Thursday, November 18, 2010

Grace, Power, Beauty, Strength

My son - aka "Squirrel" - is a senior in high school. As application deadlines will be here before you know it, we've visited five colleges in the last month and a half. Yesterday, we visited the school that is number one on his list.

He's thinking of majoring in performing arts and is looking for a school with a program that integrates drama and dance. While touring the school's dance conservatory yesterday, we ran into Ashley, a dancer in her last year at the school who invited us to watch a rehearsal for an upcoming performance of "The Nutcracker Suite." What she didn't tell us was that she was one of the principle dancers.

Once she slid into her pointe shoes and began her warmup on stage, Ashley transformed from a quiet, gangly college kid in sweats and a headband to an amazingly bold and very talented dancer. It's been a long time since my weekly grade-school tap and ballet lessons - so my reference for the names of specific techniques was way off - but as my son began whispering them in my ear, I started relating them to something a whole lot more current for me: karate techniques.

Sure there are differences, but it's amazing how similar dance and karate really are. Ashley's beautiful kicks were really high and done with pointed toes and arms that were far away from each other, but her shoulders were always over her hips and she always landed with balanced precision - even when both feet left the ground. Her movements were very graceful but extremely powerful at the same time, making her fluid transitions from one corner of the stage to another look effortless and almost simple - which told a lot about how much time she'd put into training and perfecting her movements. When the music stopped and the dance was complete, she and the other dancers either sat down immediately or leaned over with their hands on their knees, breathing hard and sweating as if they'd just gotten off the gym treadmill. You can tell they left everything on that stage each time they went through the dance. It so reminded me of watching the best karateka go through kihon drills, move around a ring during kumite or across the floor while presenting kata - because after they rested and talked over the parts that needed to be ironed out and improved, they got up and did the whole thing over again - with the same intensity and feeling. Of course the graceful and beautiful lines were there, too. Each time. Just like it should be in the martial arts training hall.

My senseis always tell us that how we practice/train in the dojo will be exactly how it will be done outside of the dojo, if ever needed. Although I hear them each time they say it, the Purchase College Conservatory of Dance students rehearsing yesterday really hammered that home for me.

Domo arigato goziamasu, Ashley :-)

Friday, November 12, 2010

What Was YOUR Black Belt Test Like?

Do you remember all the things you did to prepare for your black belt test? If you have a few minutes to share, fellow blogger, SueC, is compiling a list of tips for the karateka in her organization preparing for their grading and needs your help.

How did you prepare? Is there anything you wish someone would have told you but didn't about the preparation and the actual grading itself? What would you tell someone who is about to grade for black belt if you could?

Here's your chance. Read SueC's most recent post and share your thoughts if you can.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

On the Road Again: Tournaments and Tradition

Much of my Saturday was spent in a van full of kids, driving up the New York State Thruway for a martial arts tournament upstate. Because it was the first tourney I'd competed in as a black belt a year ago and because it had relatively small competition groups and was well-run, my training partner (Ed) and I thought it would also be a good first tournament for the young white belts we've been training at our local Salvation Army since May. A good time was had by all the karateka as well as their parents, as none of them had ever been to or competed in a tournament before. They all did very well and learned a great deal, which was a very good thing.

But there was a little weirdness during the day. Since the tourney directors required that all competing black belts - regardless of age and/or experience - judge under-belt kata, weapons and kumite rounds, we saw both the absolute best and worst judging ever. Some of it was blatant - judges voting for their dojo-mates simply because they were dojo-mates and even black belts who seemed totally unfamiliar with any style other than their own. Some of the black belts weren't even in their teens yet and it was obvious that judging of was something they hadn't done much of at all.

Because it wasn't billed as a traditional or single-style competition, many different styles were represented. But no matter how solid the techniques and fluid the Okinawan forms were, they lost almost every time they went head-to-head against 25+ step forms from other systems that had jumping kicks and shoulder rolls.

It sometimes feels like martial artists who study Okinawan/Japanese systems are at a bit of a disadvantage in mixed-style kata competition. Rarely flashy with high kicks, single-leg, leaping or spinning techniques, our kata tend to have intricate hand movements but are often much shorter than other systems' forms. I guess if you're used to seeing forms with a million steps that move all over the floor, when a karateka presents a kata like Seiyunchin - which has absolutely no kicks - it might look like something is missing, As I presented Senchin, the USA Goju version of the kata this weekend, this was my reality as well.

A Kyokushin sensei commented on my kata after the trophy was presented (I finished second to a martial artist whose kata had the obligatory shoulder roll and a couple of leaping front kicks). He assured me that my kata was solid and that my hand techniques were done as the kata prescribes. I admit that it was nice to hear, but I still kinda felt like I showed up to a black-tie event in my shimmery best but without the tiara everyone else wore. But that's what traditional Okinawan kata is about. And I think it's beautiful.

Ed won his kata division with Hangetsu, but opted not to even enter the kata grand championship because he said he knew he'd probably have a difficult time winning against what he called the "flash and awe school of kata."

Are we just too cynical or just more traditionalist than we realized?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Refining the Reflexes

My sensei has given everyone in the dojo a nickname and my son's is "Squirrel" - because he is very jumpy when someone is throwing a technique at him. I mean, VERY jumpy...

But I've noticed that I'm not "jumpy" at all in the dojo, which isn't necessarily a good thing. Like when class is done and we're just sort of standing around chatting before we grab our gear bags and head back into the real world, I've been "sneaked up on" from behind and have hardly reacted at all. Not an empi, not a parry, not a chamber in prep for a strike - nothing. I just kinda turn and smile, not in fight or flight mode at all. Perhaps it's just that I feel safe in the training hall - in that I know no one there is trying to hurt me ever - but maybe that's not such a good thing, either, because how I commit it to muscle memory will be how it will be done if I ever need to use it, right?

An example: since Fall is here, it's now dark as I head to my evening classes on the college campus where I teach. Last night, I really tried to make myself aware of my surroundings, aiming to kinda "feel" folks moving around near the corners of buildings or in the vestibules that aren't too well lit. Too many times, I didn't notice someone was in my immediate vicinity until they were almost close enough to reach out and touch or grab me - especially when they approached me from behind, like the young woman on her bike who rode up on my left and crossed in front of me to get to the bike rack. Didn't even realize she was there until she was almost right next to me. Not good. I don't know how to train to make it better.

Not that I want to whip around and yell like a crazy person when I'm approached, but some awareness would be nice. I'm stumped, though. Any suggestions?

My nickname, by the way, is "Neo" - as in the questioning fella in "The Matrix." Hmmm...