Saturday, April 5, 2014

In Defense of Performance Martial Arts

Take a deep breath, and bear with me on this one.

Okay, I've admitted to snobbery and being a self-defense oriented martial artist.  I've defended sport martial arts, and now I'm going to make the case for martial arts as performance - and why that is not a bad thing for those of us who study for self-defense purposes only.

This is Jennifer Espina, doing a competition Bo form.

And this is Jason Statham in an awesome fight scene from "Expendables 2":

And here is a Tae Kwon Do Demo team strutting their stuff:

And here is a Kung Fu dance:

And here is a warrior dance from India.

These are all really, really entertaining to watch.  And they are all chock full of nonsense and shenanigans, and techniques that would never, ever work in an actual violent confrontation.

And that's okay. Because it isn't their job to be realistic.  It's their job to entertain, educate, and inspire.

You can't tell me that your younger self wasn't at any time inspired to take up your first martial art at least in part by what you saw Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris or on the Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Movie Theater (everybody watched that when I was growing up in St. Louis) - or by "The Matrix" films, maybe?

Man, I *wish* it were that easy.
Martial arts as entertainment is pervasive in most cultures that have any sort of a martial art tradition.  Choreographed fights are not a modern invention for cinema.  There are sword fights in Shakespeares' plays, and martial arts scenes in Chinese Opera.  Tales of warriors and battles have always been popular, so choreographed fight scenes automatically come with the territory when those tales are told as performance.

Martial arts performance can also have a very serious side, acting as a way to preserve an art that is actively being suppressed.

Take my art, Arnis.  "Arnis" is derived from the Spanish word arnes, meaning armor.  Legend says that my art was preserved after being banned by the Spanish during their occupation of the Phillipines in "moro-moro" stage plays that had choreographed stick fights.  Capioera has a similar claim to being "hidden" in dance (and certainly looks like it), and many African and Polynesian martial traditions remain alive long after they were no longer in use due to dance.

Ultimately, here's why I think martial arts performance is good for the rest of us:
  1. It's inspirational. It's exciting and fun to watch, and it is the rare martial artist who wasn't inspired to take up serious martial arts as a result of seeing a martial arts performance that captured their imagination.  It touches the emotions, not the intellect, and that's very, very powerful.
  2. It uplifts the martial arts into the broader culture.  The beauty of a sword dance from Scotland, the majesty of huge Chinese wushu performances, and an epic block buster movie like "Kill Bill" or "The Karate Kid" - all of these give visibility of the martial arts community to the wider culture, enshrine aspects of what we do, and helps keep us from being an invisible, marginalized subculture.
  3. It's fun.  I like the martial arts - doing it, and watching it - and frankly, when we're not being constrained by reality, seriousness, or the mere confines of physics (hello, wire-fu!), it's just plain cool.  I'd rather watch a film or tv show with martial arts in it, more often than not, even if I end up watching it and cursing at all the unrealistic stuff that's being presented.  I suspect if I were nutty for, say, model trains or drag racing, I'd feel the same way about performances and art that features those.
For me - and probably for you, if you get as irritated as I do when I see things like toothpick bo flippy-spinny stuff like the first video above - the danger is when these performances are presented as anything other than performances.  This stuff is dance and gymnastics and acting; it's not actual fighting technique.  It's incredibly easy to merge the two, and that's where the danger lies, and we end up with idiots sword fighting like ninjas in their back yards and getting hurt because of what they see in movies.

One last thing - I promised a defense of the WWE (and its ilk, i.e., professional wrestling) in my post defending sport martial arts, and here it is:

Professional wrestling is as much of a performance martial art as martial arts movies, demos, and the like.  It uses classic themes of good vs. evil to tell stories and create drama and humor, it uses splashy, crazy-looking feats of physical prowess, and it is (somewhat) choreographed and scripted.  It's just a live-action martial arts movie, executed with great skill and with very real physical risk to the participants.  You may not enjoy it yourself, but you have to give them their due.

Dude.  Respect.