Interview: Ann Marie Heilman, Okinawa Kenpo 9th Dan (Part 2)
This is a continuation of the interview with Ann Marie Heilman. Part 1 of the interview can be found here. In this segment, Heilman Sensei discusses what it was like meeting Odo Seikichi of Okinawa Kenpo and how it changed the direction of her martial arts career. She also contemplates the meaning of being a Hanshi in karate and her growing responsibilities as a role model for women in the martial arts. Please enjoy.
MA: Could you discuss how you met Odo Seikichi Sensei of Okinawa Kenpo? What were your early impressions of him that made you decide to train under him full time?
AMH: The first time I met him was during a banquet we attended with Trias Sensei over in Okinawa. When they announced us and our style as “Okinawa Kenpo” a very small Okinawan man jumped up and yelled “yay! Okinawa Kenpo!” with his arms in the air. That of course was Odo Sensei.
That’s the thing – he was always happy and joyful. Even when he was quite ill, he was always a happy funny man and it was easy to grow to love him. He was also an excellent teacher. We brought him over to the United States the following year and continued to train with him as much as we could until his passing.
We established a routine of going to Okinawa or bringing Odo Sensei to the United States every year. We would be able to spend weeks and sometimes months with him in focused training. It was a great relationship and we were blessed to have him here in our home so frequently.
MA: What did you find similar/different studying with Odo Sensei vs some of your previous instructors?
AMH: It was different in that he was very laid back. I’m not sure if my previous experiences were flavored with American military or Japanese martial art style, which is very very different in the dojo and very serious. While we were training and doing kata with Odo Sensei, although the training was rigorous and focused he always taught with a smile and laughter. That was different and good for me.
Odo Sensei’s training was exacting and he had a huge emphasis on kata. That worked well for us because we could receive the kata and bunkai from Odo Sensei, but then also receive high level application, theory, fighting, etc. from Trias Sensei.
I remember early on in our studies with Odo there was no particular structure for the material. He would teach you what you were interested in or what he thought you should know. I remember attending a meeting in 1984 with a number of other senior students of his and establishing an actual hierarchy of material that students would have to learn. Once we had that scaffolding set up, everyone could then test standardized material. It was in this way that I tested up to 7th Dan directly under Odo Sensei.
MA: Odo Sensei was known for teaching in the old Okinawan manner of suiting material to the student, tweaking it as needed to make it more functional for the individual. Were there any particular ways in which Odo Sensei molded your learning to make it work better for you personally?
AMH: I think the most unique thing about my relationship with Odo Sensei was how frequently he used me as his bunkai partner. Bunkai became a very live experience for me. Before Odo Sensei I trained with a lot of tall, strong men. It was really great to learn from Odo Sensei who was much closer to me in size. That being said, Odo Sensei was very muscular and had huge hands. He was a powerful individual. I remember when we put our hands together his fingers could fold over my fingers.
If I watched him very carefully I could learn how a smaller individual could move, especially with the weapons.
MA: Your husband Bruce Heilman is also a senior in Okinawa Kenpo. This would inevitably lead people to wonder if you were perhaps riding his coattails or getting free rank simply by association. Am I right in assuming this sort of thing came up, and how did you go about handling it?
AMH: Testing and receiving rank directly from Odo Sensei and NOT my husband was critical. In fact Bruce was of the same mind and made sure that it was not him who tested or promoted me. Over the years I noticed a few women who did receive high rank simply because of who they were married to. My testing was always public and I was always sure to keep my training as transparent as possible. This is another reason I did tournaments for a while. I wanted people to see what I could do and prove that I was not just a figurine following my husband.
MA: While studying under Odo Sensei you and Mr. Heilman were also busy building the IKKF (International Karate Kobudo Federation), which Odo Sensei approved and sat on the board for. Could you discuss the challenges of starting something of that nature?
AMH: The organization came about because we wanted to establish a personal identity while being a branch of Odo Sensei’s Shudokan. Bruce Heilman had a talent for organization and was experienced in setting up this kind of structure. He knew about getting accountants, and lawyers, etc etc. We had met a number of excellent martial artists over the years that we wanted to associate with, and we also wanted to help other styles learn things like Okinawan weapons that their style may not have had.
The growth of the federation allowed us to share our art, especially the kobudo, with many people both in the USA and internationally. I never would have thought it possible when I was growing up.
One of the challenges of the IKKF is the desire to maintain high standards throughout the entire organization. Sometimes our style is not ideal for individuals that want to join us, or perhaps our standards are not reasonable for a commercial school. We try to be fair while maintaining what we think is right.
MA: Recently you received the rare honor of being promoted to 9th Dan, Hanshi. I’m sure this was something impactful for you. Could you talk a bit about your feelings and reflections of the promotion?
AMH: I remember my husband brought up the possibility two years ago but I was staunchly opposed to it. I wanted no parts of it and that kind of responsibility. As far as this time around, I feel right about it because I’ve had two years to reflect on the possibility and the things that I’ve done, and the amount of study I’ve done and still want to do. I knew that if I received it this year it would be coming in a legitimate way from teachers outside of the IKKF who are respected in their own right.
(Note: Heilman Sensei’s promotion was made by Hanshi’s Larry Isaac, 10th Dan; C. Bruce Heilman, 10th Dan; and Jody Paul, 9th Dan; with the approval and authorization from Okinawa from Hanshi’s Shihan Toma (ratified before his passing), 10th Dan; Shigemitsu Tamae, 9th Dan; and Kyoshi Satoshi Yamauchi, 9th Dan, representing both the Seidokan and Motoburyu lineages. Additionally Heilman Sensei received recognition from the IKKF (her home federation) and the United States Association of Martial Artists (an organization connected to the original USKA under Master Robert Trias). These ratifications were important as they connected Heilman Sensei to her roots in training (Odo Seikichi and Robert Trias), as well as continuing the historical connection between Okinawa Kenpo, Seidokan, and Motobu Udundi.)
To be honest, I was so much more involved and excited with Mr. Hayes getting his promotion that I was not thinking too much about my own. It felt good that I was more concerned with him than myself – I felt it was a moment of personal growth.
As for the promotion night itself – I do not remember a moment of it! I don’t remember standing in front of everyone…things were a dull roar.
MA: When you think about your overall legacy on the arts, what do you hope your lasting impact will be?
AMH: I’d like to be remembered as a good and fair karate woman, teacher, and judge. If I can do that, and combine it with the IKKF learning materials we have already created, I would be happy. We have set up the scaffold so that people will have what we created for a long time to come.
I’ve never considered myself (nor was I in truth) a natural talent at martial arts. Everything I learned was through repetition over and over and over. I would watch others get it much sooner than I could. I’ve had multiple injuries as well that were very debilitating. In total my learning process has been slow, with many ups and downs.
I hope that other “non-naturals” out there can see my struggles and continue to push through too. I would say to them, surround yourself with a good support system and never let “quit” enter your equation. As I was once told in grade school: “Aim for the moon…even if you miss you’ll land amongst the stars”.
MA: Thank you very much Mrs. Heilman for your time and thoughts!
To learn more about Ann Marie Heilman and other senior karateka visit “Tales From the Western Generation”!