This article has a twofold purpose. It describes a ballet technique, known as the chassé, which can serve as an exercise to strengthen (and develop) 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” icon, reducing 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, the chassé consists of a few parts. First, the front leg is lifted and pushed forward (I’d suggest doing this with the knee slightly bent rather than straight). As soon as the front foot lands, the front leg is used to push the body forward and upwards as in a leg hop.* As Yamamoto sensei would say, the next part is key. The rear foot is pulled in quickly and immediately towards the front foot as soon as the front foot touches the ground. This immediate pulling in of the rear foot is important for fumikomi and referred to as hikitsuke as detailed in [KendoInfo_Hikitsuke]. 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.
* The upward motion appears to be desirable in fumikomi also according to this story of “hakama wedgies” by Geoff Salmon sensei [KendoInfo_Unbearable]:
Many years ago Sugo sensei of Chuo University tried to reinforce this behaviour in me by grabbing my keikogi and the koshi ita of my hakama and pulling me upwards as I attempted to strike men.
What are the Benefits of the Chassé Exercise?
- It ensures the body is thrust forward with power and continues to move forward strongly as a follow through.
- 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.
This exercise is easy to do in or out of the dojo. For example, at least for the hikitsuke component of the exercise, Yano Nobuhiro sensei mentions that he would practice hikitsuke while walking during commutes as he prepared for his 8th dan examination [Kenshi247 YanoNobuhiro].
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 many other 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.
[Kenshi247_YanoNobuhiro] [Kenshi247_YanoNobuhiro] Yano Nobuhiro (8 dan), “My route to hachidan,” (Translated by George McCall), Jan 11, 2018. 剣道 昇段への道筋(上巻)。剣道時代編集部編。平成28年発行。
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