Interview with Aikido of Madison Cofounders Robin Cooper and John Stone: Their Journey Through Aikido and Beyond, Part II

Both Robin Cooper and John Stone started aikido at the same time, beginning their study in a dojo affiliated with Akira Tohei. After moving to California in the late 1970s, both of them trained with a variety of aikidoka and schools, ranging from Frank Doran, Bob Bryner, Bob Nadeau, and Bill Witt, to LA Aikikai and Ki Society Schools. It was not until 1977 that they both encountered Mitsugi Saotome, changing the course of their aikido for decades to come. The pair moved back to Wisconsin in 1980, teaching aikido at the University of Wisconsin club and later opening their Aikido of Madison in 1984. Today, the pair discuss what their training was like, receiving a nanadan promotion, publishing a book, and the future of aikido. This is the second part of a three part interview. View the first part here and third part here. All images provided by Robin Cooper and John Stone.

MAYTT: That’s really cool and how you found a way to embody your principles.

JS: The whole thing is we treat each other well in aikido. We’re not just learning how to defend ourselves; we’re learning how to treat each other well with respect. When somebody attacks, you don’t destroy them; the founder said that you protect them and make them safe – make sure you’re safe. You don’t punish them. That was also important to convey to people. It’s a martial art but we’re teaching you how to live a life through this.

RC: This is not to ignore competence and ability and correct technique. You got to have shiny tools in order to create the art, so we’re always working on the tools so that you have the skill to create the art. And again, people have limitations. One the questions, “Can you teach aikido to someone who is never going to take a forward roll?” Absolutely. Think of Molly who’s in a wheelchair. Of course. Of course. It’s really interesting to put those out and get those experiences as a group. But again, we expect a certain competence as well. And the standard may vary; we have someone who’s sixty who’s taking a fifth kyu test may be different from someone who is twelve.

MAYTT: Aikido of Madison had its beginnings with the University of Wisconsin Aikido Club in 1980, later moving to a standalone, public dojo in 1984. What motivated both of you to establish the aikido club and then move to open a public school?

RC: The thing is, the university group was under the aegis of Akira Tohei Sensei, and we were really Saotome Sensei’s students. Very clearly. We received our nidans from Saotome Sensei. it was not a good fit anymore. It made me feel uncomfortable. The other thing is, we were up in a gym, an old armory building, where the pom-pom girls were practicing next to us and shouting obscenities with their pom-poms. We said to ourselves that this was not a dojo – this is a club. And we missed the dojo; we’ve been in a dojo. People who knew each other and trained together all the time and weren’t churning over because it’s exams for students just graduated. We wanted the stability of a dojo; a place that people came to train, not with the pom-pom girls in the back. [Laughs]

JS: We wanted community members. We wanted families.

RC: At the university club, it’s hard to get that because you typically have to be a part of the university, which is an even narrower group. That’s what motivated us – we wanted to have a place to train together with some continuity.

JS: We also wanted to be with our teacher, Saotome Sensei, then being at a dojo that wasn’t really affiliated with our teacher.

John Stone (right) training at Aikido of Madison in 1985.

MAYTT: You also brought up Akira Tohei. Did you have a chance to train with him?

RC: Oh yes. Many times. We went to many seminars, and he came to Madison pretty regularly.

JS: He was our first shihan.

RC: In the early 1970s. In 1974, ’75, and ’76, that’s who we were training with.

MAYTT: How did he compare to Saotome as an instructor and as a practitioner?

RC: I would pretty much say that they were worlds apart in their world view.

JS: They are, in many ways, worlds apart, absolutely.

RC: Neither right nor wrong, just really different. For me, Tohei Sensei was, for the most part, not what I became interested in. I’ll just say that they were very different.

JS: Tohei Sensei’s approach was that aikido is now fixed; the founder is dead and there’s only one way to do it.

RC: This is how you do it.

JS: This is how you do it. Every other way is incorrect and there’s no room for innovation. Saotome Sensei was the complete opposite. Aikido happens in the moment.

RC: Takemusu aiki

JS: It has no form even though, of course, we train in form. It was very different. Akira Tohei’s teacher was Koichi Tohei and Saotome’s Sensei was O-Sensei. So, there was that difference as well. And Saotome Sensei was definitely inspired by O-Sensei in his later years, where O-Sensei never taught technique.

RC: Saotome Sensei never taught technique.

JS: O-Sensei just threw people around and they said, “Hai dozo.” And everyone asking themselves what do I do now? [Laughs]

RC: The thing I give Tohei some gratitude for is that he gave us very clear instructions – a clear base of technique from which you could expand. It was kind of nice not having any controversy about how something was done. Your right foot goes here, your left foot goes here, this turns over. And that actually helped as a foundation when you just realize, “Oh, that’s just the tools.” And it gives you the opportunity to explore.

JS: When we started teaching, I realized at some point, I started, for myself, moving, changing the way I was doing the techniques. I realized that I still had to have a way to do it. I had to teach it in a certain way. Not like it’s the right way, but it had to be consistent so the students could learn something. If it’s different every single time, how are they going to learn it? So there’s that, the necessity for exact technique, which is always very exact. How you perform technique is always important. The exactness is not in doing it exactly the same, but more in the exactness of always being in tune with what’s happening. But that comes later. In the beginning, right for here, left foot there. So, that emphasis from Tohei Sensei was important in realizing that it is important to have that clarity in the beginning and also, we’re going to learn it this one way.

MAYTT: I talked to some other people about Tohei as well, and they all said that he was very serious about aikido, and I now have a better understanding about why he was so serious about aikido.

JS: He said that once, “Aikido is finished.” I remember him saying that. Do you remember that, Robin?

RC: Yes, I do! Very much so. It was very startling!

JS: “Aikido is finished. The founder is dead.” It’s closed.

RC: This is how we do it.

JS: It looks like this. Anything outside of this is not aikido.

RC: Not the founder’s aikido. It was just a different perspective.

MAYTT: When did you first begin teaching? What were your reactions to the new responsibilities and how did that experience help you become a better practitioner?

RC: 1980 or 1981. I actually taught a class in Santa Monica at Bob Bryner’s dojo at seven in the morning a couple times a week for about a year before we left California. John was busy. [Laughs]

JS: The thing that I realized is that I needed to do the technique and ask myself, “What do I do here?”

RC: And why.

JS: We were just shodans, so I had to start intensively studying for myself. I would try and teach a certain way, but I had to study, “What is it that we’re teaching here?” For my personal development, it was intensive study of the art, even more intense, I would say, than when I was not teaching because now, I had to transmit it. We had already been teaching at the university for a couple of years

RC: About three years.

JS: The main difference was that the responsibility was now that I have to show it and do it correctly, and what is correct? [Laughs] I had already seen the techniques five or six different ways and I wasn’t sure which one I was going to do. That was a lot of it. And then how to show it and be a model to the students was an experience.

RC: For me, it was more understanding why did we do this and to be able to articulate, “I’m in ikkyo, do this because if I do that, it’s something else” or, “Do this because they did that.” The thing that I started to realize was the uke-nage relationship. That was the biggest shift in my teaching was to understand what uke does is what nage does, and what nage does is what uke does. That figure eight concept – that was a big revelation for me. The same thing about teaching was how do I know when someone who is moving or working on the technique is doing it correctly or not. How do I assess that? What am I looking for? What am I feeling? And training that and starting to really pay attention to what makes it work, what doesn’t make it work, really opened up teaching because you have to be able to say, “Is that working?” What do we mean by working? [Laughs] Can you overpower them? Yes. Is it aikido? No. So it started me on this path of really recognizing that not only did I have to have some accurate ways of doing a technique, but I also had to understand why. What are the principles embodying each of these movements and how do we study, in everything we do, those principles? So, what became the study, is the principles, we just use technique to study them. That was my revelation in teaching.

JS: That was true to me; why? Why do we grab this way? Why do we do this? Why do we step here? Why don’t we step here? There was part of the study as well. And what happens if this isn’t working? It was endless.

RC: It was endless. [Laughs] It is endless. Remains endless.

JS: In the beginning, it wasn’t necessarily this way for me but over time, I began to see that the secret of aikido was in ukemi.

Robin Cooper (right) training at Aikido of Madison in 1985.

RC: And it doesn’t necessarily mean taking rolls or falls; ukemi is just more than just falls and rolls.

JS: Being responsive was the role of uke and that’s where you learned being responsive more often in the technique in the beginning.

RC: Receptivity and musubi and safety, and all that. When I teach class, I teach both uke and nage. We’re going to do shomen uchi irimi nage. Uke’s job here is to strike and then turn towards the person like you’re going to hit them. That’s what makes them turn! Otherwise, if you just stand there, they go, “Hello, can I help you?” [Laughs] So we really work on understanding what ukemi creates to what’s the next thing. It doesn’t stop. It’s not like one hit and drag me around. We focus on ukemi.

JS: There’s a lot of that going on, in the early years.

RC: In the early years, yeah. They stand there and freeze you out. But yeah, I just broke your leg but it’s okay. [Laughs]

MAYTT: It seemed like you had to do a major crash course in why am I doing all of this, what am I supposed to do with this thing?

RC: Exactly, well, I harken back to the teachers that most inspired me and how they taught. Really, it was Mary Heiny Sensei who was my model for instruction and guiding of class. I’d never seen a woman up in front of a class until I saw her in California in 1977 it was like, “Oh my god! Women can do this!” She had like a hundred people bowing to her, “Wow! This is so cool!” But Mary Heiny Sensei gave me, I feel very much, the permission for me to be an American from the US and not have to do things the Japanese way. I’m not Japanese; I didn’t study in Japan. My teacher, Saotome Sensei, is a very eccentric Japanese person, but it’s just not the model – it’s not how we learn. We’re not taught this way. It doesn’t fit our culture of learning and being able to use the way that we learn in our culture as a tool in aikido was very freeing. It was very freeing. Terry Dobson too. They were very inspiring for me.

JS: Early on, I did a lot with Bob Bryner. He was a very good teacher, very exacting. Frank Doran was, early on, when I was more interested in the technique. Frank Doran was one of the people that was really good at explaining technique; I looked to him. Ikeda Sensei was also very good that way. Saotome Sensei, not so much. He wasn’t interested in teaching.

RC: He was inspiring in the way that he moved.

JS: Just to watch him was a revelation.

RC: For me, I have to say, you asked about some of the differences between some of the teachers, Clem Yoshida was my first teacher in LA Aikikai – as I call it, the Nisei Men’s Club because they tolerated me because I was willing to play really hard – but Saotome Sensei was the first teacher to call up women to take ukemi in front of the class, at seminars. He said, “Woman, man, same thing.” He expected the same intensity in training, attention, awareness, the same thing from women as from men. That wasn’t true elsewhere. I was told one time that a black belt test at a USAF dojo in Chicago, trained in the seminar, and at the end, what they do is [Laughs] That the man that just tested for black belt is thrown by all the other black belts. The woman who just tested throws all the other black belts. She doesn’t get thrown.

JS: Brown belts. She didn’t throw black belts.

Cooper (right) demonstrating a throw at Aikido of Madison.

RC: Oh yes. Brown belts. And when he called all black belts up to throw the guy around, I ran and he goes, “No women.” Woohoo, you know? [Laughs] So Saotome Sensei was really fortunate, as were the people in California. Frank Doran was wonderful. Bill Witt was wonderful. They were all really great – very encouraging. It was a different time.

JS: That was a lot of years ago.

RC: Again, aikido has definitely changed enormously. Whatever flavor you’re doing. All the different strains and flavors of aikido have moved forward in the position of women. Not as far as some folks might like but we’ve done okay. Nothings perfect.

MAYTT: That leads right into the next question; in the last quarter of 2019, the American aikido community was surprised by the issue of gender equity within the art and its prominent organizations. Has this matter manifested during your training at all and, if so, how was it addressed?

RC: I saw women really hazed. I was willing to play really hard. I was strong. It was either they were treated as delicate flowers or hazed. There was both of that going on and that was unfortunate. I guess I got lucky in being in places where people were really supportive. Frank McGouirk, who was a student of Doran Sensei, was at LA Aikikai at the time and he was very supportive and very helpful to me, I think because I was really serious. I think that the women really had to prove themselves. I had on one of my tests, one of my “partners” tried to break my fingers. Things like that would happen. Things were very unpleasant. Saotome Sensei didn’t tolerate that. Patty Saotome Sensei was very prominent in teaching, and so were a lot of other women.

I still think I was slower for the women in our organization as well to reach the most senior levels. There were some people, if they had been male, they would have been promoted much sooner. So, there was still some of that going on. But its way better and I did not feel the discrimination with Saotome Sensei or with California Aikido Association, and many other places that I did feel initially. It was definitely, “We’ll see if you belong here, little lady.” There were a couple of people who were upset that I got promoted higher than they were. I have to say, Clem Yoshida was very good. He had within each rank, there were two tests, and you could get promoted to the first level, let’s say sankyu, or the second level. He kept jumping me, which was pretty amazing and really pissed off some of the guys. I was training seven days a week, sometimes twice a day.

MAYTT: With all that in mind, how can community members better address this topic, if it arises?

RC: If something seems out of whack, if your dojo only has ten women and you have fifty people, you need to be asking yourself why. Some of the things are reflecting in our own dojo – what do we look like? We have an issue with diversity at the dojo. We are very concerned about that. I don’t think it’s very reflective of our community and what we are doing to remedy that. I think that you gotta take an honest look. Women are holding up half the sky or more; where are they in the dojo? If women leave, do you find out why? If they keep leaving, do you find out why? That’s really important because having at least some degree of equity and balance serves everyone. Again, having diversity serves everyone. Being inclusive serves everyone.

You still have some of the vestiges of traditional patriarchy are with us still today and I think younger people are less imbued with that and have expectations that, I think, are really great in terms of diversity and leadership of all different kinds of people in the dojo. At our dojo, it varies between a third to half of women and half of our instructors are women, so that helps. We are very pleased about that. Also, we have people who are LGBTQ+ in leadership positions as well. We really try to uphold those principles. It’s not easy, necessarily. Like, why is aikido so white? Very interesting – good question.

MAYTT: Additionally, you recently received your nanadan in January 2022. What were your feelings when you received that rank? What do you feel such a promotion did for the art and for female practitioners as a whole?

RC: Like a total freak out. [Laughs] Really, like, oh no! John has retired from aikido physical training due to a back injury a number of years ago, he’s still with the dojo but not training. That’s the distinction here. I had continued training and took over running as chief instructor. But for me, aikido was a passion, a joy, and a love, but I had a career that was where I wanted to be more visible. I wasn’t interested in going on the road and teaching aikido, running seminars, and all that stuff. It wasn’t my interest because I did that in my other job. I did a lot of training, a lot of teaching out on the road. I didn’t want to do it for aikido. I thought, since I stayed below the radar, I’d stay there. [Laughs] That was kind of my hope, so that was my hope because it comes with certain responsibilities as well, as it should. So, it was something not necessarily sought, actively. I had a champion in one of the other nanadans that really championed me that was really kind and generous. It wasn’t my goal because I’m not a professional. There are people in aikido who truly are professionals, which is their profession, whether it is Mary Heiny, or George Ledyard, whomever. This is their profession and I understand that. I guess for me, forty-seven years of service paid off! [Laughs]

It’s just like me seeing Mary Heiny, seeing women in positions of authority, in positions of recognition; that Hombu recognizes you – it matters! It really matters. Seeing the people who look like you really helps. It helps a lot. I do feel it’s a responsibility that you have to live up to to take it seriously. I think it’s great and I hope there are many more.

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

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

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