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 hikitsuke (the fast follow-up of the rear foot back to the forward foot) for fumikomi in kendo [KendoInfo_Hikitsuke]. Second, it pays homage to John Yamamoto sensei who taught this exercise from time to time and recently passed away. The article consists of the following sections:
- The Chassé Exercise
- More About the Footwork
- What are the Benefits of the Chassé Exercise?
- In Memory of John Yamamoto sensei
When someone you love becomes a memory, the memory becomes a treasure. – Unknown
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. Instead of advancing the front leg with a straight knee initially and the feet slightly angled (like a penguin) as shown in the video, I’d suggest doing this with a natural bend in that knee as when walking (with the foot directly below the knee) and with the feet in parallel. Second, as soon as the front foot lands, the front leg is used to pull and propel the body both forward and upwards as in a leg hop. As Yamamoto sensei would say, the next part is key. Third, as shown in the video, 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, referred to as hikitsuke, is a critical component of fumikomi as detailed in [KendoInfo_Hikitsuke]. He would also mention to:
- Feel like you are leading, striking and pushing with the koshi (hips) when executing this as well as for strikes.
- Take a comfortable, smaller step with the forward leg initially.
- Propel the body forward with power and momentum.
More About the Footwork
Some additional points to keep in mind. The hikitsuke is also described by Nakamura sensei in “Healing Kendo (癒しの剣道)” [Nakamura_HealingKendo]:
Rather than pushing the body forward quickly and strongly with the left leg, the sensation is a slight push where the extended right leg (at the instant it lands) pulls the body’s center of gravity forward. The point is, rather than jumping to strike at the instant to strike, the feeling is as if the right leg pulls the body forward. With this approach, the Achilles tendon is unburdened. I believe it is the ideal way to strike. Like a “ssssss-Tong” (sound effect).
The upward motion in a leg hop seems helpful for learning fumikomi according to this story of “hakama wedgies” by Geoff Salmon sensei in [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?
I believe its primary benefit is the strengthening of the hikitsuke. This in turn should yield the following ancillary benefits:
- Ensuring that the body is thrust forward with power and continues to move forward strongly as a follow through.
- Counteracting the tendency for some to strike from the shoulders and arms rather than from the core and the hips.
- When the hips lag behind the upper torso (with the body leaning forward), instead of being below the upper torso, strikes may be diminished in strength.
- Fixing 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 intentionally walk and check his hikitsuke 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 experiences, time in the U.S. Army, 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.
* For example, “One of Yamamoto sensei’s favorite stories is how he managed to steal Amy (his wife) away from this young man, named Bruce Lee [Yamamoto_Obituary].”
[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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