Belt tests

We went to watch a Tae Kwon Do belt testing last night, to support a preschool friend of my daughter’s who was trying for I think his yellow belt- it’s a bit easy to loose track.  Far too many different belt colors, stripes, bands, etc for my taste.  You shouldn’t be able to tell how many weeks someone’s been training by counting the rings and colors on their belt, if you ask me, but then I spent most of my time in Bujinkan where the belts just went white/green/brown/black.  Sure, we had kyu and dan ratings within that, but it was a bit more subdued, more personal, more dignified I felt.  Or just more a sneaky-ninja thing…

It was interesting to watch.  My daughter had taken classes here for a while as well, because at the time a bunch of other kids from her preschool were.  It was a social thing, and it was cute, but I had my misgivings about the quality of instruction.  My poor kids will have to deal with so much baggage from their old man if and when they do martial arts!  Probably doesn’t help that their mom used to teach at a Tae Kwon Do camp, either.  On the plus side, maybe we can help steer ’em in a healthier direction.

The testing bore out much of my suspicions.  It was much like watching a community theatre do a Shakespeare production: There were a couple folks who weren’t half bad, a few kids who just looked darn cute trying, and the majority of folks can at least get out most of their lines in a recognizable fashion… but it’s painfully aware to me that most of them have no idea the meaning behind the words they’re speaking, and very few are actually listening to and playing off their fellow actors on stage.

There was a mix of floor routines, board breaking, shadow-boxing, and ‘free sparring’ (out of distance, taking turns, etc), but by far most of the people there (including the one who’d been teaching the kids) just didn’t look like they understood what was behind the moves they did, really knew how to use their bodies to make those moves make sense, or were paying attention to the context in which they used them.  Like bad actors just waiting to say their line, they’d throw a kick because it was what they felt like throwing, not because the person opposite actually was open there.  At times it started looking like Star Wars Kid.

I’m not saying this to bash this particular school or any of the people in it- and no, I won’t name names.  We all do martial arts for different reasons, and as a parent I take no issue with this school’s focus on telling kids to listen to their parents and study in school.  If they want to give stripes for things like being able to stand at attention, cool- standing still is probably a lot harder for my daughter than throwing a kick.  The constant reinforcement probably helps especially the younger kids, although I noticed my daughter getting pissy if she didn’t get a stripe every lesson, and the focus quickly shifted to getting the next rank rather than personal improvement.

I’m sure there’s an entirely valid range of opinions on training philosophy.  I’m an analytical person in general, and like to know why things work and why I’m doing something.  That imagery helps for forms or kata, although I readily acknowledge there have been times when over-thinking held me back.  Sometimes if I could just turn off my brain and do it, it’d work, but because it still didn’t make rational sense to me as to why, I would get tripped up.  The antithesis of this might be the old Mr. Miyagi paint fence/wax car trick (RIP Pat Morita), where you’re teaching someone to use their body in a valid martial way without them even knowing it has anything to do with fighting… and I can see how that could work.  Still, that requires good supervision and a genuine physical task; I think if Daniel-san had been asked to just mime waxing and painting for hours, it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well, yet that’s what some martial arts essentially do- especially prone are these big chain franchise places, I think.

So how is it different training actors versus martial artists?  I do think actors need to be more deliberate and intentional in their movement- martial artists may not need to know why they do something well, just that it works.  Martial arts instructors are probably much closer to choreographers and stage combat instructors; they need to also be able to understand why something works and what the common mistakes are, and perhaps alternative choices to accommodate different body types and contexts.  Without knowing why things work, you won’t know how to adjust them for different students (or actors, or characters), what sequence to teach things in to best develop the student as a martial artist, etc.

While taking the time to explain the why may not always be something directors are eager to do in a busy rehearsal phase, but I’ve found the actors always enjoy and benefit from it, as does the performance.  While I am by no means a martial arts instructor, as a student I like to think the same holds true in the dojo.

Tomorrow morning my daughter and I will be checking out the “Tiny Tigers” class at The Seattle Wushu Center.  I trust Rusty, and took a wushu sword workshop with her a while back.  I think it’ll be good.  My daughter’s going to have twin baby brothers soon; she’ll probably need both discipline and the ability to block low kicks.


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