Interview with Hilary Dawson Sensei (6th Dan)

By Cassandra Chan (Article Author) 

Lauryn Monner  (Interviewer)

Elizabeth Lauber  (Interviewer)

Sally Cochrane  (Transcriber, Interviewer)


Hilary Dawson Sensei is a 6th degree black belt and Shidoin who has travelled all around North America to enhance her Aikido. She has taught a variety of classes and workshops for over 35 years, attained over 40 years of Aikido training, and is currently the chief instructor at the University of Victoria’s Aikido club. Throughout her Aikido career, Dawson Sensei has led several specialized programs in addition to her standard classes, such as one for women in Aikido and another designed for students with physical limitations. Girls from all over can look up to Dawson Sensei as a strong, female practitioner, instructor, and leader in the Aikido community.


Dawson Sensei embarked on her Aikido journey in 1977. Although she hadn’t been particularly interested in athletics in her youth, she joined a Judo club for a year and a half in university and thoroughly enjoyed the exercise. It wasn’t long, however, before she realized that she didn’t like the competitive aspect of Judo, so when a friend recommended Aikido to her, she was very interested. Dawson Sensei started her training as soon as she finished university and moved to Halifax. A sign at her local YMCA was advertising Aikido classes, so she signed up and started in the spring. The dojo was quite small, with around a dozen students, and there were no black belts in the class. Even though the sensei was only at the rank of second kyu, he was an excellent teacher, and Dawson Sensei admired his technique and presence. She also loved the dojo’s pleasant dynamic and Aikido’s intense form of exercise. After her first two months of training, Sensei attended her first seminar with Kawahara Sensei. “I was just blown away,” Sensei said, recounting her reaction to the seminar. Later in that fall, Dawson Sensei moved out to British Columbia and continued her training at Ki Style Aikido. Sensei had only been training there for a month when the dojo announced another seminar, this one led by Kawahara Sensei as well. “And he saw me and he said, ‘Well, what are you doing here?’ And I said, ‘Well, what are you doing here?’ And anyway, that was the beginning of our training together.” For a year and a half after that, Kawahara Sensei would come over once every month for a weekend to train, cultivating Dawson Sensei’s Aikido career. 


When asked about how many women trained with her at her first dojo in Halifax, Dawson Sensei said that only around a quarter of their small class sizes were female. Even when she moved to British Columbia, there were still only three to four girls training with her, and throughout her journey to attaining Shodan, she never had a female instructor. “I think that the person who I have sort of looked up to the most in Aikido in Canada has been Yumi Nakamura Sensei,” Dawson Sensei said, after thinking about her current female role models in Aikido. “She just has been a fixture in my life all the way through… so yes, she has been very much a mentor in that way.” Sensei may not have had many women to train with or learn from in her Aikido journey, but she never let that intimidate her. She describes practising Aikido and going to the dojo to be something that has fed her for most of her life. “Some days when you go there, it's something just to restore your spirit, and some days it's to get a workout,” Sensei says. “One of the things Aikido teaches you is to be in the moment, and you just always have to adapt. And so that's one of the things that appealed to me.”


Even in the work aspect of her life, Dawson Sensei has found the principles of Aikido to have helped her develop growth. Her job as an electrical engineer in the ocean technology field was to design and test machines and systems for her company, such as weather buoys. “I think the Aikido - the first thing it teaches you is to be assertive without being aggressive,” Dawson Sensei explained. During university, she was the only female student in her class, and in the company she worked for later on, she wasn’t just the only female engineer, but was the only woman in the entire company for the first few years. Nonetheless, Dawson Sensei was never worried about being the only female around, just as she didn’t let it bother her on the mat either. Another aspect of Aikido that has helped her outside of the dojo is the adaptability skill set it helped her cultivate and enhance. “We say each class is an empty slate when you start,” Sensei explained. “We practise the forms - we practise all of this so that whatever comes up, you adapt to it.” Dawson Sensei also recalled being very shy at a young age, so she had few friends and mostly just hung out with her brothers. “But Aikido brought me out of myself,” said Sensei. “And then I ended up having to teach fairly quickly out here because we didn't have any black belts… so it forced me to develop that sense of self and my confidence. That was a really big thing.”


Kawahara Sensei was Dawson Sensei’s most memorable teacher, because of how different his lessons were from the typical Western style of teaching she normally encountered. “You just had to become very observant, but at times you’d think he didn’t move at all,” Sensei remembered. “His Aikido got to the point where he internalized so much… It was like a very small movement that was incredibly powerful. There was no wasted movement.” Dawson Sensei not only admired his physical strength and unwavering Aikido techniques, but also deeply respected his mentality revolving around the Art of Peace. She recounted how Kawahara Sensei was never interested in building up an ‘Aikido empire’, but was devoted to simply training in Aikido. “Aikido at its purest form… it was just there in his presence on the mat,” Sensei explained. “And so he’s probably the person whose Aikido I tried to follow the most.”


Dawson Sensei has had several memorable experiences in Aikido, one of which took place in Banff. In September, 1989, Dawson Sensei drove to Banff with three senior members of Victoria Aikikai for Inaba Sensei’s annual seminar with visiting instructor Yamada Sensei and several members of the New York Aikikai in attendance. “ It was my first time being away without my young daughters. The budget didn’t support staying in the hotel so we were camping at Tunnel Mountain – the guys in a tent, and me in my van. September in the mountains is a lot colder than Victoria! It was also mating season for the elk – so not much sleeping. The aikido training, though, was great!”


Dawson Sensei also had an incredible experience at the celebration of New York Aikikai’s 40 year anniversary. There were eight hundred Aikido practitioners in attendance throughout the event, including ten shihan! Classes started at six in the morning, and you could participate all the way until nine o’clock at night if you had the energy. “We went to an outdoor weapons class with 200 people, which was pretty neat,” Sensei described. “You would line up and you could be in these big groups of 20, or you could actually break off and find a little group of three or four and do the same thing. And it was like a giant indoor arena just covered in mats!” The experience of being in a class with hundreds of students was one for a lifetime, and is one of Dawson Sensei’s most memorable seminars in Aikido.


As a successful Aikido teacher, Dawson Sensei has made many special memories with a myriad of different students. One of her most memorable students was Maggie, a young woman who faced many struggles when it came to her journey in Aikido. Although she had a challenging time learning how to roll and it wasn’t easy for her to get to the dojo in the first place, she was incredibly dedicated to her training. Later on, Maggie decided to go to Chiba Sensei’s instructor training program. The men at Dawson Sensei’s dojo were against it, saying that “he’ll eat her for breakfast”, but nevertheless, Maggie went off for four years, achieved her black belt, and now runs her own dojo! “She survived! I mean, she was the most timid person who could barely put her hands out to begin with,” said Dawson Sensei. “I was so proud that she got that strength from her training, and then pursued her dream.”


There have been several challenges that Dawson Sensei has had to deal with throughout her Aikido career, including students practising in unsafe ways or being inconsiderate, such as harshly throwing others around without care. “You're responsible for your own practice and then as an instructor, you're responsible for the safety of everyone in your dojo,” said Sensei. “That’s something I think is important.” In addition, Sensei has visited dojos where the men didn’t want to train with women practitioners. She believes that there is a lot of education that has to go on in relation to these issues, especially because of this experience. Some students who have already trained in different styles of Aikido also pose a challenge to Dawson Sensei, because she often has to ‘rein them in’ and teach them aspects of Aikido that their foundation was never built upon, such as the non-aggressive nature of the Art of Peace. “If you fundamentally don't expect to be stronger than everybody, you concentrate much more on form, timing… and using all the elements of Aikido,” said Dawson Sensei as she reflected on overcoming these struggles. “When you're strong, you just do it and you don't realize you're not doing it well until somebody who's bigger than you and stronger than you comes along and you can't move them.” Although she has had to deal with multiple challenging students in her Aikido career, Dawson Sensei’s teaching abilities have certainly grown, helping her to become a better instructor and Aikido practitioner alike.


Hilary Dawson Sensei’s response to being asked about her achievements in Aikido was, “Still practising at 70. I get up! I would say the biggest achievement is being able to enjoy it and practise it at this age.” As for favourite aspects of Aikido, Dawson Sensei has many, from the flow and energy that Aikido creates, to the way it builds her up and brings everything in her life together. However, she loves the people in Aikido the most. “I find that they're a very diverse group and really neat,” Sensei said. “The nice thing is being able to practise Aikido with people wherever they are in their practice and in their life.”  A couple of these amazing people were two students with cerebral palsy who couldn’t  roll, but could throw others and take breakfalls well. Sensei has even had a student who was completely blind, and yet still was able to complete his 5th Kyu test! She has met so many incredible students as a result of the Aikido community, and she loves getting to interact with these people both inside and outside the dojo.


Along with perseverance, Hilary Dawson Sensei believes that humility is paramount when aiming to become a skilled Aikido practitioner. “Just the beginner's mind - keeping it with you forever,” Sensei affirmed. “There's always something either new to learn or there's something that I haven't thought of before.” She believes that great Aikidoists don’t practise techniques that they have already learned mindlessly, but practise them with a purpose, as there is always another aspect of it that you can either learn or improve upon. “When you're taking a class, whatever is being demonstrated, you take from it, and you try and see what's there… see if it works for you. If it doesn't work for you, there's no obligation beyond that, and you let that go. Just to be in that spirit of Aikido, I think is the most important thing.”


The advice Dawson Sensei has for all girls interested in pursuing Aikido as a career would be to truly know Aikido, and have a sense of what draws students to Aikido in the first place. Of course, there would need to be business plans and others around to support you, but having a passion for Aikido and using that passion to create a joyous place for practice, filled with positive energy, is the best thing you can do. “You ask them every time, ‘What is it about Aikido that draws you back?’” said Sensei. “It is that whole way of harmony in mind, body and spirit, keeping everything together - it allows you to grow in your own life.” Dawson Sensei believes that honing the Aikido mentality and skillset is equally important off the mats as it is on the mats. The idea of doing a tenkan (turn) around obstacles rather than giving up completely or trying to beat them through brute force is a skill that anyone can take with them into their everyday lives. Whether the obstacle stems from a work issue, disagreements with a teacher, or family tension, the ability to adapt and find a new approach to a situation is an incredibly important life skill, derived directly from the principles of Aikido. “So Aikido is all about going to that open space,” Dawson Sensei said. “Finding a path and directing. And so ultimately, the best throws in Aikido are where your partner throws themself, whether they want to or not - the unbalancing, you draw them into your centre and then give it back.” Sensei concluded by reinforcing that having this deep sense and understanding of Aikido, along with passion to teach and train, are very important for all girls interested in opening an Aikido dojo one day.