MARTIAL arts exponent Margaret Dinan has studied aikido for more than 35 years and was recently promoted to the rank of 6th dan, one of only three in Canberra and of only a handful of women nationwide to reach that level.
Each dan refers to a rank above black belt, the widely-known symbol for martial arts proficiency, and takes five years each on average to achieve.
Joining Margaret, 63, at 5th dan is Liz van Papenrecht, 58.
The women were two of the most senior female Canberra students of Aikido Australia’s founding figure Seiichi Sugano, with whom Margaret trained for more than 25 years before the master’s death a decade ago.
Often translated as “the way of unifying (with) energy”, aikido is a relatively new addition to martial arts in Japan. It was developed by Morihei Ueshiba as a synthesis of different traditions in the early 20th century.
Sugano, at 26, was chosen by Ueshiba to come to Australia to teach aikido.
Margaret says Sugano always taught his students to study the technique, not action.
“He never laid down one way of doing it, he demonstrated his ability, his understanding, but he offered you the opportunity to study it yourself.
“He allowed his students to find their way.”
Margaret is one of many older men and women who train at the Aikido Aiki Kai Canberra sessions in Curtin every week. Many of them have trained with either Sugano or his students, notably local master Hanan Janiv Shihan who is a 7th dan.
“Because it’s not a combative martial art, it doesn’t rely on strength. It actually relies on technique, energy and flow. You can do it in your 70s and be very, very effective,” says Liz van Papenrecht.
Like Margaret, Liz has trained in aikido for decades, including 20 years with Sugano.
In 1983, Liz was doing an intensive tai chi course when she learnt her instructor was also teaching aikido.
“It was so different, but had similarities to tai chi in terms of energy flow,” she says.
A few years later, Margaret also made her start in aikido at an ANU beginners’ course in 1986.
“I had no intention of staying,” she says.
“I thought I’d do a martial arts course as something self-defence oriented. I’d never heard of aikido.”
Unlike in arts such as karate, the relationship between sparring partners in aikido is a symbiotic one, explains fellow student, Duncan Stevenson, 70, who having trained since 1991 is considered new among the group.
Participants take turns performing techniques with partners who redirect their energy and “throw” them on to the mat. Sometimes weapons, such as wooden swords, are involved, too.
“If I’m doing a technique and someone is providing an attack they’re actually giving me their body movement and their energy so I can learn,” Duncan says.
“Within our community there is a really strong element of trust. If I am providing an attack, I trust my partner to safely throw me away. I can’t attack someone like that unless I trust them.”
Unlike some other martial arts, Margaret admits aikido isn’t attracting younger members.
“It does take a bit of commitment to actually get to see the benefits, you can’t just pop in and pop out. You need to have commitment training over a couple of years,” she says.
Yet, with decades of training behind them and no sign of slowing down, for Margaret and Liz, it’s a commitment that has been well worth it.
“It’s really energising and when it’s all happening, it feels fantastic,” says Margaret.