All About Staging: The Invisible Spotlight Effect

As November looms ever closer, and with it, the annual training clinic celebrating the World Tang Soo Do Association’s birthday, I’ve started thinking about, (and stressing over), my presentation. For the past two years, I’ve been invited to present my techniques for Demo Teams. This year is the final, and hardest, segment– Storytelling. How do you teach something that really is intangible? In an effort to try and figure that out, and avoid the massive panic attack brewing in my stomach, I’ve decided to throw myself into Demo Team mode. And I’m going to bring you all with me.

For the next three weeks, we’ll cover the three basic elements that will take your performances from blah and generic, to awe-inspiring productions of awesomeness. It will be the perfect refresher course for anyone planning on attending the clinic, and for everyone else, it will be a crash-course in the finer details of Demo Teams.

Ready? Let’s get to it!

Staging

Technically, Staging is a term borrowed from Theatre. It refers to the intentional use of performance elements to control an audience’s focus. Think of it like “composition” in art– the artist intentionally lays out an image to direct the viewer’s eye to the important parts. Staging does the same thing with a demo. I dubbed it, “The Invisible Spotlight Effect,” because, when done correctly, it’s like shining a spotlight on whatever it is you’re trying to emphasize.

Why is this effect necessary? Let’s look at the alternative. Think about all the martial arts demos you’ve ever seen, or even participated in. You probably had a team of 10-20 people, all dressed in the traditional uniform for your style. For the majority of the demo, everyone stood around at the back or off to the side. Maybe they were orderly and standing at attention; maybe they were clumped like a bunch of bystanders gawking at a train-wreck. But the point is, they were standing. Meaning that, at any given point, you had maybe a handful of performers actually doing anything. Those performers would rotate with each segment, new ones would come out and do their highlighted specialty, and the previous ones joined the useless bunch at the back. Sound about right?

When you have the majority of your team standing around, you’re wasting its potential. What you create is a disjointed spectacle that does very little to hold an audience’s attention. Any audience is comprised of this: the parents and friends of the performers, who will be riveted to the action for the duration that their loved one is front and center; random people mildly interested in what’s going on, but that spend most of the performance posting snarky comments on Facebook and watching their phone’s screen; and maybe a few people interested in checking out the hot guy or girl who’s now chilling at the back fixing their uniform. Heck, even the rest of your team probably isn’t paying attention to the stage once they’re not on it! People have short attention spans and wandering eyes that increase when they get bored. This “traditional” demo style plays right into that and provides your audience with far too many distractions, ruining the chances of them remembering anything except the student off-stage who fixed a wedgie.

This is why you need Staging. It allows you to highlight the cool stuff while still keeping everyone on the floor doing something. It’s more entertaining for your audience, giving them more to look at and keeping their interest piqued; it’s more entertaining for your team, preventing anyone from having to stand around picking their nose; and it’s just more entertaining, period. Why wouldn’t you want to use it?

There are tons of ways to implement Staging, but the following are some of the more common. The terminology is completely my own, so forgive the cheese-ball names. It wasn’t until I had to start explaining it that I realized I needed some way to reference each technique. So these are only official terms in that they’ll give you an easy way to remember them. Don’t Google them. You won’t get anything. Or at least, anything helpful for Demo Teams.

Frame of Reference:

Generally speaking, a demo is choreographed so that it’s best viewed from the front. This is especially applicable if you are competing, as the judges will almost always be at the front, in the direct center of the stage. Often, a demo is performed in a community center, a school gymnasium, or random parking lot. Rarely will there be an actual “stage.” So you need some sort of guide defining the dimensions of the performance, a “Frame of Reference.”

Using this technique, you essentially create a camera effect that simulates the way people watch movies or TV. It’s a comfort zone that keeps all the pertinent information easily accessible and helps ensure your audience keeps their wandering eyeballs where you want them.

The best example I can give is this: from wherever you’re sitting, look up. Without turning your head even a little from left to right, how much of the room can you see? (If your office is like mine and your desk is stuffed into a corner, then you’re probably staring at a beautifully blank wall, so turn your chair around and try it again. ;)) This is your Frame of Reference.

Ideally, you don’t want the people with the prime seats having to work to see the action. If, sitting dead center, you can’t see the entire performance without turning your head, then you might want to condense it so that it stays within your Frame of Reference.

Levels:

One of the most difficult things to accomplish is  spotlighting a single person or technique without stopping the motion and while having all members on the floor. Levels is best way to do it. Not only does it create visual interest, but it uses height differences to emphasize a particular element.

It’s human nature to predominantly watch whatever is at eye level or higher. You can take advantage of that instinct simply by placing whatever you want to spotlight in the optimum range and dropping everything else below it.

For example, say you have a student with a really spectacular kick that you want to show off. At the same time you have them perform that kick, have all the other team members drop to the ground with a leg sweep, roll or something of the like. Instantly, you’ve spotlighted the kid with the wowing kick. Every eye in the audience will go immediately to him. But more importantly, you haven’t stopped the overall motion, resulting in a seamless, fluid presentation that’s sure to keep your audience enthralled.

Freeze-Frame:

Sometimes you want the added emphasis that having only a single person moving can bring. So if Levels isn’t quite providing enough focus, then your next choice is Freeze-Frame. Just like it sounds, the idea is that you have everyone except those you wish to highlight literally freeze for the duration of the spectacular technique. With no other motion to look at, the audience will have no choice but to watch the stunt you spotlighted.

Well, in theory. They may also choose that moment to glance around at the rest of the audience, or check their phone notifications. Which is why this is a technique best used in moderation and only for very short time periods.

Passing the Torch:

We’ve all seen the Olympic Torch passed from runner to runner before finally arriving at the designated location for that year. This technique is based on the same idea. Essentially, you use a prop to capture and direct the audience’s eye.

Let’s face it, we human beings are fascinated by stuff. Like Mockingbirds and tin foil, we just can’t help it. The second there’s a prop in play all eyes in the audience will be locked on it, no matter how inane and silly it may be. So again, you can use basic human nature to your advantage.

The simplest example is if you have the action split into two groups. You’ve set it up so that the spotlight is on the left of the stage with Group A, but you want to move it onto Group B on the complete opposite side of the stage. Have someone from Group A take the prop and walk it, (ok, not literally walk, some kind of cool combination of choreography), across the stage to Group B. Like dogs eying your burger at the dinner table, the audience’s attention will follow that prop, effectively transferring the spotlight from Group A to Group B– passing the torch.

Ripples:

Similar to Passing the Torch, Ripples move the audience’s eye across the stage when you have no props to do it for you. The idea is that you use a single piece of choreography, repeated with slightly varied timing, all the way across the stage. Like dominoes falling, each student moves just after the one before them does. They require ridiculous coordination and focus on the part of the students and should be used only if there really is no other alternative.

By far the worst, most horribly frustrating technique in the Demo Team arsenal, Ripples will single-handedly be responsible for making you bald. Especially if you have a large team. Suddenly that awesome team of 20-some-odd individuals you so proudly recruited will feel like an army of sleeping sloths. They don’t sound scary, but good god!

Probably the best example of a ripple I’ve ever seen was from Lord of the Dance. If you haven’t seen it, check out the link. And if you aren’t impressed, then go ahead, try and do better. You’ll very quickly change your mind.

Musical Emphasis:

Musical Emphasis employs the assistance of music to create emphasis on something. Reliant on the principles of Musicality, (which we will be covering later), it ties one moment of choreography to something noteworthy in the music. Humans are extremely attuned to music, whether we’re consciously paying attention to it or not. It affects us, and we naturally glean emotional content from it. Composers of film/TV/video game scores are well aware of this fact, and use it to enhance the visuals of their project. You can apply it to Demo Teams just as easily.

The trick is to select something that will be subtly noticeable by the audience. How can something be subtle and noticeable? Well, we only really pay attention to one form of information at a time. We might know there’s music in the background, but 90% of our focus is on the visuals. By marrying a dramatic point in the music to a dramatic point in the action, you instantly magnify the effect of both. Suddenly, all the information assaulting the audience’s attention meshes together into one message, heightening the overall impact. The best example would be utilizing a large drum beat/bass drop to emphasize a spectacular jump spinning kick or acrobatic display. There are other examples, but we’ll cover them next week in the Musicality section.

Organized Chaos:

There should never be complete chaos in your demo. Nothing loses an audience faster than segments that aren’t well-rehearsed and are just made up on-the-spot. I don’t care who you are, no one relays confidence and proficiency when they’re winging it. And if it doesn’t look polished, your audience won’t care. You’ll just be another freak spazzing out in a weird location and they’ll go back to texting people about the weirdo they’re quickly walking away from.

But sometimes you want that feeling of chaos to increase the tension in a battle scene. For that, I created something called Organized Chaos. Simply put, it’s a highly choreographed segment that gives the feel of a spontaneous sparring match.

At it’s best, this technique uses a combination of all the others, so even though everyone’s moving in seemingly random situations, there are still subtle hints at what the audience should be watching. But even at it’s most basic, a burst of Organized Chaos will wake up any audience member who might be thinking they’re feeling a little bored. Like a shot of adrenaline to the attention span, nothing instantly requires more focus than a flurry of activity you have to decipher.

Synchronization:

The exact opposite of Organized Chaos is Synchronization. Everyone knows what it means to be synchronized, but few know how to really apply this for maximum effectiveness. It’s great if you can create a demo that is synchronized completely from start to finish. It’s really hard to do, so kudos, you’ve racked up massive technical points.

But it’s emotionally flat.

Synchronization creates an androgynous effect, meaning that it wipes away all sense of individuality or personality from your team. Sometimes that’s what you want. For example, it’s the perfect tool to allow people to fade into the background when they aren’t in the spotlight. But most of the time, you’ll have a story that requires characters, and characters have what? Personality! So save the whole-team synchronization for dramatic moments, like the demo’s finale. Having all 20-some-odd students suddenly sync up in a beautiful and flawless section of choreography will really drive home that part of the demo. Like the crescendo of triumphant music at the end of a movie, it’s a subtle cue to the audience that the performance is coming to an end.

Formations:

A formation is a pattern the student’s perform in and is what everyone immediately thinks of when they learn about Staging. It’s like Staging for Dummies because it’s so easy to implement, so don’t expect any applause for technical effort. But it can still be quite effective if done right. Depending on how you lay out the formation, you can use it to point to something or someone important. Think of the apex of a triangle, everything would be directing the audience’s eye to the top. Or a circle– everyone watches whatever’s in the middle.

There are countless formations out there, each with their own use and impact on your staging. The thing to remember is that they are often strongest when paired with something else. Formations can rarely stand on their own. They’re a guideline for the choreography, and create visual interest, but that’s about it. To convey your story, you’ll need a lot more than just Formations. And if Formations are all you’re interested in, then why did you bother to read this massive wall of text?

I know I just handed you an awful lot of information. So before we move on to next week’s topic, Musicality, I’ll leave you with a more visual example of everything I’ve covered. Below is a video of Dragon Heart Tang Soo Do’s winning demo from the 2009 Region One Championship. The reason I’m using it is for one simple fact– it wasn’t filmed by someone from Dragon Heart. What you see is a video taken by someone in the audience who’s seeing it for the first time. So you really get to see the staging elements at work. For the most part, she watched exactly what I intended her to. Obviously, you can’t control anyone’s focus 100%, but she paid attention to the majority of the important stuff. As you watch it, see how many of the techniques I’ve listed you can spot. There are definitely quite a few. But not every demo requires the use of every technique. So don’t be afraid to stray from the list or invent your own techniques as needed. Enjoy!

So You Think You Want a Demo Team

After listening to me extoll the merits of demo teams in previous weeks, you’ve decided you’d like to create one of your own. Great! Fantastic. Nothing to it, right? Wrong. See that aptly worded title up there? Yes, it’s a pun on the name of my favorite show– So You Think You Can Dance– but it’s also alluding to the fact that a demo team is a lot more work than most people expect. It takes a significant investment of time, dedication on the part of everyone involved, and no small amount of talent. And not every school wants to go through the hassle of maintaining one. So before you decide whether or not you’re ready to form a team, let me walk you through the process.

There are three main ingredients you’ll need:

  1. A Captain
  2. Talented Students
  3. A Contract & Detailed Rehearsal/Performance Schedule

You’ll notice that creativity isn’t listed. That’s because at this stage, a demo team is more administrative than creative. Creativity comes after you’ve formed your curriculum, found your student-elite, and roped everyone into developing your vision. It’s good to have an idea or two in mind, but you have a lot to decide on before you ever reach that first practice.

The Captain:

This is the corner-stone ingredient. A demo team shouldn’t be a democracy. Let me rephrase that– a successful demo team is NOT a democracy. When you allow too many people to have creative input, you end up with a disjointed demo suffering from the too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen problem. Without a single leader, it will fall apart. Trust me. I tried the democratic approach a couple times to disastrous effect.

The captain is the person who holds the whole thing together– they’re the creative mastermind, as it were. They’re in charge of choreography, music selection, brainstorming demo concepts, costuming & props, all of it! So make sure you choose them wisely. They should be talented at musicality, storytelling, and theatrical principles as well as above average in the technique department. And above all, they should be dedicated to the team’s success. Whether it’s yourself, or a high-ranking student you trust with the hefty responsibility, you’ll need that sole person at the helm of the ship. Otherwise, expect to never graduate from amateur-hour style demos, where no one knows what they’re supposed to do, the music has absolutely nothing to do with the action, and the whole thing feels like a bad martial arts film.

Talented Students:

Obviously, a demo team is nothing without the students performing on it. There are many different approaches to choosing them, and I highly encourage you to discover your own strategy.

I held auditions once a year. The culmination of our performance season was the Regional Tournament at the end of May, so it always made sense to hold auditions in June. That gave the veterans a month off, as the regularly scheduled practices were taken up with potential recruits trying out. It may seem intense to require an audition. But remember when I said they should be the elite of your student body? Well, how else to make something seem elite than to make it an exclusive privilege you have to earn? If just anyone could join, then it wouldn’t be much different than the blah, uninspired teams I mentioned in earlier posts.

Besides, I had strict guidelines for what I would accept in terms of age, rank, physical ability, etc. Cruel, maybe, but effective.

I don’t work well with young children, so I set the age cap at 13. Occasionally I would accept an exceptionally strong individual below that age, but not often. And they were never given any special treatment. If they wanted to be on the team, they had to rise to the level of the adults, not the other way around. I’ve found, through experience, that ideally you want your team to be predominantly adults. A team of children sounds like it would dripping in cute-factor, right? But it’s actually a nightmare to pull off. A team of this caliber requires more focus than most kids have, as well as massive amounts of endurance and ability. So I always advise against stacking the deck with those in the single-digit age range. Listen to my advice, and you’ll thank me later. Ignore it, and well, let’s just say I’ll get to shout, “Told you so!” at the end of the most painful year of your life, when you’ve got about three strands of hair left and no desire to ever touch a demo team ever again.

I  also don’t find white through green belts, (students with under a year’s worth of training), especially impressive, so I preferred to take people ranked brown and up. That way they had at least a little experience and range of technique to work with. And I had a contract every student had to sign detailing exactly what was expected of them. By signing the contract, they agreed to commit to the entire “season,” as I called it– basically, a year.

Sound brutal? It was. But it also worked.

The Contract & Other Paperwork:

This is everyone’s least favorite section. (Unless you’re like me and have a sick love of paperwork.) But it is crucial to establish clear expectations and ensure that everyone is on the same page. It doesn’t have to be fancy; I created mine with a simple Word .doc. It just needs to communicate your requirements for being on the team, what’s expected of the members, and what the repercussions are for breaking the rules.

Why all the seriousness?  Because although people are enthusiastic when they first try out, they often flake out on you halfway through. Or fail to make the performances. Or spend the whole practice goofing off. All of which is detrimental to your demo’s success. If someone misses the practices, they miss the choreography, compromising the ability to create seamless synchronization. If they bail on a performance, their teammates are left compensating for the hole and your storyline suffers. And if they goof off the whole time, they’ll disrupt the cohesive sense of team, damaging everyone’s focus.

The contract prevents that. Think of it as a way to weed out those who are serious from those who aren’t. Anyone unwilling to agree to the terms is not someone you want on the team. It’s a strategy specifically designed to instill fear. Commitment is scary for a lot of people. So play into that; scare the crap out of them. List as specifically as possible every detail you expect from them and what happens if they don’t live up to those expectations. Go over it point by point with the potential candidates to make sure they understand everything before signing. (Most people will sign without even reading if given the opportunity!) And most of all, take a page from college professors and be serious about it. It’s a lot scarier that way, even if you have no intention of upholding any of the rules. Professionalism breeds professionalism, and you’re creating the equivalent of a professional dance troupe or theater company. What happens when a member of those communities misbehaves? They get fired. The same should be true for your demo team. And yes, that threat works.

Along with the contract, you should supply a list of all the practices and performances scheduled for the season. Word and Excel offer handy calendar templates you can download for free. Obviously things can change over the course of a year, but having the expected list ready at the time of recruitment will also help you weed out any potential weak links. You’d be surprised how many times just seeing the schedule deterred someone from signing up, keeping me from the ever-irritating task of rearranging the entire performance when they suddenly drop out halfway through the season. A situation that’s stressful for everyone involved and should be avoided like the plague if you can.

Have I scared you off yet? No? Good.

All of this, from designating a captain, to recruiting only the elite of your school, to the commitment imparted by a contract is meant to serve one purpose– scare anyone out of ever wanting to form a team so I can be the top dog forever!

Just kidding.

It’s about creating a professional grade, performance-worthy team that will leave fellow martial artists and non-martial artists alike in awe. Not quite as simple as you first thought, is it? But once you get through all this you get to the fun part– the creativity. With the nitty-gritty out of the way, we can move on to the more enjoyable elements that make every performance a masterpiece. I must warn you that the secrets to the creativity side are just as intense, if not more so, than what we’ve covered today. But they are extremely rewarding when you see them all come together in the final result.

Coming up next in the Demo Team Series: All About Staging, tips and tricks for getting your viewers to see what you want them to see without stopping the action.

Demo Teams: A Brief Introduction

I’ll be the first to admit that my views on the martial arts– especially demo teams– are a bit progressive. And as such, probably rankle the feathers of the traditionalists out there. For the record, let me just state that I’m not devaluing traditionalism. Quite the opposite actually. There’s something powerful about being a part of something that’s steeped in the history of thousands of years, having been passed down for generations upon generations. That said, I also think that tradition without innovation can cause a style to stagnate and eventually disappear into the dust of ages. So, yes, I’m a progressive martial artist, but it’s not meant to offend.

When you reach Sam Dan (3rd Degree) in Tang Soo Do, there’s an underlying expectation that you begin to specialize in something. You’ve already semi-mastered the basics (no one’s ever perfect, after all), you can competently defend yourself and can adequately pass your knowledge on to others. Now it’s time to find your niche, to declare your martial arts identity, if you will. Some specialize in self-defense techniques, some in empty hand forms, some in specific weapons. Others choose to extensively research the history behind their art, and still others focus simply on the intricacies of instructing.

My specialty is demo teams.

What is a demo team? At their heart, demo teams, short for demonstration team, are a marketing tool. Anytime you give a performance geared toward attracting new students, you’re essentially using a demo team in its most basic form. The vernacular may vary from school to school (I’ve heard them referred to as Performance Team, Demonstration Squad, Creativity Team, etc) but the principle is always the same. And they’re very poorly utilized by the vast majority of schools out there.

Usually, they are thrown together last minute with volunteer students. They’re rarely given much rehearsal, and there’s usually even less thought behind the organization or presentation of the performance. Which gives you, not surprisingly, a highly disorganized group of students milling around looking lost, boring displays of generic techniques, and absolutely no originality. Some of you may be shaking your heads right now, thinking I’m being overly judgmental, but admit it, we’ve all seen these types of demos. Performances comprised of kids in rumpled uniforms who can barely form a straight line, displays of adequate-at-best techniques, poorly practiced routines where students end up flinging their weapons all over the place, absolutely no music except for the chaotic ki-haps of the students or maybe the counting of the instructor, and my favorite– people breaking boards any civilian could flick in half with a couple fingers, they’re so thin. There may be one or two high-ranking students that really dazzle, but overall, I think we can all agree that these types of demos are, in a word, uninspired.

Every audience is comprised of only a few things– the family of the students, who will cheer no matter how bad their person does; fellow martial artists vaguely curious how your style differs from theirs; the hecklers who think it’s amusing to shout horrible impressions of the Karate Kid at you; and potential students. That’s it. Really. So in any given audience, you maybe have 25% that can be enticed into enrolling. That’s a pretty small window in a lot of venues. How do you reach this small minority of potential customers? By entertaining them.

We live in a society flooded by the martial arts. It’s included in every action-oriented movie or TV show. It’s in nearly every video game on the market; it’s even crept it’s way into literature. So the mystique is gone, folks. It’s no longer enough to show the world what your classes look like on a daily basis. We’ve all seen it a thousand times. We’re not impressed. Doesn’t matter if we train in the martial arts or not.

Give us something original, something flashy, something that makes us pause in that parking lot or mall, or gets us in the door to your studio’s open-house. In short, give us a performance. None of this last minute, non-rehearsed, reliant-on-cute-factor, traditional uniforms stuff. What you need is a dedicated Demo Team– the elite of your student body, trained to perform, proficient in things like musicality, synchronization, advanced techniques, and storytelling/acting. These are the people who impress. They’re the ones who will entice new students to walk in the door, who will make the hecklers shut up, get the other martial artists to nod in appreciation and floor their family with their abilities. They are your secret weapon. And every studio has them. Unless you just opened your doors yesterday. In which case you have white belts. And white belts are never impressive. Sorry.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting what I’d call a master class in demo teams à la me. I’ll go over every aspect involved in my style of “professional” grade teams, including how to create your team, the principles of musicality, staging, and storytelling, and the intricacies of performing– all in regards to martial arts demonstrations. For those of you more interested in my advice/opinions on writing, don’t worry, those posts will be mixed in too. I even have one dedicated to art, (The Genesis of a Logo Design), upcoming on the schedule, for any who were starting to doubt whether I’d actually tackle that subject. 😉

For now, I will leave you with this video of my most popular demo, “The Dream Sequence.” As with all recordings, there’s something lost in the translation that would have been better experienced in person. But it will still illustrate my particular demo team style, and what I hope to impart to you in following posts. Is it the most brilliant thing ever? I wouldn’t say so. It’s actually rather slow, and I was shocked by the acclaim it received. Is it entertaining? Hopefully. After all, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? To entertain.

Dance & Martial Arts; Not So Distant Cousins

 

It’s officially my favorite time of year– Dance Season! For those of you unaware, I’m an avid fan of So You Think You Can Dance. I literally never miss it. I’ve been to the live tours. I record it and save it for way longer than I should (until my DVR threatens to implode and I have to erase it). I watch Youtube videos of my favorite routines over and over (borrowing more than once from their acrobatic repertoire for my own choreography). And it is my favorite part of the summer, hands down. Can anyone say dorky Fangirl?

This week marked the first episode of Season 9’s actual competition. We’re past all the auditions, the talking, the dramatic tears, the blah blah blah. (I should probably note that I’m not really a fan of Reality TV, contrary to how it may sound.) Now we get down to the meat– the performances filled with spectacular tricks, beautiful choreography, strange concepts and engrossing musicality. This is the part I love. And this season brings an added level of excitement in the person of one Cole Horibe. This guy is my hero. Why? Because he’s proving on national television what I’ve been saying for years– that dance and martial arts are sister styles. Don’t believe me? Check out his LA audition below and see for yourself.

Pretty cool, wasn’t it? His blend of martial arts techniques fused with dance isn’t all that unusual though. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. He’s just the first to appear on a TV show and bring it to everyone’s attention. The idea of pairing martial arts routines with music is one that’s long been a staple of the martial arts world, in the form of Demo Teams. (I promise, I’ll give the full definition of these soon). But Cole brings it to the level that I myself prefer, and that few other martial arts studios currently employ. Namely, he utilizes musicality to its full potential, putting the art in martial arts, and bridging the gap between these similar styles of physicality to create a meaningful performance that entertains.

I’m not saying that martial arts and dance were developed similarly– they weren’t. The martial arts were intended to be just that– martial. They were developed as a disciplined regimen of lethal fighting techniques used to defend country, life and honor. Dance, on the other hand, is about self-expression. It’s always been an art form shaped by the era it was born in, the emotional context of the times and stylistic innovation meant to entertain both the dancers and the audience. And nothing illustrates that divide more than comparing the ideals of Ballroom dance with those of martial arts.

But while there are definite differences between these two motion-oriented sports, they are superficial in nature. Ok, some are ideological, but if you strip all that away and just look at the movement itself, you’ll see they’re actually very similar. At the heart of martial arts you have discipline, intense training, focus, hefty muscle memory, rhythm, flexibility, power, controlled movement, balance and a fine-tuned sense of body awareness. (Trust me, you never realize how much you can be aware of every ligament, tendon, muscle and skin surface until you train in something that utilizes all of it in minute detail). Breaking dance down to the same level, you have… guess what? Discipline, intense training, focus, hefty muscle memory, rhythm, flexibility, power, controlled movement, balance and a fine-tuned sense of body awareness. If you look closely, you’ll even notice visual similarities between several dance moves and their martial art counterparts because they rely on the same muscle groups and level of control to execute properly. The only thing dance tends to have over martial arts is the inclusion of creativity. But that doesn’t always have to be the case.

Cole Horibe’s routine is a prime example. No one can look at that and say it doesn’t illustrate creativity. Breaking outside of the expected curriculum is extremely hard for a lot of martial artists, though, and the idea that the traditional forms or techniques can be morphed to fit music is a foreign concept that has the traditionalists screaming “Corruption!” Tradition is fine. In fact, the traditional aspects of Tang Soo Do are what I enjoyed the most. But eventually, performing the same forms, techniques, self-defense moves, etc. can start to feel stale. Adding some theatrical elements, especially for demonstration purposes, gives your training something fresh, and challenges you in a way that repetition doesn’t. It would be like asking a writer to only write non-fiction, never experimenting with the use of language to create a new experience for their readers. Or telling an artist they can only paint the way Van Gogh, Picasso, or Monet did, but never find their own style. And what if musicians suddenly stopped creating new songs, new fusions of styles and sounds? The world would seem rather boring and static, right? So why do the martial arts have to be stuck so firmly in tradition that only the dedicated few with a high tolerance for boredom stick with it past a few years?

My argument for why musicality and creativity are so important to the growth of martial arts is a debate for another day. I’ll just leave you to consider this– how better to impress an audience of non-martial artists and martial artists alike, than to present them with something that blends concepts of entertainment– like music, costumes, story– with technical prowess? Apparently Nigel Lythgoe and the staff at So You Think You Can Dance felt it was an idea worth merit because they put Mr. Horibe through to the Top 20. I, for one, firmly believe that dance and martial arts complement each other, and that together they can create something beautifully inspired. So I intend to show my support for their decision, and vote for Cole every week in the hopes that the longer he stays on the program, the more martial artists he can inspire to think outside of tradition.

Coming Next Week: Demo Teams: A Brief Introduction– where I finally explain what exactly a demo team is and their purpose. Told you I’d explain it soon. 😉

The Definition of Black Belt

I promised there would be posts about martial arts. And so far, I haven’t delivered. So in honor of the annual WTSDA Region 1 Championship, (which I’m not attending for the first time in, well, ever!), I present my first post dedicated to the martial arts. But be warned, my opinions on this topic can be either melodramatic and preachy, or poetically accurate, depending on whether or not you agree with me.

Regardless of which side of the fence you land on after reading this, here’s my interpretation of…


What it means to be a black belt
;

A black belt is more than the strip of fabric around your waist.

It’s helping those close to you because they need it,
not because it boosts your ego.

It’s knowing when to pick your battles and when to walk away.

It’s the dignity you have in the face of adversity,
and the grace with which you take criticism.

It’s the humility you show others,
and the respect you give to the people and
places that offered you this gift.

It’s the wisdom to realize that it’s better to be selfless,
but the strength to stand up for your convictions.

It’s the integrity you put behind your promises,
and the obligation to teach those that follow in
your footsteps these same lessons.

It is an achievement to be worn proudly,
but it’s not the color of the fabric that makes you a black belt;
it’s the attitude you present to the world.

–Kisa Whipkey
(Originally Posted to Facebook on May 17, 2011)

Shame so many forget that, or never bothered to learn it at all. So often, you will run into martial artists whose sole reason for training seems to be bragging rights; they’ve taken all these different styles (and mastered none of them); they’ve beaten X number of opponents to a bloody pulp in cage fights (proving their ability to brawl like a school-yard bully); they’ve won X amount of awards and trophies (Fantastic! So they’re basically a mockingbird attracted by shinies?); and they’ve done absolutely nothing of value to anyone but themselves.

Does the definition of black belt really have to be limited to the physical ability to kick ass? I don’t think so. True, you should be able to defend yourself effectively–why else did you learn to fight? But that’s not the main definition of the rank. You don’t need skill to be a good fighter. Luck, maybe, but not skill. Some people are simply born with natural ability, and the advent of technology has ensured that the rest of us can survive with little to no physical skill involved. So why go through the process of earning a black belt? Investing 2-4 years of your life, sweating and screaming in some archaic form of military practice? Because there’s more to it than that.

Being a black belt is a lifestyle choice, like choosing to eat healthy and exercise, or choosing to believe in the power of religious faith. It’s not about bragging at all. It’s about honor, dignity, respect, discipline and integrity. No one said that being a black belt was easy. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. The martial arts were originally intended for the elite, for the warriors who protected their country (like our soldiers today), and was not offered to anyone and everyone. Attaining black belt was a grueling process that required dedication, physical prowess, and spiritual development. Something that’s been sadly watered down over the centuries. But that doesn’t mean we have to let it slip away into the forgotten realms of ancient history. We can still embody everything the martial arts was supposed to represent, whether we’re training or not.

I’ve learned that people who take the philosophical meaning behind the martial arts seriously, exhibit subtle traits you learn to notice– it’s the way they walk or stand, the way they present themselves to the world, the way they interact with others. All those things are the marks of a true black belt. And they are only gained if  the student is willing to pay attention. Each belt color represents a new set of techniques to be memorized, yes, but it also represents a new challenge that will refine their character if they let it. There are so many out there who only care about the fighting portion and completely look past the rest of it; becoming the black belts who puff themselves up with glorified victories, leaving nothing but an impression of arrogance and brutality as their legacy. Personally, I prefer meeting martial artists who are quietly proud, and let their actions speak for themselves. Poise, respectfulness and integrity are always more pleasant to encounter than arrogance, inflated egos, and superiority complexes. Don’t you think?

Simply put, the goal of the martial arts was (and is) to be the best person you could (can) be. Which is why the black belt spirit can be found even in those who have never trained. It’s in those who volunteer to help the homeless/disabled/elderly/anyone-who-needs-help. It’s in those that donate their fortunes to charities, enriching the lives of others while living modestly themselves. It’s in the teacher that goes above and beyond to help a troubled student reach graduation. And it’s in you whenever you choose to do the right thing instead of the easy one. Being a black belt is a commitment to values, whether you gained them from religion, martial arts, or simply had them imparted by your parents. You don’t have to wear a strip of fabric around your waist to be a black belt, you just have to be a good person who cares more for their family, community, or world than themselves. In my eyes, anyone fighting for a noble cause, who earns accolades with dignity and humility, or who presents themselves to their daily tasks of school, work, and socialization with integrity and respect is a black belt. An honorary one, anyway.

So the next time you run into a black belt/instructor who seems intent only on wowing you with their peacock display of achievements, smile and respectfully give them the ego-boost they’re really seeking. Then walk away, safe in the comfort of knowing something they missed. That respect is never taken, it’s earned. And that strip of fabric around their waste doesn’t entitle them to it anymore than if they didn’t have it.

And to my fellow martial artists, please remember that being a black belt doesn’t end when you walk out the door of the studio. It’s a commitment that should reflect in every aspect of your life. Decide for yourself what black belt means and then embody that to the best of your ability. If you want respect, earn it. Don’t just do things to bask in the glory of a good deed.

That’s what it really means to be a black belt.