She raised five children, took in ironing, baby-sat other people's kids, worked close to a quarter-century at J.C. Penney.

But after she retired, "I was stagnating," says Claire Conway.

No more. Today, Conway, 72, is a second-degree black belt and director of the AikidoKids! program, which is a non-aggressive martial arts discipline.

"There's no kicking in aikido," says Conway, who at 5 feet 1 inch can still bring grown men to their knees. Or lower.

"No matter how little the person is, they can take you down," says Conway as she does just that to 6-foot-tall Joe Montano, who also teaches kids aikido.

The idea, she says, is to blend with your partner to absorb their energy to take them down to the mat.

A relatively new discipline, aikido was developed in the 1920s in Japan by Morihei Ueshiba as a means of self-defense.

"You take care of the person who's attacking you," says Conway. "You don't want to hurt them, just make them stop."

Melody Joshevama, whose daughter, Polimana, 11, has been taking the class for the last six months, recounts how it's already helped her.

"A few weeks ago in one of her classes, a girl tried to pick a fight and slapped her. Before she could slap her again, my daughter grabbed her wrist. It was an automatic reflex. She did not engage in yelling or hitting the girl. She just grabbed her wrist to make her stop."

Aikido also teaches kids to be aware of their surroundings and to be calm and focused.

"I like the spiritual aspect, based on harmony and love and taking care of your attackers," says Kim Barton, whose son, Hunter, 11, is in the class.

Parent Cezanne Waid says the class has increased her 9-year-old-daughter Julide's self-confidence. "She was very shy. Now she can go up and talk to people."

Julide gets another perk as well. "She has occasionally thrown her father — with his permission," says Waid.

The classes also teach kids that if they do fall, to roll backward so as not to get hurt.

"I like the rolling," says student Alex Tash, 9. Apparently, so do plenty of others as they practice catapulting over the back of Conway, who is hunched into a ball on the floor during pre-class warm-ups.

"Who else wants to roll?" she hollers. "I'm not staying here forever."

She grew up a tomboy — one girl, three brothers — in Burlington, Vt. Married right after high school to "a GI I met," Conway, now widowed, moved in 1969 to Tucson, where her husband was stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

Ten years ago, she was in an exercise class where aikido was demonstrated. "My daughter's mother-in-law was also in the class. She and I looked at each other and said, 'That looks like fun.' "

In time she was taking classes from Judith Robinson, chief instructor at Aikido at the Center, 3100 N. Stone Ave., where AikidoKids! is also taught.

"You know within a month whether aikido is for you or not," says Conway, who definitely fit into the first category.

In 2003, she started teaching kids. "I had planned to teach seniors but the instructors for the kids left," says Conway, who splits teaching duties with Montano and Matthew Goodwin.

Besides the classes, which are held three times a week, Conway and her fellow aikido devotees take the show on the road several times a year, giving demonstrations everywhere from Tucson Meet Yourself to summer camps.

"I love aikido, it's my life," says Conway, whose grown children, she adds, were initially cool to her new-found avocation but have now warmed to it, even helping her with some of the seminars.

"They're proud of their mother. It's changed the way they look at older people," she says.

And she especially likes it when her own grandkids employ aikido techniques. "They tell me, 'Grandma, I pinned Dad and he couldn't get up.'


Teaching kids self-defense


During the summer, AikidoKids! teaches at an eight-week camp for Pascua Yaqui children and teens.

Aikido classes

AikidoKids! classes, for children ages 6 to 12, run Monday and Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings. For more information, call 795-5141 or log on to

● Bonnie Henry's column appears Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays. Reach her at 434-4074, at bhenry@, or at 3295 W. Ina Road, Suite 125, Tucson AZ 85741.