Memories of sensei: Part 1


Recently my karate sensei - Bob Davies - asked me to write a "warts and all" reflective testimonial of my experiences with him.

I have previously recounted some of those experiences, but I thought I'd give a fuller account. With regard to the "warts", I'll make this opening remark: every martial arts teacher is a human being with foibles and idiosyncrasies, and these are generally neither here nor there when it comes to defining the sensei as an important figure. Rather, what often distinguishes the sensei is the significant role he or she plays in shaping not only the student's martial arts technique, but how the student perceives and relates to the world generally.

The archetypal sensei figure might be something of a cliche nowadays, but this phenomenon is nonetheless a reality for many people.

Students of the martial arts can often idolise their teachers, placing unrealistic expectations on them. I certainly did this in my early years of training. Getting to know my sensei better might well have "burst the bubble" of my unrealistic perceptions, however in the longer term it has not negated my respect for him.

So who is Bob Davies? I'll start with my first impressions which I rather suspect are cognate with those of many, many other students over the years.

It was 16 February 1981 when my brother and I first walked into his dojo in Cato Street, downtown Durban. I recall walking up the dark, art-deco stairwell, the smell of musty air mixing with the chemical solvents from the surrounding industry.

Then there was the smell of the dojo itself, which accosted you as you as soon as you stepped into the foyer. I've noticed that every long-term traditional dojo has this particular scent; the stale, sweetly pungent ghost of honest and diligent sweat soaked year upon year into the floorboards. And on that particular hot, summer night, this smell was radiating like the heat from a fat wicket-keeper in the mid-day sun.

We had arrived after the class; only 2 students remained on the floor practising the kata seiyunchin. Both were senior black belts - Johan Steyn and Evan "Hige" Savvas ("hige" being the Japanese word for moustache and referencing Evan's thick Grecian mo').

My brother and I watched, transfixed, as Johan and Evan moved in perfect synchrony, dropping into shiko dachi with an uppercut/backfist/groin strike combinination, and emitting a blood-curdling, extended kiai to match. We both knew then and there that this was something we wanted to do for the rest of our lives.

When Evan came off the floor to greet us, his threadbare gi translucent with sweat, we naturally assumed he was the instructor. It was only as we were leaving that we encountered Sensei Bob1 reentering the dojo foyer. My instant impression was of a distinguished man sporting an incongruously dirty white belt. I recall thinking: "Gee - this guy's been at it for a while with no progress". Of course his Tokkaido black belt was one of the variety that wears easily with age - and given that he had been training since the '60s his belt had had ample time to wear off almost all of its black exterior.

Needless to say, it didn't take long to correct the misapprehension. Bob Sensei has an uncanny ability to fill the room with his presence; his genial, square-jawed smile and steely gaze can make you feel like you're the only other person in the room. He is, quite simply, arresting and disarming (both useful qualities in martial arts).

Such is his charisma that throughout my studies with him I would routinely be enthralled for the entire lesson. And his lessons were always delivered at 110% intensity and commitment. There is simply nothing half-baked about the man.

In my own martial arts career I have strived to emulate his exact, near-perfect technique; the crispness of his delivery, the hammer-like focus of his blows and the effortless adherence to text-book form. Moreover I have strived to match his ability to absorb and retain (with the highest fidelity) every new form I have learned, from karate, to Filipino arnis, to aikido, to Japanese and Okinawan kobudo, and the external and external Chinese martial arts. Whether I have achieved this in some small part is a matter of conjecture; the bar he sets is very high. All I can say is that I continue to try.

I have, in my 25 years of teaching, also copied aspects of his teaching style. Some of this has been deliberate, but most of it has been subconscious. One example would be his typically voluminous instruction: Sensei Bob has a voice that cuts through the air like a knife through butter. It carries into every corner with equal volume, pricking every student's ears as if he were shouting into each of them. The only time the volume changes is when he kiais - then it goes up a few more notches still.


Bob Davies demonstrating the kata seipai in the mid-80s. Note the focus on his blows - and his kiais!

For most of my teaching career I have taught in this manner, cultivating my own voice in a way that is reasonably close to his. As a consequence, in recent times I've found myself rapidly losing my voice part-way through the class. I've now come to the conclusion that, for whatever reason (nodules?) I can no longer teach this way. Just the other day I conducted one of my new "quiet" lessons and found that people listened even more closely to what I was saying. One student (Lewis) remarked: "My it does seem much quieter tonight"!

I also routinely quote Sensei Bob's many thought-provoking and insightful comments or observations. These pithy sayings are too numerous to recount fully, but I shall give you some examples:

When I was graded to green belt I waited for almost 2 months without hearing of the result. This was a frequent occurrence and I guess you could say this was one of the "warts" Sensei Bob had (has?). I eventually plucked up the courage to speak to him about it, but I thought I'd approach it obliquely lest I offend him. So I knocked on his office door and said: "Sensei - I wonder if I could see the comments you made on my grading sheet so that I can see the sorts of things I need to work on." He looked at me with his trademark half-smile, one eyebrow raised, reached up to a shelf and took out a brand-new green belt and threw it at me. "Danny," he said, "never pick from the elbow".

Another favourite saying of his was: "Things have a habit of happening." It was usually said in the context of awaiting an uncertain future and it has always given me comfort. I have understood it to mean that events will overtake your present concerns, often overshadowing or displacing them entirely. Certainly this has been my experience over the longer period. We have a set of worries which assume a multitude of variables - many of which are impermanent. It is quite a conceit to assume that everything will stay the same except for the one circumstance that concerns you at any given moment.

Sensei Bob might have been charismatic and genial, but he was also a hard task-master. He handed out compliments very rarely and expected the highest standards at all times. I recall sitting opposite him in his office one night (I occasionally made the mistake of dropping in to chat after a lesson, knowing that this would mean a departure delayed by up to 2 hours) and we started discussing one of my seniors - a mature woman who was overweight (I'll call her "Susan" - not her real name). Sensei Bob said to me: "You know Susan don't you?"
"Sure - the generously built lady," I offered by way of description (in case Sensei Bob was thinking of another Susan).
"Let's not beat about the bush Danny," he replied. "She's fat." Sensei Bob told me that he'd given Susan an ultimatum: lose a certain amount of weight or quit. He told her that she had reached a point where the obesity was hampering her progress. I never saw Susan again.

So Sensei Bob was/is nothing if not uncompromising. He sets his standards high even if they make little "business sense" in terms of keeping a paying student.

He gave a different ultimatum to one of my other seniors, a very tough female black belt named Julie. In my observation she always seemed to give of her best - but this clearly wasn't enough. Sensei Bob told her that she'd been training at 3/4 of her potential when he wanted 4/4. If she wanted to continue in his dojo she would have to prove herself. He would accept her back only once she had attained a black belt in the shotokan school down the road run by Rob Ferrier - a fearsome figure whose dojo was regarded as one of the toughest in South Africa. In fact, Julie did just that - and a couple of years later she was back on our dojo floor...

Luckily I was never faced with such an ultimatum. Perhaps it was because he could see I was giving my best. More likely he knew better ways of getting under my skin.

I recall one time where we were gearing up for the Natal provincial festival - an open competition in which karateka from all over South Africa would attend. When the Saturday pre-selections came up, I called my sensei up to explain that due to the (very hard) lesson on Thursday my leg muscles had stiffened up to the point where I could barely walk. After a 15 minute chat he'd convinced me to come down to the hall and see how I felt after a warm-up. Indeed the warm-up, together with the attendant adrenaline, convinced me to take part. Despite the fact that the opening bout loosened my front teeth (courtesy of a karateka from Johannesburg who had at least 2 years more experience than I and a decade on my 16 years), I found myself feeling freer than I had for days. Sensei had been right. And he no doubt knew that this would make any subsequent convincing a great deal easier.

Try this for example: I rang Sensei Bob one month out from my final school exams and said that I felt I was falling behind; I regretfully told him I was going to stop training until after the exams so I could concentrate on my studies. "Okay Danny, if that's how you feel," he said with a noticeable tone of disappointment. The more I tried to explain the necessity for taking the time off, the more he sounded unconvinced. By the end of the conversation he'd talked me into training in each available class of the week - including assisting him with the children's class on Saturday mornings. To top it off, in the week before exams started I participated in a regional gashuku (an intensive course with early morning and evening classes for a full week). I not only did this but I also managed to top my school and get into the top 5% of South African school results.

But for all the inspiration and motiviation Sensei Bob gave me, he would also take me to the brink of quitting on many occasions. I've said before that he was a hard task-master; "old-school" is how some people describe him. But I shall explain what I mean by this next time...

Footnote:

1. Japanese (or far eastern) convention dictates placing a title such as "Sensei" (teacher) after the teacher's name - eg. "Bob Sensei", however we always followed the reverse (Western) convention.

Since about 1986 we have called Sensei Bob "Lao Tze" (Wade Giles) or "Lao Shi" (Pinyin) meaning "teacher" in Mandarin. This is as a consequence of his studies in Taiwan of the Chinese internal arts of xingyi, bagua and taiji. Again, we call him "Lao Tze Bob" rather than "Bob Lao Tze".

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic