I’m up next. We’re in lines of three, armed with bamboo swords. While the rest of the group look like they’ve been dragged out of feudal Japan, I’m stuck with the other beginners in our incongruous tracksuits. It’s hard not to feel a little self-conscious.
But as the sensei (or teacher) gives the call, I try to imitate the graceful, sharp shuffle of the more experienced members of the group. It ends up looking like I’m trying to skip across the dojo (physical training facility). I lift my sword, try to swing down and scream cathartically in time with my fellow beginners. I make a whinnying sound that, combined with the skip, leaves me about as terrifying as a happy, springing lamb.
This isn’t kendo. Not what I’m doing anyway, but the rest of the highly disciplined Dubai Kendo Club really look the part. Kendo is the way of the samurai – a martial art that has barely changed since the days of the shoguns in medieval Japan. Unlike judo, karate, ju-jitsu or many of the other commonly recognised martial arts, kendo is not taught as a self-defence system. There are no hip throws, no locks or grapples – it’s just you, a bamboo sword (called a shinai) and your own tightly honed perceptions.
As befits any samurai school, an acute sense of hierarchy and etiquette permeates the dojo. The newest students sit on the far right, the senseis on the far left. There’s a great deal of time taken over bowings and plenty of quiet, meditative kneeling. Then, we begin. Handed a shinai, we run through several swings and are given careful instruction on the positioning of our feet. There’s an almost audible rhythm to the kendo strikes. The back-forward steps, constantly lifted backheel and sense of concentration to each strike is tiring and liberating. Compared to many other martial arts where you would work slowly with a partner, kendo is a far more solitary style. Even though sparring – essentially fencing – in the dojo forms the core of kendo, it’s all reliant on an individual’s ability to concentrate on their own form. Combine this with the long black dress and intimidating faceguard and it’s all pretty Jedi down at the Quay Club tonight.
The sparring starts and we beginners are moved far from the bamboo-wielding advanced students. We’re offered instruction on the rudiments of how to behave in the dojo; how to pick up the sword, how to stand up correctly, kneel correctly and how to perfect the key swings. This focus on discipline, I’m told, allows the sensei to judge when a student is ready to actually start sparring, safely.
Watching the advanced students sparring really is impressive, and it’s what kendo students are aiming for when they take this up seriously. Reliant on scoring correct hits (to the guarded head, torso and wrists), this is ultra-fast fencing given a dramatic edge by the fearsome appearance of the combatants. Eventually, the masters step in and we’re left to watch a highly tense face-off between the two of them.
Dubai Kendo Club meets twice a week. Children Dhs30 and adults Dhs50 for two hours. Call 050 264 8683.