Respect for the Dojo

Bert Danckaert

I finished high school in the mid 80s. I was finally done with it. Half the teachers had found me to be a “troublemaker”; the other half perhaps saw something in me. Let’s just say I was given the benefit of the doubt. My classmates didn’t interest me, save for a few, and often even then I would discover I’d been mistaken. Friendships didn’t seem to exist in high school, everything was superficial and fake, even friendships—experienced so intensely in those formative years, because everything’s new (as you break loose from your parents’ construction, and your friends are the key to independence). My time in high school was a waste of time, apart from the lessons I received in humility. Elementary school must have been even worse; thankfully I don’t remember much of that. There you are completely mixed up together, a random cross-section of peers, regardless of race, interests, or social class. Everything still needed to be defined, a jungle of unrefined lives and the impossible task for those noble people who would come and stand in front of the class. High school hadn’t been much better. But now I was finished. The last couple of years had been easier, perhaps not so much because of the material we were covering (although that also went much faster), but I had a better sense of who I was, so I was much calmer.

I had decided I wanted to become an actor. Not that I had had any experience as an actor (I did go to the theater a lot, but I’d never performed myself). It played to my advantage that the theater school had a preference for accepting “untouched” candidates; these students could be shaped more easily into their ideal model of “The Actor.” Students who had already followed a preparatory course were often already “ruined,” tarnished by the dogmas of bad teachers and bad examples.

So I followed in my brother’s footsteps (who by that time had graduated as an actor), attended several auditions and was eventually offered a place at the Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp. Out of a hundred candidates twenty were selected. After six months only a dozen were left (halfway through several candidates were asked to leave) and at the end of the year, after stressful and crippling assessments, I was given the negative feedback: “You don’t have any personality.”

All the same, that year of theater school, under the guidance of an old charismatic professor and a young ambitious professor, had been far more intense and rich than the seven years of studying at the Academy and the Higher Institute (10). I should add that it had never clicked between the older teacher and myself, I never understood her. Perhaps I was too young, while she was somewhat off the planet. But the younger teacher had opened the door to the arts for me. He introduced me to the understanding of “artistic responsibility.” There was only one way, that of total consistency, the most direct route to absolute sincerity, without straying (an untenable but beautiful quest), which would bring everything into doubt, leaving nothing over—the role of the artist as a poisoned blessing and heavy burden.

The more seasoned teacher was always dressed in red, pulled incredible expressions, consumed two coffees during each break, and it was said that she also drank her own urine for the purpose of one or the other spiritual or health beliefs. I couldn’t fathom her, and she didn’t want to get me, possibly because I had no personality.

It was the more seasoned teacher who had introduced aikido practice to the theater school. Each week we had a class with Frank, who looked more like a Chen or a Zhou. During lunch he would eat a bowl of rice with chopsticks. He was consistent, straightforward, and honest in relation to his beliefs, completely and utterly. Frank taught us about meditation. We sat on our heels and would bow on a rattling outward-breath, refilling our lungs as we came back to an upright position. Energy in, energy out. Release and draw in. The cosmos gives and receives.

Taino Ten-Kahn was another exercise in which we would turn on an axis, as though there was an imaginary pole just in front of us, around which we would turn. We were to sense the center of a universe. The centrifugal forces made our hands spin around our bodies like swing balls on the ropes of our arms, while we undoubtedly physically experienced the imaginary pillar, as figures of yin and yang circled around it.

We were young and so of course things got out of hand sometimes during meditation. But all in all we remained relatively calm when we were throwing imaginary water into the air while calling “hishhh” or “hii tssoo” during the rowing movement, whereby we would “row” in synchrony like slaves on a ship.

Once, one lad arrived ten minutes late, to add to the situation he had terribly sweaty feet (and the exercise was practiced barefoot). In no time the stench of his feet had filled the room to the extent that we could think of nothing else. Frank explained to him to try and have respect for the dojo: the space we filled with our meditation. You were not to arrive too late and moreover you were to arrive clean.

It always stayed with me. Frank was absolutely right. Again, this was a lesson in respect for oneself, not—or rather thereby—for the dojo. Ultimate samurai consistency. To fall is to die, hara-kiri for the failed, and even this is an act of ultimate self-respect. To live or die for art.

During the fighting exercises (aikido is after all a fighting sport) we learnt how to exploit the energy of the attacker. When your aggressor aims to hit you in the face, for example, it is very easy to duck out of the way of the attacking arm, and, with a rotating Taino Ten-Kahn movement through your imaginary axis, grasp your enemy’s hand and extend their movement, whereby they lose their balance. By gracefully ending your turning yin movement in a contrary yang, you can subsequently floor your enemy, if so desired, delivering them a final blow.

The beauty of this movement (when it works) is indescribable. The simplicity with which the energy of the attacker is employed to floor them in a kind of rotating dance has something magical. You take the negative energy of your aggressor’s attack into your own movement and turn it to your own strength, yin becomes yang, negative becomes positive, the shadow becomes light, and the latent becomes visible. Once you understand this movement (I mean in the figurative sense) you start to see this negative energy as something you can use; after all, through the right “dance” movements you can turn it to your own strengths, a true advantage in the fight we call life.

10 nhisk (National Higher Institute for Fine Arts), three years, reformed into the hisk shortly after my graduation, and operating to this day as a postgraduate program in the visual arts.