I hadn’t really thought about it, but it turns out that in my head there was already a list of things to look for in a martial arts school or club. I realised this when the instructor (Richard, an 8th dan, who is so old-school that he doesn’t even do email) hit every single point on my unconscious checklist. He asked me whether I had any experience (I said yes, but not in this art); any disabilities or injuries he should know about (none), and told me that it was ok to sit out any exercise I felt would be bad for me. I felt welcome, and under no pressure to perform.
Richard ran us through some naginata, spear, and sword kata. He said things like:
“this is not self-defence”
“this is stylised, for kata. The applications might look like this, or this”
“now if that doesn’t work, try this”
“this is a last-ditch I’m probably going to die but I’ll try this anyway situation”
“no, grip me really hard as if your life depended on it, so we can see if this really works”.
Hitting the items on my list like he’d read my mind.
With about forty minutes left of class time, he handed the class over to a young man (about half his age) who “is much better than me at ground fighting, so he’s going to cover this stuff”. Absolutely no standing on rank whatsoever.
And the person I was paired off with was not just very skilled, but an artist, alive to the nuances of the actions.
After my second class I was sure I’d be coming along regularly, so I took the instructor aside and told him what I do for a living. His reaction was enthusiastic delight, and the hope that I’d perhaps teach a class for them sometime, because they are always looking for new approaches.
If training is any use at all, it changes you. The demeanour of the more senior members of a club is a pretty good guide to how a club is run and what effect the training has on your character. Every other member of the class on that day (and on most days since) were very experienced: I’m usually the only one on the mat without a black belt. And everyone, without exception, has been friendly to the newbie, and highly skilled. The other night a couple of young women came to watch class, one of them in a hijab. One of the club’s founders, Brian Rogers, another 8th dan with about 40 years experience, spent the entire evening going over the absolute basics with them. Nobody found it remarkable.
I have learned a great deal so far, especially about joint locks, takedowns and ground fighting, but that is perhaps the least important aspect of the club and the style. It is much more important to me that I could recommend it to anyone without even thinking about how they will be treated if they show up.
If you are lucky, you’ll be wondering why I bothered to write this post: surely that’s how all martial arts clubs are run?