If you ever have the opportunity to attend a black belt grading, and you have any interest in the martial arts, or action movies, or MMA fighting, or East Asian culture, I do recommend taking the time to go. Popular culture has made the image of the “black belt martial artist” into a caricature of what it really means to dedicate years of your spare time to a martial art. If you go, you will see that black belt students are both less and more than what you might think. Because a black belt means years of work, an understanding of what I can only describe as a physical code passed down through generations of students, and sometimes, but only sometimes, exceptionally good fighting.
Some background first. In our organization, black belt gradings typically come about 3 times per year. Any brown belt students who are about to grade are referred to as Mudansha in our organization, which simply means “ones without dan,” where a dan is a degree of black belt. A Mudansha, to me, is one who is studying to be a student. We are still learning our alphabet, and are about to be tested on our ABCs. If we pass, and earn our black belt, it simply means it is time that we start to learn. All of the coloured belts are just markers on our journey to get to the point where true study begins.
To get to where the 20 or so Mudansha were sitting, or bouncing on the balls of their feet on Sunday takes years of study. I knew, as I looked at them, they they had all learned at least 18 different kata, or forms, with between 14 and 54 moves (depending on how you count them.) And that they could not just perform the steps (as in a dance,) but understand the practical application of every move (as in a fight,) even when that application has been hidden away and coded by the original practitioners.
They had all learned self defense scenarios for multiple strikes and holds.
They had practiced throws, joint locks, rolls and break falls until their muscles were sore from the impact.
And of course, they had all spent countless hours sparring, which at this level involves the controlled application of karate techniques in a freestyle environment.
All of them have been training for at least 3 years; many of them more. 3 times a week, every week, with additional weight training, cardio, and study. Did I mention the written and oral exams?
All of them have gone through a pre-grading, where their Sensei (one of 16 in our organization) has tested them to make sure that they can adequately represent their dojo in front of the head of our organization. You see, every Sensei has a Sensei of their own: the man who will preside over this test. And not one of them wants to be embarrassed by the quality of the student they send forth.
So yeah, it is a lot of work. And I’ve never seen a movie accurately depict the dedication required to get to this point.
As I sat there in the viewing gallery, looking over the 20 Mudansha, I could feel the nervous energy in the air. Every one of them was nervous, as I’m sure I will be too.
In all, the grading took four hours. In addition to the 20 brown belts, there were Tai Chi students, students grading with traditional weapons, and black belt students who were grading for their second or fourth degrees (or dans.) There were taiko drums, demonstrations by the Senseis, presentations of high ranks and so much to learn. It was a spectacle, and an education.
There was so much that I can’t possibly describe it all in a single post. So consider this to be one of a series.
I will be a nervous Mudansha in 250 days, bouncing on the balls of my feet. There were things I saw that made me supremely confident in my own skills. And there were things I saw that filled me with worry. Spectacle, and education.
What better way to spend a Sunday afternoon?
to be continued…
Bonus: Welcome to Bruiseday!
Here’s a beauty from last night’s black belt class. I have great ones on both elbows and both shoulders, but this particular beauty is from practicing my break falls repeatedly with no mat on the floor.