I have been practicing at Shenzhen Aikido club since November when I moved here. They have a schedule with 3 sessions per week, but given the distance and practice time I have managed max 2 sessions, and I admit not every week, but I have been practicing there!
The club is quite beginner level: they got a couple of black belts, some dark color ones (brown, blue) but the majority of people is in the range white to orange, with the higher number in the white range. A start up club (even if it has been there long) facing the problems of a border business city, with Hong Kong just 1 hour form the center and where most of people deals with lots of traveling in their daily job. There is anyway a quite well established core, and the teacher is well motivated: Alan, 4.dan, who lives in Hong Kong and commutes to Shenzhen just for practice.
Besides being beginners they are also hard! Stiff, mainly, both beginners and not, both males and females. Then also most of their Aikido forms are what I call “old Aikido”, lots of use of arms and push/pull and strength, typical of beginner level (we have all passed through that! No complains, for the beginner, but then when you get farther on the path you should try to work on the “soft” forms, as Endo sensei says often now!)
Anyway, the people are nice. And dedicated. Luckily for me the physical stiffness is not a mental one. They mainly are Chinese with a few foreigners, long time living in Shenzhen. I am the only new fresh one among the foreigners, and the only new already Aikikai graded that I have seen joining the club (except for a couple of business men traveling with their keikogi, as we all do!). Some of them are also interested in the feelings I do manage to transmit from time to time during practice, and in different way to perform ukemi or be uke.
I am not teaching there, I do not expect to be able to do that and I do not want to confuse or mislead the beginners from the way of their teacher (even if it is not my way.. I do need to practice!). But I also told the teacher, at the very beginning, that some techniques I would have not performed in his way (if asked by training partners, I would show the teacher way, but usually anyway my variations are so small for a beginner that they do not even see it) and I would have tried always to keep my mind and my center relaxed and free. This is something most of my partners there feel.
So, for a club that is a beginner one, before last Tuesday I cannot remember to have practiced shomenuchi!! What I remember of the practice sessions is, always, techniques from katatedori gyaku hanmi, katatedori ai hanmi and tsuki. Also once per month at least there is a tanto dori session (all students are equipped with their own tanto, except me!). And once or twice in a while we have sessions without mats, “in order to learn how to fall on the floor in a soft way”, according to the teacher vision.. but I will talk elsewhere about this.. Anyway, tantodori and tsuki are definitively not among the techniques I consider important to build up the basics in Aikido!
About the very little variations in the attacks that we practice I had talked with my dear friend aikifreak during the trip to Europe: I love shomenuchi and yokomenuchi attacks, especially in the work of Endo sensei, and the trip to Europe also let me refresh something I did not practice in ages. Besides the uchi attacks that maybe are considered too difficult for the beginners here, in my mind it is more difficult to teach tsuki if you want to do that properly.. things that does not happen here.
I am sure you wonder now about the basics, even for graduation: since November to Tuesday I had not seen a shomenuchi ikkyo!! Tuesday I understood why: the teacher decided to practice suwariwaza shomenuchi (!! as if they could do a nice shikko!!) and then with this attack work on ikkyo, nikkyo and since they think they can do variations, jiyu waza. I practiced the first with a blue belt, the second with a white belt and the free forms with a black belt. For the jiyu waza the teacher used me as uke for showing the techniques..
All in all, very bad experience!
It might have been worse because I just had 14 days practice with Endo sensei and people following sensei (Europe and weekend in Hong Kong). So maybe my expectations were “a bit too high”.
But the only one I really enjoyed was the blue belt because I got something, I felt some contact: neither black belt nor teacher in jiyu waza were able to do any technique without using only the arms or.. hitting me in the face because of the poor distance. Teacher asked for shomenuchi but then anticipated and closed the distance after every technique so that, after being hit on the face (my fault) and pushed around (then of course I throw myself, I would never block the teacher when he shows to the class) I change to a more direct uprising shomenate attack (good ol’ Tomiki-days!).
So long I waited for practicing some uchi and such sad result.. I do hope to not practice yokomenuchi any time soon! On the other hand, another of my favorite practice, morotedori, seems also to be unknown here. I do wonder what they do for grading (on paper, they refer completely to Hombu dojo, with sensei coming from there for grading!). In a weak movement it is normal to graduate people that are also weak in their performances or Aikido understanding: I saw the same for quite a long time in Norway (and it is one of the reason I never believed very much in graduation exams! After so many years of practice my grade should be higher.. but so what? I always preferred just practice, not thinking about kyu or dan). But I like to think that long time ago Norway was more self conscious, or at least most of my friends knew our level when compared at first with Sweden. What I get here in Shenzhen though is a little of the opposite: I am sure that some of the people from Hong Kong have heavily contributed to the start of Aikido in China and to import motivations that then got radicated and evolved following different lines, in xome case becoming very successfull clubs with tons of high level and dedicated people. But when I see now the level I would love to hear a bit more humilty especially from the teachers: maybe 20 years ago you open the first club in China, but now you want to run a modern reality then you have to update a bit also your Aikido or use some of the resources you have been offered..
On the other hand, I know it is not always easy to see an offer for what it is, but think that as a threat afraid to lose something important for you, maybe important in the slightly wrong way though.. I do know some people get off when they are called sensei. Here in Shenzhen, I use first names, for sure I do not call sensei anyone! Not a lack of respect, but I do not recognize the teacher here with the meaning we Aikido people give to the word sensei.
FUNNY THING OF THE DAY – I think that many people thought my normal sessions, when I was teaching, were relatively boring: I like and do lots of kihon, basics basics basics! I repeat the same when I teach in Hangzhou especially (my biggest regret, never lived there where people just wanted to practice together, as I dreamed!). And if you get strong basics (fundamentals) then you can build a good Aikido over it and learn easier and faster all advanced techniques. Now, you can imagine my surprise when in a class where 50% cannot perform mae ukemi from a normal kokyuonage throw even after 3 months practice and maybe 90% has ever heard kokyuho during practice, in such an environment, once per month the class is focused on tantodori with several variations of disarming techniques, locks and throws. What it is funny is that basically all the people in the club know more variations than me in tantodori: more than once I just ask my partner (any level, orange or blue or black belt) to perform the technique first because I had either never seen that variation or maybe practiced so long ago that I forgot it! Is being able to do tantodori more important than taking mae ukemi? Rhetorical question for me.. but maybe I am the one wrong!