Interview With Aikido of Monterey Dojo-Cho Danielle Smith: Aikido in Northern California, Part II

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 second part of a two-part interview. View the first part here.

MAYTT: You mentioned training under Pranin, an aikido pioneer in his own right. What was he like as an instructor and person? What do you think he would say about the current state of aikido if he was here with us today?

DS: As a teacher, he was enthusiastic and energetic. He taught classes seven days a week and inspired us to train daily. Stan was interested in the details. He devoted his life’s work to capturing and preserving the history and historical influences of the art. That was a motivating factor in his creating Aiki News and enlisting the dojo membership in its publication and distribution.

I remember that he loved dancing, especially Latin dances. Even though he left Monterey right after I received my shodan, we maintained a lifelong friendship.

I don’t know what he would say. I think one might draw some perspective from his role in conceiving of and organizing the two Aiki Expo events in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Danielle Smith, Switzerland, May 2018.

MAYTT: Becoming the head instructor of your own school is like stepping into a whole new world of responsibilities. How did such an experience change or modify your perspective on aikido and training as a whole?

DS: AOM started in 1973. We named it that in 1974, and that never changed. When Stan left in 1976, I was the highest ranked member of AOM. A year later, Dennis Evans and Bill Reich took their shodan and so then there were three shodan. We ran the dojo by consensus. Bill Reich moved away and Dennis and I continued to train and teach and promote students to black belt. Eventually we found ourselves surrounded with brown belt and black belt ranked students who were completely our students. Then in 1983, we felt that I had the experience and training in enough seminars, that it would be helpful for our dojo to have a dojo-cho – someone who was in charge, one person. So, I didn’t begin the dojo; the dojo began in 1973 with Pranin Sensei. I felt that our big drive, always, in having a dojo was to have a place that we could sustain; that we could train in daily. It wasn’t about providing something that somebody else couldn’t, it was about reaching out to the world, as were other dojos, because it was so important for the people in the world to be able to have the opportunity to train in aikido.

By the time I officially became dojo-cho, I had already been acting as dojo-cho. Students at our dojo were coming to Dennis and I, before I assumed the role of dojo-cho, because we were their only teachers. I experienced more of a sense of shugyo, of taking on responsibility, feeling that I could do it, that I should do it. There wasn’t a change in perspective, because I had been teaching since 1974. Nor did it change in the way I trained: I kept going to seminars, and training as much as I could.

Something I really enjoyed was developing AOM’s own kyu requirements. By the time that students reached shodan, all CAA requirements were met. On the way up that ladder, the requirements reflected more of my own training and my way of teaching. I included more weapons requirements and more written requirements. AOM nidan and sandan requirements included more weapons, as well. I learned so much with the weapons training about maai, breath, blending, shisei (posture) — I could go on and on.

For more than twenty years, we had an annual weekend Weapons Retreat, out in nature. For the first ten years, we camped in tents at Pico Blanco Camp in Big Sur. For the last ten years, we were at Douglas Ranch Camp, in Carmel Valley, staying in cabins. I always had a theme and guest instructor(s) — sometimes from other arts. I had traditional weapons to support the kyu and dan advancement, but also something related, yet unfamiliar: iron fan, kendo, kyudo, knife throwing, taiko drumming, iaido, Maori weapons, various staff forms, and so on.

MAYTT: That is amazing how you brought everyone together! In January of 2018, you received your seventh dan ranking, after forty-five years of training, teaching, and contribution to aikido. What were your overall emotions and feelings when you received the promotion? What do you feel such a promotion did for the art and female aikido as a whole?

Danielle Smith receives Shihan certificate from Michael Friedl Sensei, Aikido West, Redwood City CA, February 2020
Frank Doran Sensei and Jane Nisson Sensei in background.

DS: I feel that I was a small part, a small expression of how aikido had grown in those forty-five years. When I first started training in aikido, the highest ranked people in the Bay Area were sandan. To even suggest that I might eventually be nanadan was something out of a fantasy novel. It’s not something that I ever even dreamed of. Really, I didn’t dream of it. I feel that it reflects the dedication and commitment of our entire community  to developing a high level of mastery and integrity in the art for us all.  From Hombu Dojo, from our division head, Michael Friedl, from my teacher, Frank Doran, and from my fellow students, their support of me in all these years contributed immensely to my receiving that recognition. I felt about it just like I did when I became dojo-cho of AOM. That it brought with it responsibility: to have my aikido teaching and involvement in the community be one of support. That my role, as one of the few women to achieve this level, is to ensure that we are opening the door for more growth for more women, for more men, for the Art to grow, for Peace to flourish.

MAYTT: In addition to earning seventh dan in aikido, you also hold dan rankings in Hakko-ryu Jujutsu, Seibukan Jujutsu, and iaido. How has training in these arts complimented or complicated your understanding of aikido? Do you feel such cross training is important for every aikidoka and martial artist and, if so, how has cross training in different martial arts benefited you?

DS: I had been training for ten years in aikido before I started training in Hakkoryu Jujutsu, which I did for ten years along with aikido. When I first started training in aikido, I would often hear people comparing aikido to other martial arts, and I had no experience in any other martial art. Few people I knew actually had any experience with other martial arts. While I had gained experience in aikido training, I did not feel authentic in speaking to such comparisons. Hakkoryu was founded by Shodai Soke Okuyama Ryuho, who was a contemporary of O-Sensei and who studied Daito-ryu the same time that O-Sensei did. Shodai Soke went on to create his own art. When I saw it, what I saw were similarities in the technical forms and the names of the techniques. I wanted to study it for a deeper understanding of what the differences were – what is aikido and what is not. I found the similarities in appearances of form, but it only supported what my aikido training had taught me. That, as Hakkoryu is a martial art, aikido is a martial way. The intent of the practitioner varies greatly between aikido and Hakkoryu in that Hakkoryu is spoken of as a non-aggressive self-defense. I felt (by comparison) that aikido is a way to eliminate conflict, to eliminate the concept of enemy rather than defending against an enemy, aggressively or not. To me, it was worth the ten years of studying that beautiful and fun art. The difference in aikido leading to a practice of “not creating an enemy” was profound.

I also studied Seibukan with Julio Toribio, which was an offshoot of jujutsu. I felt that I became stronger while training in those arts and that I gained proficiency in nuances of technique.

I’ve always been interested in bokken and jo ever since I first trained in a big seminar with Saito Sensei. Studying the basic forms that I learned in 1974 deepened my understanding of all kinds of things having to do with movement and extension, and blending, and breath. So, studying iaido and drawing the sword was very valuable to me.

I am one of the developers of the Model Mugging program. It is not a martial art but an effective self-defense, based on being able to use full-force training against a padded assailant, while in an adrenalized state. In developing the mental and emotional part of the training, I called upon my ten years of aikido. Most importantly to me, I included the attitude of “breaking the cycle of violence” when rendering someone unconscious, by making the internal shift to not being a victim and not victimizing the attacker. The echo from aikido – making an internal shift to not create an enemy.

I cannot say that I would recommend training in other martial practices to everyone. I have counseled my students in a variety of ways. I would be interested in hearing from others as to why they would like to study another art. Ultimately, it is our training, again and again, that leads us to our depths. My interest in all of my training was in deepening my path in aikido — aikido has everything.

MAYTT: How did you and others come together and create Model Mugging? How has the program assisted with empowering and supporting women and raising awareness of sexual assault and violence?

DS: Matt Thomas, a martial artist, initially conceived of full-contact, full-power self-defense training that involved the student dealing with a padded “assailant” in moderated, state-dependent-learning scenarios. A few of us heard of these classes being taught by Matt Thomas and Sheryl Doran in the San Francisco area. We investigated, and eventually Matt, I, and three other martial artists collaborated to round-out and formalize the Model Mugging program. The headquarters and instructor teaching center were located at AOM.

Within a few years, we had grown to the point where I, along with two others, were invited to appear on Good Morning America television to demonstrate the effectiveness of the techniques. Model Mugging was also featured in articles in Black Belt, People, and Glamor magazines, to name a few. Mary Tesoro, my aikido student and colleague, wrote and published a book, Options for Self-Defense, from her experiences as a Model Mugging master instructor. Since then, there have been multiple spin-offs. Model Mugging itself expanded to include programs for males and young adults. I have also conducted classes for teenage girls preparing for high school graduation. A tenet from the course is “an attacker looks for a victim” (someone who gives the appearance of being a victim). Sending these young women out into the world with a sense of confidence and awareness is the first and best self-defense.

MAYTT: That is interesting how you became involved. When you first started training aikido, how did people and practitioners look at aikido and the martial arts? How have you seen that perception and perspective change over time to the present day?

DS: I think that when I first started training, most people (as opposed to practitioners) were just becoming aware of martial arts. Everything was either kung fu, karate, or judo. If I said I was training in aikido, people would respond, “oh, oh, like karate,” often accompanied by some pseudo-martial hand-waving. It was all that people knew. In the “human growth movement,” there was a big interest in aikido, the same interest that I had in getting into aikido — a belief that aikido was something that would transform or change the notions of conflict, winner, and loser. The springboard was in the heart of love; not in beating up the bully or being the winner in a fight. Your initial question refers to the early ‘70s as a time of unrest and change. Certainly, there was the Vietnam War, civil unrest, and movements that challenged the social norms. And yet there was the Summer of Love, the conscious expression of Love and Flowers in the face of conflict. There was the search for and the development of practices that focused on Love as the path to peace. I don’t feel that is such a force today, and I feel that has changed how people see martial arts. I feel that aikido is as necessary now as ever. There is more fear in our society and people seem more inclined toward being able to fight, to physically and/or psychologically defeat an opponent. The fear in society, the bombardment and ease with which we are triggered by provocative headlines, makes peaceful resolution, of “not creating an enemy,” less attractive, or more difficult for people to understand. Whereas, when I started, we were looking for harmony and peaceful resolution. I believed O-Sensei when he said, “I, Morihei Ueshiba, have no enemies.” I believed that it wasn’t just because he was a nice guy, that there was something in what he was teaching and practicing that was transformational.

Front: Motomichi Anno Sensei, Linda Holiday Sensei. Back: Michael Smith Sensei, Danielle Smith Sensei, Shingu Japan, March 2015.

MAYTT: Speaking of perception of aikido, the view of aikido to many modern martial artists is negative, to put it plainly. Being a longtime practitioner and contributor, is this perception truly warranted and are there things the aikido community can do as a whole to battle or debunk such perceptions?

DS: To battle anything sounds kind of contradictory to me, because I don’t feel that is what I am practicing in aikido. And yet there is a huge amount of division and fear in the world. People believe that they are either going to be a winner or a loser. Then, out of fear, they want to align with what they see as the winner or the most powerful. I feel that is where people’s judgements come from. I feel that at one time, people were willing to do the hard work of getting on the mat and training. But now people have become conditioned to one-sentence conflicts: back-and-forth raging or cheering about anything on a variety of social platforms. This has replaced true communication – true listening. I feel that the most important thing for me, as a member of the aikido community, is to focus on what is true, to practice what is true, and to support others in doing that. That will have its own effect on the world. I think the answer is to keep training. Keep at what we are doing and to not negate anybody because they don’t agree with me, or see things differently, or have an opposing opinion. Just trying to live the Way of Peace. The more of us that do that, then the stronger that energy is in the world. No matter what happens, to live as examples of the path of Love. And compassion. And open-heartedness. And gratitude

MAYTT: As we speak of the modern view of aikido, we cannot neglect mentioning Steven Seagal, who is synonymous with aikido as Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris is with Jeet Kune Do and Karate, respectively. What role do you think Seagal had in disseminating aikido in America and how much can the American aikido community place blame on him for the current view of aikido in the larger martial arts community?

DS: I don’t know how much I can speak to that. I know who Steven Seagal is. I’ve been a member of the Pacific Association of Women’s Martial Artists (PAWMA) and have attended and co-sponsored seminars that involved martial artists from all over the world. I don’t feel that the people I encountered in those settings were influenced by Steven Seagal, his movies, his dojo, or his students. After his movies came out, we had a number of people come to the dojo inquiring about aikido. I remember that people wanted to learn how to do irimi nage. For most, I think their expectations had something to do with fighting and being a winner and not being defeated. I don’t feel it had much to do with opening one’s heart to Truth, Goodness, Beauty, and Compassion. I can’t say how many of those people stayed. That said, I think that any reason that gets people to come in the door is valuable because then people can have their own experience. So, if those movies influence people to inquire about Aikido, that is good.

MAYTT: Final question. As we continue to move forward in a more positive manner with regards to the current global pandemic, one question has preoccupied many an aikidoka: will the art survive? What do you think the future holds for aikido? Will there be a surge of interested students once we have moved past this pandemic or will aikido remain stagnant until people feel more comfortable being around others in a personal setting?

DS: I don’t think I ever thought that aikido wouldn’t survive the pandemic. Regarding the challenges posed by the pandemic, my teacher, Anno Sensei, said, “This is what we’ve been training for.” Anno Sensei just turned ninety and the pandemic hasn’t stopped him. He continues to teach and study, inspiring people to train and learn and share! I talk with people all the time who are dear friends and high-level teachers within the aikido community, within the CAA, who have been teaching their students in more and more creative ways since the pandemic. Training hasn’t stopped. People are still reaching people. Part of my training has always included Chinkon Kishin 鎮魂帰神, misogi, a purification practice. Since the pandemic I’ve regularly studied, taught, and practiced misogi with groups of people, and I feel that I’ve really deepened my training in an aspect of practice that O-Sensei did all the time. O-Sensei said, “You must do this. You must do misogi.” We are doing that. I feel a real vitality with that. What I want to focus on is following that thread of vitality, the connection with other people in aikido, other teachers; just continuing to train with that. Energy follows attention. And I want my attention to go to that which O-Sensei taught. And how it is that I, as a teacher, can try to embody as much of that as possible. While it is true that the number of people regularly training has reduced, I don’t think aikido is going to die out. Rather than stagnating, I think aikido is coalescing.

MAYTT: Thank you again for joining us! It was great talking with you!

DS: Thank you for the work that you are doing, and thank you again for inviting me!

Linda Holiday and Danielle Smith , Oyuno Hara Shrine, Kumano Hongu, Japan, May 2013.

This is the second part of a two-part interview. View the first part here.

To learn more about aikido and it’s history in America, click here.

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