Demo Debate

“Would your dojo like to do a demonstration at our event?”

My usual answer is an immediate “No,” but this time was different.

The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, located a mile or so from our dojo in New Haven, Conn., was opening a new exhibit called Samurai and the Culture of Japan’s Great Peace. The museum wanted martial arts demonstrations related the exhibit and asked Fire Horse Aikido to take part.

The Peabody is close and familiar to our members, plus the exhibit seemed relevant to our practice. I thought it over for a bit and say yes to a demo for the first time in my dojo’s seven-year history.

Demos bring up mixed feelings for me – mostly stressful ones. Chiba Sensei used to volunteer members of San Diego Aikikai to take part in demos at Balboa Park’s Japanese Friendship Garden and my memories of the events are of sheer terror. Would I screw up? Would someone get hurt? Would Sensei be pleased with our ukemi? (No, he wouldn’t.)

That stress was even more magnified at the public demos we used to do as part of Summer Camp. The demos seemed to go on for hours and the stakes seemed immeasurable, though usually only a few dozen “civilians” would attend to watch. Blood always seemed to flow. After years of these demos, Sensei decided that they weren’t the most effective way to attract members and we let them go.

In my years in Japan, I enjoyed watching the shihan demos that were the focus of the annual Embukai Aikido event in Tokyo. Birankai teachers including John Brinsley, Roo Heins and Manolo San Miguel have taken ukemi at these demos over the years and they’re always exciting to watch. (Here’s a good clip of Miyamoto Sensei at the 2013 Embukai, with John Brinsley Sensei of Aikido Daiwa on the far right.)

But even in Japan the demos seemed to attract mainly the Aikido faithful, who enjoy most of all critiquing other teachers and their students from the bleachers. And of course there’s the infamous demo by Steven Seagal at the 1993 Embu

Keeping my doubts about demos at bay, I marshaled the Fire Horse crew for the event at the Peabody Museum on March 28, 2015. Everything went off without a hitch in front of a hundred or so spectators. The kids loved being part of it and we got lots of interest from observers and saw increased traffic on our dojo website and social media.

Putting together the “highlight reel” of the demo above was also lots of fun and appreciated by friends and family.

I might be saying yes to more demos in the future, but I wonder if other Birankai teachers have ideas about how to make them better.

Do you demonstrate Aikido in your community?

What works and what doesn’t work?

Is it something we should be seeking out to promote our art?

Add to the conversation in the comments below. (Comments may take a day or two to show up due to moderation process.)

– Liese Klein, Fire Horse Aikido

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