Dojo Life: My Perfect Uke
What makes a good uke? We all know that the uke is the one who attacks us and receives our retaliations, in class and during our promotion tests. An uke has to be able to handle physical abuse of many kinds, needs to be able to fall safely, will have decent all-around skills, and the ability to get up again (and again) to take more abuse.
But there’s more to this picture. Our partners actually help us learn, verbally, or by example. I had one uke early in my training who wouldn’t let me talk! “Less talking, more doing!” he would say whenever I opened my mouth. This was very valuable. On the rare occasions I had him for a partner in class, we practiced in silence. It was a privilege to work with him. I’ve had plenty of difficult times with ukes, too. We all learn to avoid the people who come on too hard or too soft, who try to “muscle” us into submission, or intimidate with “attitude” or complain the whole time, or who attack like Satan but don’t want you to respond in kind, or . . . well, you get the idea.
A great uke will make you look good, maybe even perform better than you are able in normal circumstances. It’s like magic! How do they do that? Well, I don’t promise to be an expert on this, but there are some really basic reasons why we gravitate toward working with some people and not others.
First of all, a great uke shows up. This is important because, if you show up too, you get to know them: you work with them regularly. By showing up, they demonstrate that, like you, they also want to be there. You get to know their strengths and weaknesses and you learn to accommodate one another. Over time, you build up mutual trust.
A good uke shares their hard-earned knowledge as you train together. If they’re really good, they can do it by feel, but of course there’s always talking/giving helpful tips. If your uke is really, really good, though, they don’t always try to be the teacher and critique your every move. They let you learn at your own speed.
Very importantly, a great uke will protect both themselves and you from your worst impulses. They’ll let you know what they need. It can be really simple, like saying, “Don’t take me down so hard,” or just stepping out of the way of a strike when you come at them. Your partner knows enough about what they are doing to protect you both, a combination of skill and “feel” for the situation. Very valuable!
If you’re lucky, by training together you will develop enough sympathy for one another that you will be able to offer support to your partner. Even if you don’t see them except on the mat, you now have someone you can count on. They’re your friends—your real friends—even if you never talk outside the dojo. As an upperclassman once told me, “I trust them with my life. How could they not be my friends?” It seems to me, that’s what a great uke is: someone I can trust with my life. Can’t get any better than that!