On Demonstrations

Yesterday, I had the honor and privilege of participating in a demonstration of Kokikai Aikido. The location was a popular Japanese cultural festival. As usual, we had a only 20 or so minutes of actual demonstration time, and my portion of it lasted all of maybe a minute. Nonetheless, we conducted ourselves well; I think we were both entertaining and informative.

Demonstrations, however, are always very interesting in a martial arts context. They often seem to be inevitable; after all, people need to see what you’re doing to get some sense of whether the art is right for them. Yet, whenever I come across a discussion on a particular Aikido demonstration (or any martial art demonstration, for that matter), I seem to encounter three common responses:

  • Those who have no idea what was going on. These are folks who have no martial arts training, so the entire art is new. I love listening to these types of people, because they offer such a fresh insight as to how the art appears to the uninitiated. I know I had such a perspective when I began training, but that was a long time ago!
  • Those who thought the demonstration seemed “fake.” I’ll be blunt: I’ve seen these folks all too often, and I am convinced that they are people who have very fragile egos indeed. Sometimes, they have some martial arts experience. Sometimes, they just want to be act tough. These folks never ask questions during the demonstration itself (we often allow for questions at the end of our demos). Instead, you hear them as they walk by. They’re usually making comments such as “That was so choreographed” or “Those attackers were going so easy–I would have really hit them hard.”
  • Those who know the demonstration was a demonstration, neither more nor less. These are folks who know what they’re looking at, and understand that a demonstration is, in the end, a choreographed snapshot of what a given martial art is like. These are the best folks to talk with, because even if they don’t join your dojo, you’ll likely have a good conversation about martial arts training and philosophy.

Why bring this up? Because I think understanding these three personality types can help when preparing for a demonstration. For example: I know that a good portion of the audience won’t have a clue as to what’s going on. Therefore, while I endeavor to conduct things formally and well, I won’t stress about being too formal or too ritualistic; it’s meaning will get lost and the audience will likely get bored. Another portion of the audience will think that everything I do is fake or won’t work in a real-world scenario. They’ll feel that way no matter what I do, so there’s no need to try to prove anything extraordinary when giving a demonstration. You’d think these ideas would be very simple; yet I have seen demonstrations in which half of the time was spent on bowing and formal politeness. I could see the audience (including myself) grow bored as a result. I have seen demonstrations in which the presenter wants to prove the art even to those who don’t want to understand; they want only to critique. The result is a demonstration that provides a warped perspective of the art in question.

So, what makes a good demonstration? In my mind, Sensei Bannister does a great job in this regard. So, to take a page from his book, as it were, here are the hallmarks of a good martial arts demonstration:

  1. Organize. Show the audience that you know respect their time by not wasting it shuffling around with setting up mats and so forth.
  2. Rehearse. Practice, but don’t over practice. Yesterday, my Aikido partner and I were going to do 4 techniques. We did; but only 2 of them were the ones we actually practiced beforehand!
  3. Move. Keep it moving at all times! This is a demonstration, not a lecture.
  4. Engage. Make it personal for the audience. Talk to them, even bring them onto the mat to illustrate a point.
  5. Relax. Demonstrations rarely go as planned. Be ready for the unexpected by staying relaxed and enjoying yourself.

Remember, too, when observing a demonstration: it’s supposed to be choreographed, and it may yet look a little staged. Why shouldn’t it? Who would allow a martial art school to demonstrate their style if all they said was: “Yeah, we’re just gonna start fightin’ now?” If you find yourself one of those critiquing an art based on a demonstration, I challenge you to visit the dojo in question. See what their training is like away from an audience. Visiting one class still doesn’t give a complete view of how a martial art works, but it’s better than sitting back in your chair and feeling elitist. (And yes, I’ve been guilty of this too.)

In the end, demonstrations can often be a lot of fun. They provide a bonding experience for the participates, and gives new folks a chance to see something they might like to try. I’ve got two more demonstrations slated for this month (I haven’t done one in years until now!)–I may post more on this after those are finished.

4 thoughts on “On Demonstrations

  1. I saw a kendo demonstration a few months ago at a Japanese spring festival. It was the first time I had seen kendo performed in person; it was very interesting. I suppose a good demonstration has to be entertaining – people are not only easily bored, but have short attention spans. The laypersons’ feedback I’m sure gives a fresh perspective. Good luck with your demo agenda.

  2. Thanks, John!

    One other point I forgot about: demonstrations can be a great way to see how you perform under pressure. When we were preparing to step onstage, there were many of us who were quite nervous! The feeling was similar to the nervousness felt by test candidates when they know they’re about to be called up. Most likely, its the fact both tests and demonstrations require a very public display of your skills. At any rate, since tests only happen so often, a demonstration is a good way to see how you respond under pressure.

    Kendo is a fascinating martial art; I’ve never had an interest in studying it myself, but I greatly enjoy seeing it and talking with people who do study it.

  3. Thanks Dave! I googled info about good demonstrations and found you. I am preparing an Aikido demonstration and looking for valuable tips, I found some thanks!!!!

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