I have been pondering a lot over tanto dori lately. Both during the late fall and especially this Christmas. What do I want from tanto dori practice? What is important for me and what does not matter so much for me?
I think that for me tanto dori is a further study of aiki with more restrictions than ordinary, unarmed, practice. The limits when the partner is unarmed is that both partners should not reach the other during the road through the katas. This gives the practice a martial logic. We act in this way as uke and as tori so that the natural way to proceed is the physical form of the kata we are performing together.
Of course the knife, or tanto, increases the reach of uke. However, what was not apparent for me at first is that it also becomes fundamentally important for tori to make sure that uke never can reach the knife with his/her other arm. Both because he/she might accidentally cut himself/herself during the motion we are doing together, and because the situation might escalate if the partner takes the knife in the other hand.
The tanto are narrowing the roads and are making many roads completely impassable. The way I see it many katas can’t be done at all, and others need to be modified quite substantially to actually have a logic with these added restrictions. In addition, to be able to lead the opposite side of the partner from what tori is touching, we will need a very high level of aiki. It is very challenging and very restrictive on what we can do.
Maybe, if I would reconsider my values of what tanto dori is I could do more different katas. However, for me my partner is always a very dear friend. His/her safety are valued above my own. From the time we bow in to each other until the time we bow out my partner is my responsibility. The tanto is a piece of wood, but during practice I consider it a live blade. Any touch will cut or pierce and will cause serious injury to my partner or to me. Both will in my opinion mean failure.
Using the blade as an atemi, using the blade instead of my te katana on the arms of my partner or other ways of putting my partner in harms way in order to do the movement is not an option for me, as that would reverse the roles of “attacker” and “defender”. For me atemi is tori’s presence, never a threat of violence or a physical attack.
For some time I have been studying how to disengage from the partner, to get rid of the grab and the contact with the partner. This has mostly been a curiosity as an opposition to what we normally do, which is to do our best to keep the grab and the contact with the partner. It is often very useful to also study exactly what we should not do. In tanto dori this becomes very useful, to make it natural for the partner to let go of the knife. When I were studying how to make the partner let go of my arm I never wanted to break the grab. I want the partner to let it go. Now I do not want to take the knife from the partner but rather I would like to give the partner a good feelings so he will give me the knife willingly.
Needless to say, this is very challenging. Especially when being attacked with a knife, even if it is made of wood, it is easy to get startled and our hands has a tendency to become “unfriendly”. This naturally causes the partner to stiffen up as well and hold on to the knife for dear life. Thus we will fail in our attempts. Still, I believe this is a key to be able to do tanto dori the way I feel that it should be.
I am doing an examination soon, so I would of course choose some easier katas to demonstrate, to make sure nothing will go wrong. However my heart lies with the movements where there is more ambiguity between the partners. Preparing for examinations has never been a part of the road for me. I have to sidestep from my chosen path to do them. Still, this time around I have not bothered sidestepping much, but I have kept my eyes fixed on my true goals.
Enjoy your keiko! Aiki make people happy!