Fellow European Naginata dojo and players, we are sharing our thoughts and experiences on running an open free (no cost) beginners session, our first since the pandemic, so our memories of whether this method to recruit new students in a very different world we find ourselves in, for what is still an unusual niche hobby – even for experienced Budo players of Japanese martial arts.
What is a Tasting Menu ? In restaurant experience terms, a tasting menu is where there are multiple smaller dishes rather than a big set menu or “a la carte” – so that the diner gets to taste a little bit of everything. Hopefully their taste buds aren’t overwhelmed. A tasting menu is designed show the range of what is available – it not meant to be substantial or show huge depth of one special show piece dish. As diner you get to sample a little bit of everything, this is the principle.
We call a Taster session in Naginata, exactly what a tasting menu is. We try to push out as much as possible without overwhelming beginners, as much of the range of what is involved practicing Naginata. What cannot be safely experienced by a beginner, such the energy of full bogu, is therefore demonstrated to beginners to watch safely. Our aim is not to have those tasting everything, but to walk out of our dojo, feeling a sense of achievement, that just one or two techniques or movements, made them
feel great and not stupid – we try to promote is Naginata something they could devote time to, progressing and critically as a hobby, enjoy, have fun doing, problem solving at their own pace and ability level. This is what is in our minds what tasting or seeing the range of Naginata is, at a targeted beginners session. Try everything possible, safely of course. There is a huge cost, financial and time, as we charge nothing to experience a taster session. This includes not charging our experiened students helping out, despite the cost of the hall, and lots of safe space. We know that since the pandemic, life has felt more fragile, and people are more careful about their life choices, they know that life could change in an instant, and the phrase “life is too short” to be doing something in your spare time, doing something you don’t really enjoy.
Running a beginners session, also requires the support of the dojo sempai, and students – I cannot fault the support I had to run this session at the beginning of January. It started with a consultation with all my regular students. One beginners session, leads to an impact on the quality of practice in the few weeks after as we hope beginners return. A level of patience and kindness is there required – beyond the time and financial cost – which can be measured. My existing students who could make it (a couple had yet to return from overseas for the festive period), were gracious and team-work faultless. True generous budo spirit.
The recent European Championships seminar, for the 3-4-5 dan level, David d’Hose sensei ran a session, on how do we each (country or dojo) teach beginners or run a beginners session? The exam question put to the senior groupd was: What is the objective to teaching beginners (session) or a beginner (singular if they just arrived at a regular practice)? I think my answer was, show the individual the breadth of Naginata, even if the beginner cannot try it out themselves, a technique or get dressed up in bogu. Of all the ideas put by others in that senior group from around Europe, one comment stayed with me, in my mind – that (other) dojo’s objective was to hook the beginner(s) and get the beginner(s) to return, i.e to come back again, and practice more. The tasting menu of a restaurant, their objective is to get the diner to return for the full menu, again and spend more money dinning at that restaurant.
We had amazing artwork from an Ikkyu student. We put the posters up around the still very new sports centre location, where our club is now based. We wanted to draw in those curious, who used the sport centre, gym, pool, and main hall facilities as their local dojo. We advertised on Facebook too. But we were careful in our wording on social media, not to be overwhelmed either, on safety grounds alone, in terms of space, so we set a limit. This had the added benefit of exclusivity.
We advertised to accommodate up to 20 students, and in the end had 17 say yes. On the date, we had notification that three could not make the date and wanted to join another regular session. Of course they could. On the Taster day we welcomed 13. We believe this was a good return rate on our advertising, publicity and word of mouth.
Like other dojo, we never know what knowledge or experience will walk through the door. We are not unusual I’m sure in attracing types from HEMA (Historical European martial arts) and the other budo like: kickboxing, Karate, Aikido, Kenjitsu, Kung Fu, Kendo and so on – you know, all the curious types who’ve got some other martial arts background. We think – will they ever treat Naginata as their main budo or secondary hobby? I am guilty too, my original background is Kendo, I have the bogu its an easier transition to make as you already own the most expensive part. Then there’s new folk, with no martial arts background, maybe racket sports (I ask because it involves hitting something – hand, eye coordination and moving across a floor and whack). This Taster session we even had an ice-skater and dancer – they were incredibly well coordinated !
So principle is safe fun: trying what they could, what they couldn’t, I used water breaks where existing students demonstrated all the shikake-oji and selected waza in bogu, and ippon-geiko. Despite having enough club sune and bogu, kote for half the numbers – we decided against “dressing up”, it takes too much time, it’s a distraction and new folk become like 5 year olds dressing up in super-hero costumes, over excited !
But since Naginata involves eventually being ‘hit’, I also like to have beginners hit (safely) the sune of an experienced student, and watch the full bogu. I don’t want bogu to be a surprise, if a beginner fears hitting or being hit, or worse claustrophobic wearing a men (I explain like a motorcycle helmet, there are some people who cannot wear a complete all over helmet) – then these beginners find out sooner not later, there’s the no armour part, which is the foundation of Naginata, and there’s the bogu part. I explain, I run the dojo where both are equal, this is not Kendo, where kata part is 5-10% and bogu is 90=95%. That is not what my Japanese sensei has instilled in me. I state to beginners that our club are blessed with donated bogu (or bogu I’ve personally bogu and stored from Kendo players, giving up Kendo). Beginners and even some of my experienced students of 3+ years, still
borrow club bogu. I shame no one, and place a greater value on a student turning up, than I do, applying pressure they buy expensive stuff. If students are hook and have the financial means, dedicated students when they are sure, will buy bogu, or buy parts slowly (I say, kote, then sune (things close to their skin). Our club is lucky to have ten pairs of sune, 8 pairs of kote – all donated, and so many naginata now, there’s no trees left in the forest. We have plenty of bogu (but struggle with extra large size), no one I say, needs to go buy anything for a while. Foreign visitors can email and borrow stuff for the time they are in our guests in our dojo. Ultimately I do not want the cost of equipment to put off beginners, this is stated at the end of a beginners session, taster or not. We have everything, kind hearts, time and hope that beginners walk away from a Taster session or a regular walk in as a beginner, thinking, is the London Naginata Dojo, their “tribe and vibe”.
Let’s see, the following week we had half of the 13 who signed up returned the following practice. The exam answer – what is the objective of teaching a beginner or beginners session – to return. Let’s hope so. We wish others in Europe, all the best in a post-pandemic world facing the similar challenges we have: How do we attract and importantly inspire to keep, new people into the strange curious and very different, budo, that is called modern Atarashii Naginata. Gambatte !
London Naginata Dojo, January 2024