an opportunity to put my practice into action.
It was easy at times; difficult at other times, but it was all good. More chicken on a stick! [Laughs] The highlight was the year spent helping to organize a two-day seminar with Moriteru Ueshiba, Doshu. The most rewarding aspect was the opportunity to connect with so many aikidoka both within and outside of our association.
MAYTT: That would be a great event for any aikidoka. With the art remaining alive in small pockets around the state and the country, how did the aikido community communicate with each other? Before the advent of the internet and cell phones, what were some of the more effective ways of communicating with your fellow aikidoka outside your usual training area/region?
DS: In Northern California we had quarterly dan testing. Everybody would get together, really large gatherings, at the Turk Street dojo mostly. That’s where Bill Witt, Frank Doran, Bob Nadeau Senseis all had their dojo. People would mail out paper flyers. Our bulletin boards were filled with flyers of all kinds of seminars that were taking place. So, if there was anything that was happening, we would find out that way. Also, we activated phone trees. If a teacher would be in town briefly, we’d get a phone call, and then we would call people.
Stan Pranin Sensei contributed greatly in broadening the reach of aikido information. He was a historian and scholar, and wished to communicate with the world about the history and development of aikido, as well as disseminate information regarding events. He created the Aiki News newsletter which the AOM students gathered together to staple, fold, stamp, and mail. I remember folding the very first mimeographed pages of what, years later, would become the Aikido Journal, reaching practitioners world-wide.
I remember Stan would take a group of us down to Southern California when Kanai Sensei would visit. Or, when Hikitsuchi Sensei was touring around the country, we arranged a seminar in Monterey, and followed him to various locations in California.
The annual Boulder Camp, led by Hiroshi Ikeda, Saotome, and Doran Senseis; the Summer Retreat at San Rafael College, led and taught by Doran and Nadeau Senseis – these seminars attracted huge gatherings. People came from all over the country and other countries, as well. That is when the communication and knowledge of other people training in aikido really started, spread out, with these big camps.
This is the first part of a two-part interview. View the second part here.
To learn more about aikido and it’s history in America, click here.