By Lou Mancinelli
Philadelphia Aikido owner and director, Cecelia Ricciotti, who also has been teaching aikido (a form of self defense) at the Mt. Airy Learning Tree on and off for 20 years, left South Philly for San Francisco as a teenager in 1968.
“I went to see what the attraction was,” said Ricciotti. “I discovered there was nothing special about being in California. Everyone out there was from here.” She did however meet her husband, a New York native, during her year in California, before moving back to Philadelphia and establishing herself as an “aikido sensei” (martial arts instructor).
Five years after returning to Philadelphia, Ricciotti, who was married by then and later divorced in 1976, “had a two-year-old at home (Bruno,who is now 37, lives in Manhattan and owns Bond New York Real Estate), and I was climbing up the walls. I had to get out of the house and talk to adults, exercise and learn at the same time.”
Cecelia knew she wanted to study some sort of martial art. She chose aikido after visiting numerous local martial arts schools, or “dojos,” that offered different disciplines like kung fu and karate. “Some ‘senseis’ (teachers or grand masters) didn’t seem warm and welcoming,” she said. “They didn’t look like they were having fun.”
But at the aikido studio, everyone laughed at her and her rambunctious little boy. “It’s the art I was looking for,” said Ricciotti. “I never found a reason to quit.” In 1978 Ricciotti was good enough for her teacher to ask her to help teach, and she’s been doing it ever since.
Aikido is a 100 percent non-competitive defensive martial arts discipline where individuals learn how to defend and control themselves by blending with the energy of others to resolve conflicts without violence. It teaches one to deflect an attacker’s energy against him to protect oneself.
Aikido was developed at the turn of the 20th century in Japan. Ricciotti’s teacher, Shuji Maruyama, came to Philadelphia in 1968, sometime after the death of his own teacher, Morihei Ueishiba, the founder of aikido. Ueishiba was a master of jiu-jitsu who experienced a spiritual awakening and decided the violence practiced in other forms of martial arts was not the best way to go through life.
If a 100-pound rock was falling towards your head, would you punch it and try to break it into little pieces, or would you move out of the way to avoid it and allow it to destroy itself when it hits the ground? What if the rock weighed 1,000 pounds?
This simple scene illustrates the heart of the aikido philosophy. If someone throws a punch at you, Ricciotti, a seventh-degree black belt, explained, especially if he is stronger than you, and you try to block it, or punch back, in the majority of cases the person with more power will win.
“But if you throw a punch at me, and I step aside and let you continue beyond where you thought the punch would land, you’ll be off-balance and probably easier to overpower,” said Ricciotti. “The right and wrong of it is, if I’m attacked, I win. If I attack, I lose.”
During the early 1980s, after her teacher, Maruyama, returned to Japan, Ricciotti continued running a dojo for him along with a small group of other black belts. Then in 1985 she opened a dojo at Seminole Hall in Germantown. She continued to teach at both locations until the lease in center city expired, and Maruyama declined to continue to be responsible for it while living in Japan. Cecelia then agreed to close that one down and reopen it at 43 N. 3rd St. About a year later, she closed the Germantown dojo and combined both groups.
Thus, Philadelphia Aikido, now the largest school within the federation of Kokikai International (kokikai is the style of aikido developed by Ricciotti’s teacher), opened at 3rd Street near Market in Old City in 1997. In 2004, Ricciotti moved to her current location at 3901 Conshohocken Ave., off of City Line Avenue, where she is a co-owner. (She lives close enough to walk to work.) Her business partner, Chrungchai “Lex” Leodhuwaphan, joined her as a partner in 2007. In addition to aikido, the studio offers Swedish massages. The Defensive Arts Center is the name of the building they use.
At her classes, students from seven- to 70-years-old, from the beginner’s orange belt to the advanced black belt, all practice at once and work together in pairs. This way, an advanced student can help a beginner learn. Since it does not require strength or size, aikido can be mastered by all, regardless of athletic ability and age.
The practice and discipline of aikido are generally not used for physical combat, Ricciotti, 66, explained. But its techniques become important in dealing with your everyday life. Instead of arguing with someone, deflect their energy. Ask them to look at the issue again from the other’s perspective.
“I know what I’ve gotten out of aikido and how it’s helped shape me as a person,” said Ricciotti. “However much of that I can give to another person, that’s my role.” For more information about Philadelphia Aikido, visit Philadelphia-aikido.com. For information about Ricciotti’s classes at MALT, call 215-843-6333