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What is a black belt?

martial arts

I ask this question with great trepidation, for reasons which will become apparent….

I’ve dabbled in three martial arts.  Of those, I did karate for a few months (too much pain), jiu jitsu for about half a year (too much need for a poker face) and escrima for about four years (the bestest).  My partner also has three years of chen-style tai chi under his belt, and every now and then we will teach each other things and get enthused together by stuff that can be done with elbows and hips.

In karate I never achieved a belt.  My instructor was a push-up-punishment-prone black-belt former Olympic candidate.  The vast majority of the teaching of juniors was done by brown belts, who prowled up and down the lines of sweating, struggling white belts and shouted, “harder!  Better!  More!” as we punched the air and wondered if our knees were going to break.

Sometimes we glimpsed seniors doing exciting things.  I remember an incredible Egyptian purple belt, fresh to the class, demonstrating a kata.  If she ever needed to kick an eight-foot tall attacker in the chin while snarling through her teeth, wow, she could do it.  “This is perfect!” roared our teacher.  “This is the attitude you should all have!”

Us junior grades didn’t really get to fraternise with the seniors.

Jiu jitsu was taught by a brown belt.  He was a black belt in many other disciplines, and desperate to be mugged so that he could use them in violent self-defense, but in jiu jitsu he was a brown belt and determined to prove his awesomeness.  In many ways the club was more flexible than karate had been, partly because it was smaller.  Seniors worked with juniors some of the time, and were more willing to help out.  Our Senpai (junior teaching munchkin) was a blue belt, and a nice lad who wasn’t entirely sure of his teaching skills yet, but did his best.  Over about six agonising months I got my yellow belt, then ran away.

Honestly I wasn’t sure what grade my teachers were when I started at escrima.  I had a feeling there was a thing called ‘TG’ which was like having got your black belt, and at least one of my teachers was there, but it was hard to work out as their styles were so utterly different, and they weren’t making a fuss about it.  The different grades all wore the same clothes (a t-shirt; actually you have a choice of t-shirts, including one with a zombie motif.  I’m waiting for something in pink….) and unless you actually ask ‘what grade are you?’ it can be hard to tell, especially across multiple clubs.  The power that can be generated by a 3rd grade who’s taught here might be entirely different from what’s been taught there and so on; it’s not about any club being better than another – simply that you can see a lot of a club’s character in how the students move.

All of which brings me back to the question: what is a black belt?  I’ve done my grade 7 at escrima, and by many systems of counting, would be a brown belt, one test short of that mystic, mysterious black belt status.  I don’t feel mystic; usually I feel bruised and clumsy.  Moreover, there are now a lot of us in the club who are 7th grade, and we’re all different.  He hits with all of his arm, generating massive power at the cost of sometimes over-striking.  He doesn’t move his feet much, but his block is solid steel; this dude is aggression without bar; he moves like a dancer.  All of us have done the same syllabus, all of us can execute the required techniques as laid down for the exam, and yet that barely tells half the story.  There is no easy way to measure black belt-‘ness’; there’s no model you can point to and say ‘see that hunk of muscular martial artiness?  That’s what we’re looking for!’ because in doing so, you fail to honour the fact that humanity is diverse, and bodies are diverse, and minds are diverse, and while a technique may be the same, people are not.

So here’s something a black belt isn’t: a black belt isn’t a uniform clone of martial awesomeness.  Not every black belt will have a six pack, nor be a tee-total vegan attuned to the power of the Force, nor have to take themselves horribly, horribly seriously.  A black belt is literally a dude who has fulfilled the techniques required on a syllabus – all the rest, all the attitude and the confidence and the machismo, is garnish, of one flavour or another.  And contrary to current sampling at my club, not every black belt will be a Spurs supporter.  Thank god.

I’m a big fan of clubs not making a fuss about grades.  As a junior training with someone who’s been doing it longer you can learn an avalanche of things in a matter of minutes.  Equally, a senior can learn as much sparring with newbies as with ancient veterans, simply because they’ll strike and move in a completely different way, and the safety of being with someone who you’re pretty sure isn’t going to brain you any time soon gives you the space to work on getting some basics right yourself, and learning by teaching.  It’s hard in the heat of the moment to notice that your range has gone to piss, or that you’re basically standing still and waggling a stick around, and the fact we’re one big muddling ol’ club rather than huddles of ranks gives the space and the freedom for anyone to help anyone, everyone, always.

Amazing how, after four years, I’m still miles off nailing so many basic, simple things.  Awesome how I’m still learning so much that redefines what I even think a basic thing is.

So now I’m shuffling through the intermediate ranks, and there’s a looming suspicion coming upon me that Seniority Might Be Beckoning in the next few years. And to be honest, I’m a bit concerned, because if a black belt is reputed to be one thing, it is Utterly Infallible Awesome All The Time.  Which is laughable, as you’re constantly learning new things and redefining old things as you learn, and the idea therefore that suddenly at 10th grade you become an unstoppable ninja of awesome is dishonourable to pretty much everything.

In escrima this fear is lessened, partly because Teacher 1 tends to open with ‘so yeah, do it like that, only better!’ and Teacher 2 tends to follow up with ‘God, this technique, I hate this technique, I’m really bad at it…’ which if not filling your heart with soaring self-confidence, does give you the sense that it’s okay to struggle, and it’s fine to fail.

Here’s another thing a black belt isn’t: a black belt isn’t infallible.  They have not learned The Big Secret; they will get hot and sweaty and bothered and they will screw up, and if they pretend that anything else is the case then you’ve got an issue as a student, and if you imagine that anything else is the case then you’ve got an issue as a potential black belt.

Nor is a black belt a bastion of otherness.  Clothes as a means of ranking automatically generate otherness, an hierarchical identity.  Doing karate and jiu jitsu, it felt a lot like Sensei was somehow on another plane of existence, who knew and did things I could never dream about.  Whereas the honest to god truth was that my karate instructor barely saw his junior grades, and my jiu jitsu instructor exerted his power through punishing people.  Neither of which is noble teaching craft; both of which are fairly human responses.  Regardless of the clothes you wear, once again we are forced to deal with the fact that people are people are people are people etc..

And that’s probably it, isn’t it?  A black belt is a dude in a bit of costume who’s fulfilled the requirements of a specific syllabus to a (hopefully) high (but often mixed) standard.  All the rest – being a good teacher or bad, being somber or welcoming, good in an unexpected brawl or handy with the words, able to lift a donkey with your little finger or graceful as a moonlit river – has nothing to do with a length of fabric worn round the waste, but again, is just people being people.  As always, and forever, amen.