Saturday, August 11, 2012

Moves like Jagger

I have been quietly (ok, maybe not so quietly) bemoaning a development in karate I find disturbing: musical kata.  The state of kata is bad enough, what with the narrow understanding of bunkai, adding music pushes the martial arts to the glittery side of art and rendering the martial unrecognizable.  Is there a way out of this death spiral?  I would argue in the affirmative.  Understanding is the key.  The truth is easy to recognize, even if disguised by music and dance.

Take the kembangan (flower dances) of Silat.  I've asked Alvin Guinanao to provide me with a vid of his moves which you will find above.  Notice the fluidity and balance.  Note the delicate hand gestures and intricate footwork that belie truly powerful and destructive self-defense technique.  "Well that's all nice," you might say. "But where is the powerful and destructive self-defense technique?"

Here's a view of Alvin's ground fighting class.  It doesn't look so dance like anymore.  Some of it vaguely resembles certain Judo throws (osoto gari, kosoto gari, kosoto gake).   You might remember my post on stances, or heard me in conversation refer to karate's funny ways of standing as takedowns.  Compare Alvin's flower dance to his ground fighting.  Now think about kata and how you might reinterpret it.

As for Alvin's delicate hand gestures while performing a kembangan, check out his class on blocking technique.


  1. Replies
    1. Osu! Thanks for stopping by, Fred. More to come.

  2. Of course I believe Silat is Good Stuff. If I didn't, I would do something else.

    One of the strengths is that the training methods and combatives are directly connected. Silat is just one of many martial traditions which spills over into dance, although it would be fairer to say that there's an indigenous tradition which is seen in dance, fighting and other movement-based activities. You find the same dasar (root movements) in dance, pre-arranged solo form (juru-juru or kata), pre-arranged application and free-fighting.

    When training and application are in harmony progress is a lot more efficient. When huge blocks of training don't have much to do with application or worse when they are taught without understanding it can cause serious problems. One of the problems with kata these days is that it's taught one of two ways. It's either pure choreography which the student is told will become clear and work magically once he Gets It. Or it's taught as a catalog of unconnected specific applications.

    Both of these betray quality teaching.

    As you said earlier a punch is just a punch. But there has to be more there. First, the student needs to develop decent structure and body mechanics and to practice both one- and multiple-person form with them. Second, there needs to be training in distance and combative timing. Kata won't do this on its own. It has to be supplemented with other training that dovetails into it so the practitioner can can move well, move correctly and control the measure of the fight.

    It all comes down to the study of movement (well, that and wanting to hit the other guy really, really hard many times without him doing it to you).

    In the beginning it's the teacher's responsibility to pull applications out of the form, not too many of them, and not in a rigid "This move is for this. That move is for that." It has to be done in a way that doesn't overload the student or get him too attached to a particular application. It's a matter of being able to use the tool efficiently and spontaneously in a number of different ways. This takes time.

    Once the student has developed some skill he starts to learn things. He begins finding new ways to use what he has and comes up against a variety of opponents who do things he hasn't seen. By now he's seen a cartload of technique, more than he can remember or will ever likely use. Then the forms become a means of remembering. He starts putting things into them, referencing technique to movements he's done thousands of times.

    Between having stuff pulled out of the kata and putting things into it the kata becomes more than a tool for root movements and body mechanics. And it becomes something more useful than huge catalogs of unconnected techniques, what my teacher calls "Organized Despair"

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    2. The sad thing about much martial arts instruction - I'm afriad Karate is one of the worst offenders - is that there's a fundamental disconnect between the form, training methods and combative application.

      When you hear arguments like
      "That's a pressure point strike!"
      "No. It's a throw!"
      "A lock!"
      "A jump-spin triple head butt"
      you know people have lost their way. The elephant isn't a wall, a spear, a fan, a rope, a snake, or a tree. You're ankle deep in the soft mushy stuff a couple feet behind the elephant.

      When your training partner gets up off the floor and says "What the heck did you do to me?" and you say "I dunno. It just seemed to be the right thing at the time. It felt like the fourth move from Bassai with some Pinan Sandan footwork" someone is on the right track.

    3. Thanks for stopping by and for your detailed comments, Dan. Much appreciated. Kata is a much better mnemonic device than teaching tool. Students should just be learning applications, while instructors draw inspiration or have their memories jogged by kata. The moment of epiphany, when students steeped only in the choreography finally see the applications, is rare. It's the difference between tracing Chinese calligraphy and comprehending it.