Interview with Vermont Aikido Chief Instructor Aaron Ward: Vermont Aikido, Ken Nisson, and Terry Dobson, Part II

Aaron Ward had an interesting event occur during his aikido journey: he got to know Terry Dobson on a personal level during his time at Vermont Aikido. Taking the role of chief instructor since 2001, Ward took some time to talk about his aikido journey, his relationship with Terry Dobson and Ken Nisson, and how Vermont Aikido has made aikido more New England than Japanese. All images proved by Aaron Ward. This is the second part of a three-part interview. Read the first part here and the third part here.

MAYTT: Dobson and Nisson founded both Vermont Aikido and Bond Street Dojo in 1972 and 1973 respectively. What factors led the two men to establish both schools and, in your opinion, how did the schools help grow aikido in the New England area?

AW: I can’t really talk too much about that. Vermont Aikido has been a constant point. I don’t think that we’ve necessarily done a great deal for aikido in New England because we’re really in the middle of nowhere. We’ve had a number of people we’ve brought up; we’ve had a number of people who have trained; we’ve had instructors who’ve moved on to bigger and better things.

Bond Street Dojo created this alternative feeling about aikido. The thing to keep in mind is that the time at Bond Street had opened, if you walked down the street and I believe if you took a right a look across the street, [punk rock venue] CBGB was there. You have the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads; they were all doing their shows there at the same time as Terry and Ken were teaching there. You had this pseudo-counterculture thing to it. Yes, it was aikido, but there was something a little bit dirty about it. This is on the things that Terry kind of pushed when he was teaching in Vermont, he’d talk about etiquette and the necessity to have etiquette – showing respect for people that you’re working with, for the space that you’re in, and the people who taught your instructors. And the second he finished talking about the intricacies of etiquette, he said, “You also have to keep in mind, it’s being done by a bunch of hillbillies from Vermont.” This kind of thing is that yes, we want to be the best that we can possibly be with our etiquette, but remember, deep down inside, you’re still a hick.

Bond Street was actually, from what I was told, just down the street from the local chapter of the Hells Angels. It was just a couple of doors down from them. Terry did this whole thing about not being sure whether or not he was going to get beat up or something because the chapter chairman of the Hells Angels had a tendency to ride up and down the street with a tricycle in his full outfit. Terry sat there, having a deep moral dilemma, trying to figure out whether he could laugh or not. Yes, we will teach you ikkyo here, but this was the sideshow that was going on at this particular point in time that gave you that flavor of what was happening there. I think a lot of people, especially in New England, who trained at Bond Street got a slightly less reverent feel to aikido.

Dobson at seminar at Bond Street Dojo in New York City in 1990.
Dobson at seminar at Bond Street Dojo in New York City in 1990.

Just to reiterate that some of the stuff that I’ve said was what I’ve been told and what I’ve seen. I know that most people, especially when you’re talking about Terry, have different perspectives because they were told from someone else or what Terry told it differently. All I can really do is talk about my personal experiences. I think that the idea of what Terry represents in many respects is I think very important for people. Because a lot of people who train in aikido have that feeling that because you’re not Japanese, it’s not our culture. Terry made Vermont Aikido a very Vermont thing. Really embraced the Japanese culture and etiquette, but the reality was that you’re going to take this and put it into your life. You’re not going to strip down your life and make it around this. You’re going to add this to your life and hopefully make your life better. That was one of the things that I really appreciated about him; he wasn’t trying to change my philosophy into something that wasn’t. it was something that I could add on. Then you try to figure out how to make this work in the bigger picture. Dojos like Bond Street and a number of dojos out in the west coast really embrace a lot of that philosophy. He made a big impression on a number of us.

Once again, the idea of being respectful towards the people you are training with is always paramount and important, but I found it a very human experience, especially dealing with Terry and Ken.

I think in many respects, Bond Street definitely had a bigger impact on the aikido community than Vermont Aikido, but I don’t want to undersell what Vermont Aikido has done. We’ve had a number of really good students who have gone to other places and become major parts. There have been instructors that have done fabulous things. We’ve been a member of a community that has allowed Mary Heiny Sensei, who’s one of the very few instructors who’s not Japanese and doesn’t have a major organization behind her to make a living doing aikido, which I find absolutely amazing, and many people do. She’s pretty much taught aikido almost full-time since she got back from Japan in the early 1970s. That’s a story unto itself. I think the idea that yes, it’s a Japanese martial art, but in many respects, it is an American martial art. I know for darn shootin’ that it’s a French martial art too. I’ve met a lot of them. I take aikido seriously, but the French take aikido seriously. It’s this kind of thing where each country makes its own.

Terry was torn because when I first started really working with him, I’d been practicing for probably about six years, and he went back and forth on the necessity of going to study in Japan. What he told me is that I could go but it was too late. “If you want to go to Japan and get the full Japanese aikido experience, you need to go there right off.” After training in America, going to Japan would be a fascinating and interesting experience but it’s not going to be the same as starting aikido over there. He basically talked from his experience of starting aikido in Japan because it was something that made such an impact on him and basically affected everything that came out of him. What Terry did and to a degree, what Bond Street did, made it something that wasn’t just a Japanese thing and tried to pretend to be Japanese, but taking a Japanese idea and trying to make it personal. At least from the Vermont Aikido aspect, the idea of the values and perception of Vermont and New England kind of work really well in aikido. So, it became something that we owned.

One of the videos I have of Terry on the dojo YouTube account actually goes into a fair amount of detail saying that Terry had a relationship with O-Sensei, but people who have read O-Sensei’s books, watched his videos, and in many respects, had a much more intimate relationship with O-Sensei than Terry ever had, and I think that’s one of the things that I really admired about him was that he was willing to admit that he was at a place, at a time, where I was with this individual, but I didn’t truly know him. And people who have read the books and watched the movies have created a relationship with an individual that may not be truly factual, but it is an aikido relationship, which has motivated a lot of people. It is fantastic going and watching the old videos and seeing O-Sensei going and doing his stuff, especially the split between Daito-ryu and aikido stage. They’re very different people and even the techniques change significantly. But, just as O-Sensei was trying to do, he was creating aikido. Terry believed that it was something that should be accessible to everybody.

MAYTT: Dobson seemed to have very strong opinions on what his aikido should be.

AW: I always say two things about Terry. One was he was never an answer man. He would never come out and say, “This is aikido.” What he loved was being the question guy. He loved people who had the answer, and he would go there and nitpick the crap out of it; “What about this? What about that?” That was his motivation. He also believed that, like with his book, something to take the principles of aikido and if you take it off the mat, it can be something that can enrich society. Just the idea of connecting with another human being, Terry had said that aikido was one thing and one thing only, and that is about relationships. What he said is when you say that, that word you say next is going to be wrong because if someone asks you what life’s about, you can say relationships. But the next thing you say is automatically going to be wrong somehow. You can’t argue with it because the idea of the relationship is basically the thing that makes everything work; this idea of how you physically connect with another human being.

Terry also believed from the idea of technique, if someone is attacking you and you studied the proper aikido, this person is choosing you out of the whole universe to attack and you trained this whole time to help them through this moment of instability; it’s your responsibility to bring them back to balance. So that obligation was something that he took seriously. It wasn’t something he said flippantly. It was something that he truly and honestly believed. Your responsibility was, because this person chose you, to guide them through this moment to get them to a point where you can get them down on the ground and pin them. Then the responsibility was to talk them through it and move to a point where they’re not going to want to hurt anybody. He said time and time again, “You got him down on the ground. What are you going to do now? You got to talk to them. You got to get them to the point where if you let them up, they’re not going to try and come after you with their car.” If everything goes right, you still have work to do. There was this whole other aspect of this relationship. If someone is attacking you, you’re going to have to figure out what’s the best thing for the relationship.

In Terry’s book, he basically talks about the win-lose-draw mentality. If you win all the time, people are going to hate you. If you lose all the time, they’re not going to respect you. But then there’s also the option of when it is appropriate to draw, not necessarily to win and not necessarily to lose. Because there are times when you have to lose and sometimes when you have to win, but a lot of times, it’s just balancing the scales. That’s one of the things that Terry liked to harp on too. You don’t always have to win; it’s okay to have a draw. That wasn’t a principle that was as coherent in his teachings because I think he was still working on a lot of that stuff.

The book, Giving in to Get Your Way, that came out in the 1970s, from what he was told, it was a very seventies kind of book. It came out before The Magic of Conflict (1987), Thomas Crum’s. It was one of these ones that was early on the scene, but Terry didn’t feel it was as thought out as it needed to be. In the later 1980s and early 1990s, he redid that and modified some of the stuff that was in there. A lot of the stuff that was in there, Terry was doing a very interpersonal kind of thing. One of the things he would say from time to time is, “When you do an aikido technique, you need to bring them down to the ground without bringing fear out of them. If you’re aggressively pounding them and twisting them, they’re going to develop fear. But you’re doing an aikido technique without them being afraid, then you have the opportunity to build a relationship.” Terry talked about taking ukemi for O-Sensei and he said, “I was never afraid.” What ended up happening was that he would attack O-Sensei and he’d be staring at the ceiling. There’d be lots of confusion – he didn’t know exactly how he got there. He really admitted it from the very beginning it’s not that he felt that O-Sensei or anybody else that he was training with was trying to run a scam, but Terry had that mindset of that New England kind of “How you trying to screw me?” mentality of where is the trick. He was constantly on the lookout, but he never saw it from what he said. But he was always questioning everything that happened. And yet, he still ended up with his ass on the mat.

You watch the videos of Terry and O-Sensei, Terry was about two of O-Sensei – he was big and he was tall. Even when you’re looking at the videos with him taking ukemi for Tohei, Tohei’s just slapping him around like nothing. It’s this kind of thing with Tohei and even with O-Sensei he never had that fear come out of him. Now, when he was training with other people in Japan, he would get someone to slap on a good nikyo and he felt that this person was trying to rip out his arm. But that created a different emotional response. And he came to the realization that that response was not the response he wanted to project through aikido. There are times you would do as he referred to as “tough love.” Sometimes you have to put on a good nikyo to remind them that this is not what you want to do. But at the same time, they shouldn’t get the impression that you’re trying to rip their arm out; they should have the realization that their arm could get ripped out if this or that happens.

Taken in either 1967 or 1968, Terry Dobson participates in a birthday party that the foreign students had for O-Sensei.

Terry had a pretty heavy philosophy on things. One of the things he was very adamant about was the concepts around atemi. He had this whole structured belief and how it works, what the significance of it was. Not anything that he really taught; he was working on it when he passed away. A lot of it was that there was a spectrum of atemi. An atemi could not be saying something at a specific moment. Or it could range from a look or not saying something all the way up to Indiana Jones when he shoots the guy with the sword in the plaza sort of thing. There’s that whole spectrum. In there, there’s a whole thing where you’re trying to communicate a specific thing to someone. It’s like how you’re having a conversation with someone, and you don’t say something at the right moment, you’re trying to draw something out of them. When we trained, Terry would quite often talk about intentionally leaving openings, trying to draw a response out of your partner. Because if you can do it in such a way where you can draw a response out of them, then they’re basically going to be much more vulnerable because they thought that one thing was an opening, but it was a trap. But when you create the trap, you leave it there. Things like, when you’re doing a technique like shiho nage, you’re not extending properly and start walking into the shiho nage and get slapped in the side of the head – that’s what we used to do – but the idea of keeping it intentionally loose so that they could try something and basically work off of it. It’s the same thing with Yoshinkai, you walk in, put your fist into your partner’s face, they come up to block it, and there’s your ikkyo. That solves all the problems of where’s my partner’s energy. They come up for that block, trying to protect their face and there’s the energy. Your atemi is not trying to rip their head off, but you’re trying to draw a response out of your partner. But that’s a more intricate kind of thing to go over with Terry.

MAYTT: In 2000, you assumed the role of chief instructor of Vermont Aikido. How did you come to find yourself in such a position? How did this new responsibility affect your perspective and interpretation of the art?

AW: This goes back to 1991 or 1992. Hue Young announced that he was basically leaving the dojo. Terry had made it absolutely clear that he was not going to be chief instructor of the dojo or any dojo. He was more than willing to teach, but not run a dojo. So how were we going to do this? What had happened during this time, we were trying to look for a replacement. The realization that Hue Young gave us a specific date. It wasn’t like, “I’m leaving at some point in time.” I can’t remember which date it was, but it was a specific date that he was leaving. So, we were figuring out how to do this and a lot of people were coming to me. I had my shodan. The reality was that we believed that Terry was going to be around and that he would be teaching, and he didn’t want to be chief instructor. So, I kind of filled the gap and became chief instructor for a brief moment.

What ended up happening was, when we were in the discussion on how we were going to handle this situation, Terry went to California and passed away. Now, this is one of these little weird stories I tell some of my students to give them perspective on where I was coming from. I remember standing in a parking lot, talking about the situation of trying to fill the spot of chief instructor with Terry. And Terry’s last words were, “Ah. I’m not worried about it. We’ll take care of it. Keep things going until I come back.” He never came back. My perspective was that I’m still trying to honor him by keeping things still running.

Now, we managed to get Ken Nisson to come up and become chief instructor up until the early 2000s when he stepped away. At that time, I was nidan and the odd thing was that there was no real discussion of anyone but me being the chief instructor. On the idea of having instructors come in and teach, I had the luxury at that time, and actually it happened when Terry passed away because Mary Heiny Sensei and Terry had become very close after she had come and done her first seminar at Vermont Aikido. Mary had come to me and said if I needed any help keeping the dojo open, all I needed to do was buy her a bus ticket and she would be there. So, she was coming on a yearly basis and teaching seminars. I had that relationship with her. When I became chief instructor, the understanding was that we would be bringing other instructors in, not that this was the only aikido you’re going to get and it’s going to be coming from me. And people were comfortable with that. After Ken Nisson had left, my relationship with Paul Kang Sensei allowed me to get my sandan and when Paul Kang Sensei passed away, Chris Jordan Sensei helped me get my fourth dan.

There was that strong relationship with Bond Street and that was part of the reason that people were comfortable to allow me to pretty much step into the role of being senior instructor because I had relationships with those dojos. I had relationships with a number of dojos along the west coast, especially in Seattle, Washington because Mary Sensei had a very strong presence there and I had the opportunity to have relationships with Kimberly Richardson Sensei [Two Cranes Aikido] of and a number of other instructors along the West Coast. My goal was, when I became chief instructor, to do a lot of things that were not happening when other instructors were running the show. I wish I could say that there were deep, thoughtful discussions of who and will this be okay. At that time, it was like most of the people who were training with me were perfectly fine with me being chief instructor and to be perfectly honest, there probably would have been more of an issue if I had not tried to become chief instructor. We had done the thing where we brought Ken in and had him be the chief instructor and there were certain issues around tag.

I had been told once, when Hue was leaving, we had a seminar with Clyde Takeguchi and we were asking Clyde how do we bring in a sensei. Clyde’s response was that we needed to do it in-house. If you bring someone in, it becomes their dojo. If you want to keep the essence of what your dojo is, you want to make sure you bring someone up from the inside. We didn’t do that; we brought Ken in. And after that the dojo was comfortable allowing me to become the chief instructor. That was a long story on how I became chief instructor for the second time. [Laughs]

I think it’s important to keep in mind as you’re training aikido, what ends up happening is when you first start training, a lot of it is personal development. You’re trying to learn this or trying to get better at ukemi, or you’re trying to learn this kata. Then you evolve into, “Okay. I want my my ukemi to be a certain point so I can work with the people at the higher levels.” A lot of the early stages of training is about personal development. And the personal development is about wanting to do better aikido or wanting to contribute to the dojo. When you become an instructor, the need changes. One of the main reasons to be training is to contribute to your students. There’s a phrase I love to use, “I want to become the instructor that my students deserve.” That basically means I have to go out to seminars, I have to build relationships, I have to look at other things, and I have to be conscious of what’s happening in the dojo. Before, all I needed to do was to get a good irimi nage. If I got a good irimi nage, I felt good. If I got a good tenchi nage, I felt good. If the kata was nice and clean, I felt good. Now, it’s much more than that; it’s about building those relationships and realizing that for higher level yudansha advancement, you’re going to have to establish relationships within your organization. You’re going to have to have people you can basically go out and go to another dojo and ask for help.

This actually was a major factor when I was working with Wendy Whited just before she passed away; the last three or four years, we were trying to get a number of our students ready for sandan. The way that it’s set up in ASU is you’re going to have to have a seventh dan or a combination of sixth dans to help you do testing for third dan. I worked with her, and she met my students, and she was totally down helping us to advance. But that’s what an instructor needs to do; being able to build those relationships for the advancement of your students and bringing information in, getting different perspectives. The idea that my training became something more than something I did for myself. I still get a lot out of my training, personally, but this idea that I need to be sharper, I need to be cleaner because I have to present it to someone else and hopefully have them be able to take it and move it on to the next generation. The responsibility changes your focus but the desire to get better should always be there.

I started traveling when Terry passed away. It was quite easy on the West Coast to find a number of people that had a long, rich experience with Terry whom I’ve only heard in passing. You go into a dojo, and you see his photo up on the wall and the first question is: “Did you get good Terry or bad Terry?” because he was very famous for being – the most delicate way of putting it – potentially problematic. He came from a generation where being an asshole was a feature rather than a defect. A lot of times, he would have a very forceful personality but also, he had a side of him where he was easy to take offense. So, he’d be very upfront and aggressive but if you responded to him in an inappropriate way, he would get upset. So, in trying to manage those two aspects of his personality, a lot of people had a lot of difficulty. When I became a chief instructor, I decided certain things that I wasn’t going to do or allow anymore because of the precedent from Terry.

I’ve read the writings of O-Sensei, what little that had come out into the West, but Terry had firsthand stories. A lot of it was a very personal thing. A lot of it painted Terry in not the best of lights and kind of looked at O-Sensei as being this person who really liked investing in longshots. Investing in people who were broken and needed something to help them get their stuff together. I think Terry really appreciated O-Sensei for that. As far as Terry’s relationship and mine, I wasn’t the chief instructor, but I was still doing a lot for the dojo. I was there; I was doing stuff. I helped Hue Young and the dojo when he was there. But I was also doing stuff to help Terry out. I remember a time that – we had someone in the dojo that was testing for nidan in Montreal, Canada. I had gotten injured during that prep test, and I didn’t have the money and decided not to go. But this was the first trip that the present Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba, Waka Sensei at the time, had come to North America. Terry asked me what time I was going up. I said that I don’t have the money and I’m injured. Terry said, “No. You don’t do that. If Waka Sensei comes, you’re to go.” So he paid for my seminar – now, I’m saying this after he told me to never tell anybody about this, I’m saying this now that he’s dead – he took me up there and basically allowed me to have the opportunity to be because of the relationship Terry had, he went up to the seminar and I got to be on the coattails of someone who had that inner circle with O-Sensei back in the day.

The story that I love to tell is that when I got there, Terry gave me a ride up there, we get up there, and we get there late. The seminar had already started. I get changed, put my hakama on, we go out and this was in the Olympic Center, in the judo space, it’s basically about the size of about three basketball courts. Only one of the basketball size courts has mats on it. It’s a huge mat space. When we come in, class had already started and on the farthest side of the room, that’s where the class is. And there’s probably about one basketball size court area between the edge of the mat where we stood and where the next person was. And Terry bows, steps onto the mat, and starts training with me, inches from where we stepped on. So, there’s this huge space and Waka Sensei walks all the way around the room to Terry; “Oh, hi Terry.” And starts talking and Terry introduces me to him. Now, the thing that I really appreciated, at this point we are doing tenkan. And the way that Terry used to do tenkan is that he would grab my wrist and he wanted me to do tenkan. If I couldn’t do tenkan flowing and naturally, he would grab my nuts with my free hand. So, he’s trying to grab my testicles as he’s talking to Waka Sensei. It was this kind of thing where I’m trying to not get grabbed but I’m also meeting O-Sensei’s grandson as this big hairy guy is trying to grab my nuts. [Laughs] But that’s kind of one of things about Terry is that in many respects, what he taught was not orthodox, but it made a really big impression.

A lot of it, at least for me, was a confirmation that this was not the way I was going to teach my students. But the concepts behind it, I think, are still there. If you asked Terry a thing about O-Sensei, he was more than willing to spill his guts about everything that happened. It wasn’t necessarily a positive experience for him. He had a lot of stuff because he was trying to work through a lot of stuff that he felt, in many respects, that he got taken advantage of over, over in Japan. I think, for him, that was probably the only way he could get to where he was.

At least for my training, Terry was a major part as far as the philosophies and the concepts of aikido is but he also allowed me to develop relationships with other instructors, not the least of which is helping to arrange the first time Mary Heiny Sensei came and taught at our dojo. I still have a relationship with her today. Actually, I had a seminar with her yesterday, via Zoom. That kind of brought in a whole other aspect into our dojo.

I just want to reiterate that not everybody had a good experience with Terry as I did. I know that there are a lot of people that he really rubbed the wrong way. I know during the time I was training with Terry, I was in a position where I was new enough and inexperienced enough that I wouldn’t be what anybody would consider a threat. I was just there, and I was just supporting the dojo and him the best that I could. I think if we had trained longer, I think we would have gotten to the point, if he was still alive, a falling out and a getting back together at least three or four times. But we had never gotten to that point because he had passed away before I got to the point where I was chief instructor. I know that Hue Young and Terry were constantly running afoul of each other. I think Terry believed he was trying to help Hue and Hue felt that Terry was trying to run the show, which I wouldn’t necessarily deny.

This is the second part of a three-part interview. Read the first part here and the third part here

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