The Art of the Staff

Leads to France

A Travelogue By Thomas Cothran

I call it itchy palms, that feeling when my hands want to be circled around the wood. It got me into martial arts, and still keeps me inspired. In the autumn of 2011, it led me to France in pursuit of learning more of the art of the staff.

My first martial arts lesson was with the staff, taught by a French woman, Catherine Larue, whose lively teaching style and skill with the bo inspired me. She also promoted me, after several years of study, to first-degree (shodan) black belt. The style Catherine taught had been brought to the south of France by a member of the French navy who had spent many years in the Far East. There had been a split in the style, with a teacher named Christian Saguer developing his own staff style in Perpignan in the southwest corner of France. I had been there once, in December 2006. Christian Sensei had recognized my shodan rank at that time and encouraged me to continue. Which I did, keeping my little bojutsu club alive despite not having many students and being out of town much of the time. For that I also owed thanks to two students, Lisa Hoh and Larry Blackwell, who kept the class going while I was away. It was partly for them that I wanted to be promoted to nidan, or second-degree black belt. To promote Larry and Lisa to 1st kyu, or brown belt, I needed to be a nidan and I needed Christian Sensei's permission.

Of course, I could not ask to be promoted. I had to go to Perpignan and give Christian Sensei time to look at me and determine if I had the skills to be a second-degree black belt. I committed to making the trip simply to train and hope that I could learn what I needed to know quickly enough. Ashai Dojo International Association (ADIA), the sanctioning body for Christian Sensei and his students, was holding a major training event in Dueville, Italy, on October 15. I knew Christian Sensei and some of his students would go, and I wanted to go too. I wrote to Sensei and asked if I could come to Perpignan to train before the ADIA event.

I spent my first night in France in the northern city of Lille, where I was reunited at dinner with Catherine and her partner, Herve Rogier. The next day I traveled by train to Perpignan, arriving after sundown at the vineyard workers' cottage where I would stay. It was owned by Dominique Drew, to whom I'd been introduced through a home exchange program. She lived next door, and proved very helpful. The vineyard lay in the plain of Roussillon, the land of the Catalans, a culture shared on both sides of the French-Spanish border. The countryside was beautiful, full of vineyards and wineries which I passed on my commute to the dojo. I also had a good look each morning at Canigou, the broad-shouldered mountain with a mystical and spiritual grip on the hearts of Catalans.

My first classes were on a Friday night, taught by Sebastien Durand, a senior instructor at Yawara Dojo. His English was better than my French, fortunately for me. Christian Sensei also appeared for a time, and I could feel both of them watching me as I trained with the other students in bojutsu and aiki yawara (aikijutsu). I was glad. I'd come a long way and wanted all the attention I could get from them. Students junior to me were also very helpful. Jerome Lubrano, who I'd met five years earlier when he was a beginning student, was now a shodan. He immediately challenged me with the speed of his strikes, as well as updating me on techniques.

The core of this style of bojutsu includes sets of strikes and blocks, with throwing and pinning techniques derived from those sets. There are forms as well, but much of the art is comprised of drills done with a partner, often striking fast and hard. With no other black belts to practice with, my skills had grown slow, as I realized that first night and would become even more aware of later. Classes continued the next morning, and after class I was happy to stay on for a while and practice some aiki yawara techniques with Patrick Delafosse, shodan, another friend from my previous visit.

There were no classes Monday, but I was delighted when Christian Sensei informed me he would meet with me for a couple hours in the dojo alone. We began by reviewing some forms which I was able to do to his satisfaction – apparently, since he did not ask me to do them again. We continued into a review of shodan kumibo, the fast-moving series of strikes and blocks with the roles of torii and uke changing quickly and automatically. Sensei gave me plenty of corrections, which I tried to absorb quickly. Occasionally I asked to stop to take notes. I had a good camera which took excellent short video clips, a feature I used with great effect, since it helped me study when I wasn't at the dojo. Sensei was kind enough to meet with me on several days during my stay, coming from his office a few blocks away. He taught me sets of strikes and blocks beyond shodan kumibo – techniques for black belts only. There were more forms – including a complex form that often involved moving my body in one direction and the staff in another at the same time. And there was a form which Sensei informed me I would be demonstrating alone at the international clinic in Italy. I began to be optimistic that I might be promoted, although we still had not discussed it.

Between the sessions with sensei and the regular dojo classes, I practiced alone in the small courtyard between the little apartment and Dominique's house, using videos and notes. I also learned to do something else new: Wash a gi by hand. There was no washing machine or dryer at the farm, and no laundromat anywhere nearby. Each morning I washed clothes from the day before by hand, then hung them out to dry. The heavy weave of the all-cotton gi was especially difficult. I took sections of it one at a time and squeezed and twisted as hard as I could, bringing what seemed like vast quantities of water out of the hard blue cotton. I did my best, but it always seemed like the gi produced its own small rainfall when I hung it on a clothesline in the courtyard. The process of drying was aided by some unusually warm, dry weather, and even more so by the tramontane, the 25-to-30-mile-per-hour wind that whips through Roussillon whenever it has the whim. As Dominique said, the tramontane would blow the water off the clothes.

My second weekend in Perpignan sensei held a clinic for all levels of student, starting Friday night and ending Sunday. We went over new techniques and old ones, forms and combat sets, changing partners frequently. In the afternoon I was practicing shodan kumibo with another shodan, Geoffrey Hessant. As we neared the end, I was a split-second too slow to block one of Geoffrey's strikes and his staff struck the left side of my forehead. The action came to an abrupt halt and blood dropped from my head onto the mat. Sensei came over and told me to sit down as Geoffrey began apologizing profusely. It was my fault, though, and I said so. Sensei got his first aid kit and bandaged the wound, but said he wanted me to go to the Perpignan Hospital Emergency Room. He told Geoffrey to take me. I didn't argue, figuring he was being cautious. Once there, a nurse checked me in and we waited a bit before a young physician showed up and grabbed my head, putting his fingers on the wound and causing blood to spill again, this time onto my clothes. He cleaned the wound with Mercurochrome, and then glued it together and sent me off to the cashier's desk, where a clerk charged me 23 euros (about 31 dollars). Back at the dojo, I took off my blood-splattered clothes and put my dogi back on, as did Geoffrey, and returned to the mat. When the day was done I pulled out my camera and asked Geoffrey if we could get our picture taken together. Patrick agreed to take the picture, but I was a little surprised when some other students rushed off, grabbed their cameras and lined up to take pictures of my broken head. Spilling my blood seemed to have made me a local celebrity, with pictures showing up quickly on the dojo's Facebook page. Jerome later posted a dozen photos to my personal page, but I removed some of them; I hadn't yet told my wife, Virginia, that I had been hit, and didn't want her to find out on the Internet.

That evening, Jerome made a reservation for several of us at a Catalan restaurant in the center of Perpignan. I ordered hog cheeks, cooked in a traditional Catalan style, and agreed for the first time in my life to have escargot as an appetizer. Being American, the idea of eating snails has never appealed to me, but I had to admit they were pretty good, grilled and served with an excellent brown sauce. During dinner, Christian informed me that I would be teaching class Tuesday night, with Jerome available to interpret if needed. Feeling very honored, I started thinking about what I might teach. I arrived back at the vineyard after midnight, exhausted and my head aching.

The next few days went quickly, and I began to catch on to some of the more advanced techniques, as well as the higher level forms. For Tuesday's class, I taught some techniques that I had developed from the early parts of shodan kumibo, figuring they would be new to everyone but not difficult. The class went quickly, and toward the end, Sensei thanked me and said he wanted us to practice for the upcoming international demonstration.

Thursday I left for Grasse, where I visited an old friend, Christa Roquie, who had also visited Minnesota to teach the art of the staff. I met her charming three-year-old daughter, Miren, and enjoyed an interesting dinner conversation with Christa and her husband, David. Friday I met the rest of those going to Italy at a rest area just outside Cannes. Sebastian and his wife, Miriam, hopped in the car with me and we were off to Dueville, arriving in time to watch people testing in jujutsu.

Saturday's clinic took place in a large, modern gym. There were dojos and martial artists from several nations representing a variety of martial arts. We lined up according to dojos, or so I thought until someone told me I had to form my own line of one person, representing the United States of America. I was happy to do that, of course, and a moment later a Chinese student from the Perpignan dojo, Xin XH, fell in beside me, representing China. One by one, we were introduced, stepped out and bowed, then listened to our respective national anthems played.

We bowed in, and the training began, with four mats arranged around the gym -- one for children, one for color belts and two for black belts, including sensei's bojutsu class. I started with a jujutsu class taught by Daniel Blanchet Sensei, founder of ADIA. The technique opened with a side strike by uke, countered with a block and strike by tori, continuing to a hand-torque-to-shoulder-pin take-down. We changed partners often, which provided a great opportunity to meet martial artists from other countries. Our languages and martial styles and skills were different, but there we were, all together, enjoying the same techniques, taught by an excellent master, and getting acquainted.

For the second class I joined Christian Sensei on the children's mat, where he taught bojutsu and I served as uke. During the third hour, I attended sensei's next adult bojutsu class, which included teaching the first two sets of shodan kumibo. When he told us to find a partner, I bowed to a man not far away wearing a threadbare black belt. Because he was new to the staff his strikes were a little awkward, but he had fast hands. I knew I had to be extra alert to avoid being hit again. I tried giving him some instructions, but he didn't speak English and I didn't speak Italian, so we stuck with sign language, which pretty much worked.

After lunch I found a quiet corner of the gym where I practiced my form, nervous but looking forward to demonstrating it. Afternoon classes brought more instruction from a variety of instructors, all masters in their respective disciplines. I was tired, but not feeling it much at this point. It was too much fun. When the last class concluded, we lined up on three sides of a mat for the demonstrations. Each club brought up people to demonstrate a few techniques from their respective arts. Our demo included a sword form by Christian, a fast-moving staff form by Christian and Sebastien, staff techniques by the two of them and shodan kumibo by all of us simultaneously. Our fifteen minutes seemed to end too quickly. We bowed out, and left the mat. I had not been called to do my form. The demonstrations done, Daniel Blanchet Sensei took the center floor and made several announcements, recognizing various people for their help in putting the event together and thanking us all for coming. We bowed out. The day was over, and I concluded that I would not be getting the promotion I had hoped for.

Before we could disperse, however, Daniel Sensei told everyone to stay put and began calling names. Several of the people we had watched testing in jujutsu came forward and were handed certificates of promotion. My name was called. I jumped up and ran to Daniel Sensei, who informed me that Christian Sensei had approved me for second-degree black belt and handed me a large certificate. To my delight, he handed me another one, a beautiful certificate of appreciation for coming so far. I thanked him and stepped toward Christian and bowed. After eleven years as a shodan, I'd finally made it to nidan.

The training was over, but the weekend had one more event – a raucous catered dinner, held in a large tent near a beautiful old church. We arrived to find bottles of wine and beer and hors d'oeuvres on the tables and immediately began eating. That was followed by a bowl of penne pasta with a light meat sauce. I ate two bowls of it, and was probably alone in thinking that was the main course. It wasn't, and we soon passed through a buffet line of chicken, ribs, pork, mixed vegetables and polenta cakes. Being a southerner, I knew polenta was the Italian version of grits, and helped myself to a couple of them.

As dinner progressed, some of the dojos began what sounded like soccer chants. At the first pause by the other groups, Sebastien vocally imitated a trumpet call. For a moment, he had me fooled; I wondered who had brought the horn. The rest of our group roared and pounded the table, so I joined in. The evening ended with a fund raising auction, and we arrived back at our hotel after midnight again, tired but happy. We spent Sunday walking the back alleys, canals and plazas of Venice, stopped for some Italian food in a restaurant staffed by Asians, and then began a long, overnight drive back to Perpignan. Monday was spent cleaning the little apartment and getting ready to leave. Tuesday I said farewell to Dominique and headed for the airport, where I was seen off by Christian Sensei and by Patrick and his partner, Encarnacion. As the plane lifted off and circled, I looked down to see Canigou, its peak bright in the morning sun, signaling the end of an awesome journey.