Friday, November 19, 2010
So now that I'm at the point where my goal has gone from achieving a gold belt to a blue to an orange, purple, green, and brown... I'm staring at what it takes to become a black belt. By now, the years of drilling the basics (blocks, punches, stances, kicks) have moved my technique from the shaky to the solid, from the slow to the at least reasonably fast. Adding in the kickboxing recently has started taken my kicks and punches to the next level of speed and power. I'm beginning to think that they might be approaching black belt quality. That's good!
But wait, there's more. A lot more. Learning the basics is like learning the alphabet: you can say your ABC's but you can't really read a book. Being a black belt isn't just about knowing the alphabet, it's about stringing together words, sentences, paragraphs. So the next thing you learn is combinations. This comes in the form of sparring combos (backfist, sweep, punch), defensive techniques (in our dojo, each belt learns a new defense, from defending against wrist grabs to bear hugs, chokes, and eventually to defending against knife and gun attacks), and elbow techniques (deflecting an attack and following up by using your elbow as the primary weapon). These techniques comprise the "words" of karate, just as the basics were the alphabet.
But words are no good if you can't put them together into something meaningful, and this is where kata comes in. A kata is a series of moves that you learn, almost like a dance routine (think Electric Slide, but with kicks and punches). Some of the kata are quite ancient. My favorite, Bassai Dai has many different versions, and has a lengthy history, dating back over 400 years. It is comprised of somewhere around 40 - 50 moves, depending on the version. For our black belt test, each of those moves will be watched by the hawklike eyes of the other black belts in the dojo. They will be scrutinized for form, speed, power, recoil, timing, targeting and more. So in a nutshell, each of those moves has to be perfect or as close as we can get it.
But wait, there's more. For black belt, we have ten kata to memorize. Each of them with many moves, each of which must be performed approaching perfection. We think about and practice every detail, down to which direction our toes are pointing on each move, and where our eyes are looking. I'm breaking out in a cold sweat already just thinking about it.
For the cherry on top, there are the two-person sets. This is a combination of all of the bunkai in the kata, plus some other moves thrown in for good measure. Now there is no longer a single attacker and defender, but the action flows backward and forward between the two people. One person downblocks and punches, the next executes a rising block, then a strike to the forearm to take down their opponent, a kick to the chin and punch to the head. The opponent dodges backward, throwing their own rising block, followed by a fisthammer to the temple. And so it goes, trading back and forth the moves of the bunkai which have been extracted from the kata. We have five of these sets for our black belt test.
So, getting a black belt is pretty straightforward but utterly intimidating. Simply, be a superhero. Where did I put my WonderWoman belt anyway?