This article has a twofold purpose. It describes a ballet technique, known as the chassé, which can serve as an exercise to strengthen one’s fumikomi in kendo. Second, it pays homage to John Yamamoto sensei who taught this exercise from time to time and recently passed away.
The Chassé Exercise
Here is a video which demonstrates the exercise fairly well:
To view the mechanics of the footwork clearly, I recommend clicking the “settings”, slowing the video speed from normal to 0.25 and viewing the video from the 11 sec to 14 sec mark. As can be seen in the clip and as Yamamoto sensei would say, the key is to pull-in the rear foot quickly and immediately towards the forward foot as soon as the forward foot touches the ground. He would also mention to:
- Feel like you are striking and leading with the koshi (hips) when executing strikes.
- Take a comfortable, smaller step with the forward leg initially.
- Propel the body forward with power and momentum after the rear foot lands near the front foot.
What are the Benefits of the Chassé Exercise?
- It ensures the body is thrust forward with power.
- It harnesses the extremely strong muscles of the lower half of the body and core.
- It helps counteract the tendency for some to strike from the shoulders and arms rather than from the core and the hips.
- Hips lagging behind the upper torso (with the body leaning forward), instead of being below the upper torso, tends to result in strikes with diminished strength.
- It can help fix the footwork of those whose rear foot lingers or shoots up and backwards instead of forward.
- It can add variety to a repertoire of handy and easy exercises to do outdoors or in the dojo.
In Memory of John Yamamoto sensei
Yamamoto sensei was with San Diego Kendo from 1972. He was the head instructor of the San Diego Kendo Bu (where I practice) for decades until a few years ago and head instructor of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Recreational Kendo class. He would periodically demonstrate the chassé exercise to fellow students and myself so that we could develop strong fumikomi and strikes. It certainly helped me in that regard and in reaping the benefits mentioned above.
Yamamoto sensei taught many other exercises, concepts and aspects of life and character. His approach to teaching, though unconventional at times, was very effective, practical and respectful. This was probably because of his diverse background and interests in not only kendo, but in many areas including karate, mountain climbing, swimming, ballet, music and fly fishing. Indeed, the chassé exercise is an example drawn from his experiences in ballet.
If I were limited to one word to describe him, it would be “fearless”. The tougher the opponent or situation, the stronger he seemed to be. It was likely molded in part by his upbringing and experiences as a Japanese-American growing up in San Diego, California before and after the Second World War. Additional words would be: strong, giving, caring, principled, fatherly and gifted as a great story teller. Some examples of these follow.
For many years, he would routinely bring a large cooler of ice-cold beverages for everyone in the dojo. At get-togethers, he would regale us with riveting stories of his childhood, internment, school life, Bruce Lee, kendo in the old days and more. He seemed to love teaching and giving of his spirit to others through kendo. He had a way of cultivating inner confidence in others including myself and seemed to care sincerely for the well-being of each member of the dojo. Towards the later years, he would hug each member before and after each practice with a kind and broad smile.
I and my fellow members will sorely miss him.
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