Danzan in the Rain

An evening with UH Hilo’s jiu jitsu club

News Writer Nick Carrion

Photographer Adrienne Gurbindo

Upon arriving at UH Hilo’s Danzan Ryu Jiu Jitsu club practice, the club’s president, Tiffany Erickson, is standing behind another club member. Her hands are placed on either side of his head, and they appear to be gently squeezing him. After noticing others are looking at her, she laughs. “He’s had a headache all day, I’m just relieving some pressure,” she explains. (Full disclosure: Tiffany is employed as a graphics/comic artist at Ke Kalahea.)

Tiffany Erickson (President; brown belt)
Tiffany Erickson (President; brown belt)

Incidentally, Danzan Ryu jiu jitsu got its start right here in Hilo. It’s founder, Seishiro “Henry” Okazaki, first started studying martial arts on the Big Island. Later, he returned to Japan to continue his studies, borrowing from various martial arts traditions to build his own style. Okazaki employed the then-novel technique of having his advanced students teach the newer ones, and would break from tradition even further by allowing women and non-Japanese students to study at his dojo.

That spirit of development and inclusiveness is alive and well at the UH Hilo club’s practices, which take place at the Student Life Center. “Yes it’s a martial art, but it’s also about self improvement,” said black belt instructor Travis Prose. “We do almost no fighting. We don’t do any live sparring or anything like that. MMA, or anything like that, is...no.”

Practice begins with the dojo members standing silently, spaced out evenly across the large practice mats that cover most of the floor; the members appear almost statuesque, each facing the same direction.The atmosphere is quiet and reserved, and the room is oblivious to the sounds of outside commotion. Most students are wearing a gi, a traditional martial arts outfit that includes a colored belt denoting level of advancement. Prose selects a girl wearing a white belt - a beginner - to lead the group in warm-ups.

She makes her way to the front of the room and begins to lead the stretching routine, until someone makes a joke. Instantly the aura of quiet dignity is broken as the room cracks a collective grin: they are, after all, a group of classmates and community members simply coming together to celebrate a common interest. They are all here to practice self-defense and improve themselves, and have fun doing it. The stretching continues with a warm, familiar vibe.

While laughing and kidding around, each member is diligently preparing themselves for the practice ahead. Everyone here knows the potential for injury and is taking precaution. Their stretching routine is extensive, with everything from standard jumping jacks and arm circles to hip, knee, and ankle rotations - all to test ranges of motion that the average person would struggle to emulate.

Then comes the exciting part, at least for an observer: time to practice rolls and falls. The students form two lines for this, and roll, kick, and tumble their way across the mats to the commands of “Forward rolls, kick ups, judo rolls, twice through.” A newcomer in street clothes follows a brown belt, the second to highest level; Prose offers advice and encouragement to novices and pros alike. They punctuate their falls with a loud hand slap on the mat, which serves to divert some of their momentum and offer more control during a chaotic maneuver.

After everyone is sufficiently shaken up, they break off into separate groups to practice moves consistent with their skill level. Two beginners try basic grabs and counters. A group of blue belts learn to throw each other at different angles. A black belt and a brown belt, the two most advanced in the class, demonstrate complex grapples-into-throws-into-tumbles, doing low-speed simulations that end with one of them tapping out.

Black Belt Alumni NSE Coordinator Kadian Shaw throwing Secretary Kristen Hassett
Black Belt Alumni NSE Coordinator Kadian Shaw throwing Secretary Kristen Hassett

Every few moments someone will pause in the middle of a maneuver, leaving both participants precariously intertwined while they work out their next move. The conversation in the room would raise eyebrows in any other setting, and you can catch snippets of “it’s been a long time since I threw you,” and, “no, you’re trying to choke me.”

The final exercises bring the group back together as a whole for activities everyone can join in, no matter what skill level. It’s that togetherness that brings club secretary Kristen Hassett back week after week.

“It’s not like the experience you would receive somewhere else,” Hassett said. “Anywhere else it would be very serious, but here [it] is laid back. We want to get to know you, to have that one-on-one personal connection with the student. It’s my favorite part of the day, honestly.”

That camaraderie is something the club is trying to promote among others in the UH Hilo community. They will be hosting a special self-defense class on Saturday, Oct. 15 from 2-4 p.m. at the Student Life Center. The cost is $10, which covers a one-day membership with the American Judo and Jiu Jitsu Foundation. This event will focus on awareness of situations that could be dangerous, and basic skills to help one escape from a potentially dangerous encounter. But Hassett says it will also be about showing what Danzan Ryu jiu jitsu is all about, and hopefully reaching out to new members.

“I guess we wanted everyone to experience more of how we experience,” Hassett said.