and suddenly, it’s there. a red belt. around my waist.
against the crisp white of my dobok blares the color of blood. red, color of evening skies that warn the watchful; red, color of emergency, and of passion. red, the temperature of a geup holder before she goes supernova, and burns all the way through to black. a red belt boldly marking for the eye changes you won’t see by just looking at a person.
the headiness of ascending to 1st Geup——the highest color belt——is, at the same time, tempered with a well-deserved humility. after all, despite the very real skill and coordination levels that separate lower belts from higher belts, we are, all of us from yellow to red, still “color belts.” no matter how impressed a red belt or even a chodonbo happens to be with themselves, we all fall into one category of two:
black belts, and color belts.
as in when we were at kukkiwon (TKD world headquarters in south korea), and split up into two groups to train poomsae with kukkiwon instructors (which meant world champions in poomsae): those two groups were color belts, and black belts. and in the color belt group, a brown belt works right alongside a green belt as if twins.
as in when at keimyung university in south korea, the black belts were seated on chairs next to the great grand masters. and we color belts were sitting on the floor. on the same level and ground as the thick throng of white belts.
as in today, when master lee chastised the black belts in class for not throwing a hopping front kick when he sang out the command. he pointed to me and lady k (another red belt) and barked at the black belts, who happened to be doing a jumping front kick, “hopping front kick. are you going to let the color belts show you??”
(i had to laugh. well, internally, i may have chuckled. on the outside i was sweating buckets and trying not to collapse of lung exhaustion. it was a particularly strenuous workout that day. when most of the class is black and red, the bar will be raised on the workout. so it was when we were in the heat of it; one of those moments you are focusing as hard as a marathon runner just to make it through and not give up. no extra energy for self consciousness, or contrivance, or presentation. you are all the way zeroed in; pure determination, and muscle memory animating your frame.
but i laugh to myself, now, remembering. i think it was the first time i had actually heard the phrase used so contemptuously. [and i doubt anyone else who heard it would describe it so dramatically, so keep that in mind.] but hey, i feel i understand master lee…in so far as his patience, as well as his great love for both the martial art and for discipline demonstrated is very clear to me. i don’t think it requires any special insight to see this, and is in fact, pretty damn obvious. his black belts mean a lot to him.
anyway, i understood the context of his phrase. his scolding of the black belts was also a compliment to us. nothing for us meager “color belts” to feel bad about, ultimately.
i laugh, too, in empathy with the black belts who caught that little prod. i understand the sting. if master lee cares about you and your art, he will correct you. if you are an adult, and a higher belt, he won’t consider your sensitivity such that he has to handle you with kid gloves. he knows you’ll be fine and that a clear directive is what you need to hear. (if that happens to be what you need to hear. it’s not always his approach. he will wield that sting masterfully, never sadistically, always with just enough torque that you take it to heart and give the instruction due importance and energy.)
but he never is a harder critic on me than i am. and through it all, i am very proud of all the work i’ve done, and how it shows through my technique. proud of it…but never proud enough to rest, satisfied.
still working on all my kicks. i give a lot of attention to a few, over others. right now, the tornado round kick and the reverse turning kick are two of the most practiced, still. i have the choreography of the two down better than when i last wrote about them, a month ago or more. “better” in the sense of knowing how much space they can take up; how useful each one is in closing distance. they both have a range of course, with larger steps (or with an added step), they can cover more distance. with smaller movements or faster turns, you can use less ground. but i’m beginning to feel and see in the space before me, where each one can take me. (good ole repetition and muscle memory once again!)
and i continue to practice them. controlling your distance is very important. so much in fighting and sparring is about that simple ability.
on a related note, i need to focus my trajectory and shift my strategy so i can escape blows more often. as it is, i tend to see or feel them coming, but stand there to absorb them. grinning. not always…but often. i’m not unaware that this is directly related to my inner process and thought patterns. if it’s not a choice, it’s definitely a reflex, conditioned into habit by decision.
it is important, as a fighter, to face certain parts of yourself; parts that perhaps would prefer to shy away from an attack, duck from a blow, or run for cover. my way of facing that instinct has been to move directly against it; to charge toward confrontation. over and over again. even when terrified. especially when terrified. whether it was running at a charging dog when i was 15 and turning the tables by doing so, or jumping up into the face of threat whenever it came for me anywhere, it has by now become a long-standing habit. even when i am struck hard enough to give me nerve damage for months, i feel successful if i cannot be budged; if i can “take a hit,” and shake off the blow without much trouble. it has been good to cultivate, so i’m not regretting that at all. and i won’t pretend i don’t get a thrill from doing this; this has shown in my earliest days of sparring in the mid 90s.
but i think maybe it’s time to get past this habit of moving into and holding my ground as a direct confrontation and response to attack. it doesn’t mean i’m being chicken if i choose to dodge a blow rather than test myself by throwing myself in its path. it just means i’m fighting fast and smart.
and sure, taekwondo is a hard art, meeting direct attacks with direct blocks or direct counter-attacks. but nobody says you need to take every hit that comes your way. it seems my body sometimes thinks this is true.
to be fair, I’ll add that sometimes my moving into an attack is not always done without reason, or for the reasons listed above. sometimes if you step into moves before the person can unfold them and move with solidity, you can upset their arc and knock them off balance. and ive done that, instinctively, too.
one of the black belts complimented my reverse turning kick today, after i spent some time on the b.o.b dummy. it’s one i practice a lot. for years, now. “it’s getting pretty intimidating!” he said, and we marveled over what simple practice and repetition would do. he’s always been friendly, no matter what my rank. a good teacher of knowledge. no unnecessary ego or insecurity complicating anything. confident, friendly, relaxed.
he suggested i go to the tournament training class, as my technique was improving noticeably. I thanked him, but sort of edged away from that topic. That’s a whole other story! i guess i’m still priming myself for a return. cue rocky training sequence.
i soak up all these things said to me about my technique and such not to gloat–after all, everyone gets both correction and compliments. but because i need them all. i don’t always see what these people do so readily. it’s such a different vantage point from inside the turning, spinning, stepping, sweating vessel. i see progress much more slowly. i give myself much less credit. i dont trust the ego’s bloated self-evaluation. i am a hard, hard teacher on myself. so it’s good at times to have some feedback that can warmly accompany that hard-as-steel teacher in my mind. the one who dispenses praise begrudgingly and at a very careful and measured rate. the one who never relents.
next month, or in june, i’ll test for red instructor. and then july or august, i’ll test for chodonbo: a unique rank given its own name, and the final training ground for black belt.
finally, in march of 2012, it will be the black belt test. its a thought that fills me with feeling, but i’m in no rush. gonna use all this time to refine to a razor’s edge. gonna use all this time to enjoy growing more familiar with all i’ve learned up to now. gonna use this time to get down to business. the deadly, beautiful and peaceful business of honing my art.