It’s a quiet Saturday morning in the Tahoe Youth Ballet studio in Tahoe City’s Cobblestone Center. In the early morning hours before the young dancers arrive, Sensei Douglas Dale looks on as Sensei Zach Hymanson trains two students in the martial arts style of aikido.

Dale, chef-owner of Wolfdale’s Cuisine Unique in Tahoe City, is a sixth-degree blackbelt in the style and former dōjō-chō (head of the dojo) of North Lake Tahoe Aikido. Established by Dale’s mentor, Wolfgang Baumgartner, in 1984, Dale led the dojo until passing the honor onto the current dōjō-chō, Hymanson. With 50 years under his belt in the practice, Dale is content to step back from training mode into a role in which he can share with younger generations the wisdom and knowledge he’s acquired throughout his decades of dedication.

OLD SCHOOL: The first gasshuku at Lake Tahoe was held in 1988. It has taken place every year since, with the exception of the Covid pandemic years. Courtesy photo

“The importance for me is, I’ve gotten older … So therefore, it’s all about teaching for me now,” Dale said. “A little less training, a little more teaching. And that, too, has created a balance in my life where I feel like there’s an importance to that. It’s meaningful for me.”

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It was during his college years that Dale, 70, began practicing aikido — which in English can be translated to “the way of harmonious spirit” or “the way of unifying (with) life energy.” The martial arts are steeped in tradition, dating as far back as 3,000 years. While aikido is considered a newer style, tracing its origin to the 1920s, it is also steeped in tradition. In fact, aikido has its own deeply rooted history right here in the North Tahoe area, where the Takemusu Aikido Association’s largest annual training event, an international three-day seminar called gasshuku, takes place every Memorial Day weekend in Incline Village.

“I went to college in Tokyo and I had joined an aikido club in 1974, and that was it. I never stopped,” Dale told Moonshine Ink. “Everywhere I went, I looked for it. If I was in Southern Japan, I found it. If I was in Boston, I found it. If I was in New York, I found it … It’s pretty amazing. And they’re not big clubs, but it’s a community, and they’re all over.”

Dale studied under Morihiro Saito, a shihan, or master instructor, who was the longest direct disciple of aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969). An accomplished martial artist, Ueshiba — known as O-Sensei, meaning “great teacher,” a title reserved especially for the founder — drew from other styles to create in 1923 what was originally called aikibujutsu.

Ueshiba’s style was based in self-defense, escaping and evading attacks. Practitioners harness the opponent’s aggression and energy and use those to immobilize him by way of nonviolent techniques like wrist, elbow, and various other joint grips, such as those seen in jujitsu. By 1941, the discipline had come to be known simply as aikido.

“Our style comes from the little village up north of Tokyo. It’s called Iwama. It’s like saying Truckee; we do Truckee aikido. We do Iwama aikido. It associates it with the town, which is very interesting that O-Sensei hid out [there] after the war because we did not allow the Japanese, after World War II, to do any martial arts,” Dale explained. “Well, they moved out of the cities and they did it where they wanted. They hid out in the hills and did it. They weren’t going to stop. So that is a really pure form of aikido that we like.”

Ultimately, as things relaxed during the post-war occupation of Japan by the U.S., members of the American military sought out Ueshiba and trained with him.

“For me, it’s been very healthy — mentally, physically, spiritually,” Dale said. “It helps to balance out a situation. Blend the situation … And overall, my whole life just feels way more balanced instead of just working all the time.”

A third-degree black belt, Hymanson, 65, says that practicing aikido has brought balance to all aspects of his life, too.

“I would say that for me, the obvious big benefit is the physical and mental development that you get out of it,” Hymanson said. “You can get in good shape in terms of flexibility, coordination, agility, but in aikido, we talk about it. We break each technique into four parts. There’s avoiding the attack, blending with partner, taking partner’s balance, and then executing the technique. That blending is really the central part, and for me, aikido’s taught me how to blend with life.”

Four years into his own practice, 62-year-old Jerry Laurita is training to test for his black belt this summer. Like both of his sensei, Laurita also recognizes the balance that aikido has brought to his life, but for him, it’s much more. Practicing aikido has been a large part of Laurita’s journey to sobriety, as it’s been healthy for his mind, body, and spirit.

“It takes place of things in your life. It has to get in there,” said Laurita, explaining that you have to stay in the moment and forget about everything else. “It keeps your mind and body focused. Like, I can’t bring any crap to the dōjō. I can’t do it. You’ve got to be able to let it out in the flow, which is a wonderful lesson, an incredibly positive thing, too.”

Aikido has further taught Laurita how to be aware of his surroundings — a useful skill when he’s working as a soundman for shows at the Crystal Bay Casino — and how to walk into a bad situation with confidence.

“I get an eye on everyone that comes through that door,” Laurita said. “I’m up there having a good time. I see everyone that comes into that show when I’m doing my job. They’re at my back. You know what I mean? So like, there’s this awareness of stuff that’s going around.”

BLACK BELT RISING: Student Jerry Laurita, left, will be testing for his black belt this summer. Practicing aikido has been a great part of Laurita’s journey to sobriety, bringing a sense of balance into his life.

For over three decades now, North Lake Tahoe Aikido has co-hosted the Memorial Day weekend gathering. The gasshuku, which translates to “intensive training together,” brings together high-level instructors from countries around the world for the opportunity to meditate, eat, drink, and practice aikido in the spirit of the martial arts tradition, budo.

In 1988, Baumgartner hosted fellow senior instructors for the first Tahoe gasshuku at what was then the Rideout Elementary School in Tahoe City. Around 30 people participated that first time, so Baumgartner and the organizers decided to do it again the following year. It continued to grow and went on to be held annually (with the exception of the Covid pandemic years) and is now hosted at the Incline Village Recreation Center, which Dale says has been very welcoming of the group of nearly 150 martial artists.

Like most practices that require dedication to continue building on levels of mastery, the higher up you move in rank in aikido, the fewer people there are who hold that rank. So, the sensei and shihan attending the gasshuku are of the highest levels. 

Dale, Laurita, and Hymanson all agree that one of the most special things about practicing aikido is becoming part of a small community of people, bound by a common interest. It’s easy to be intimidated when you’re a white belt, the lowest rank, walking into a room full of black belts. However, given the small size of their community, martial artists are known to be very welcoming.

“What it comes down to is they want to help you,” Dale said. “They want to teach you. They want to see you get there yourself … It’s very fraternal. It becomes a sense of family.”

The public is welcome to be spectators at the seminar, May 24 to 26, which features instruction, demos, and more. Learn more about North Lake Tahoe Aikido and the Takemusu Aikido Association’s Memorial Day Gasshuku at northlaketahoeaikido.com.  

Author

  • Juliana Demarest

    Juliana Demarest is a Jersey girl with ink in her blood. She fell in love with print journalism at a young age in the '80s when her Uncle Tony would take her to "work" at his weekly paper. In 1997, she co-founded a weekly newspaper in North Jersey. One day, she went to photograph a local farmer for a news story. She ended up marrying him and leaving journalism to become a farmer's wife. In 2010, they packed up their two children and headed to Truckee in pursuit of the outdoor life. She didn't realize just how much she missed journalism until she joined Moonshine in 2018 after taking time off to be mom. Connect with Juliana juliana@moonshineink.com

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