Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Dancing With the Martial Arts

Lots of martial arts performance videos making the rounds lately.  This one, in particular has been all over my news feed and private messaged to me several times on Facebook, usually captioned with something like "Little Samurai" or "Little Girl Sword Expert" or some such.


As someone who is working very hard on learning traditional weapons, as in "how to actually use them", it's really, really hard sometimes to see this sort of thing being called "martial arts weapons training" or the people doing this as "weapons experts".

Take this:



And this:



And this (the video is labeled "tomahawk" but those are kama - well, sorta):



And this:



All are very skilled.  I'm not doubting that for a moment - there is real skill and talent there.  However, they're not skilled in using a martial arts weapon. They're skilled in dancing with a prop.

Before I go too far here, I want to state up front that I'm not saying these people can't have skill in using a real weapon - they certainly may.  They just aren't displaying it here.

Folks, I've defended "Performance" martial arts here on this very blog (here) and I still stand by that post.  I promise, I get the value of it in the wider martial arts world.  But this kind of thing has become THE standard of what  "weapons" are in the martial arts, and is often held up as examples of people who are "tough" or "experts" in weapons.

No.  Just... no.



Look, take this bo tricking move here:

Yes, it's Taylor Lautner.  That one.
And take this baton twirling move here:



It's the same basic thing, but at least with the baton twirler, we don't get all the yelling and scowling (and honestly, she's pretty damn graceful and has a nice flow compared to Taylor up there).

Here's the deal: I was in flag corps (yep, with the band) my senior year in high school (before that, I was a cheerleader, staring in 2nd grade all the way through high school, off and on).

No, really I was!
See? Stylin' for 1985.
This was back in the day of these really long fiberglass poles that made your hands go numb because they shed fibers that would get in your skin.  We were thrilled when the school bought the aluminum poles that year (although we used both types of poles, as the fiberglass were longer than the aluminum). 

I did much of the tricking you see in these "bo" videos, albeit slower (longer heavier pole with one flag dragging it down even more makes it slower), usually in concert with marching to a medley of hit Broadway theme songs in formation with a bunch of other people in awful polyester uniforms in the blazing hot sun or freezing cold or rain, often on a wet and muddy field that sucked my shoes off while I was marching.

Not that I'm bitter.

I was in dance classes for much of my childhood, too.  There I was introduced to baton twirling and I tried a little bit of it, but it wasn't my thing (I can do a couple of basic moves I learned back then today).  I learned enough to know how difficult it can be and to respect the skill.

Yup, that's me. Sequins and spandex?  Check.
I know this stuff.  I've done this stuff.  I can argue that my cheerleading, dance, and flag corps experience helps me in the martial arts - and I believe it did (and that's a long post for another day).   But that doesn't mean that I had proficiency in use of a martial arts weapon before I started training.  I know that isn't true.

Martial artists doing weapons performance are demonstrating nice hand/eye coordination and physical fitness.   It is not using a weapon as anything more than a prop.  When you do this, you're not a weapons expert.  You're a dancer or majorette or a tricker.

Not. A. Martial. Arts. Weapons. Expert.

Apparently, people have a hard time determining the difference between martial arts dance performance and actual weapons expertise.  So I've created a checklist so that folks can tell which one they are looking at.
  • Would look perfectly fine if the person were wearing spandex, sequins and/or glitter vs. wearing a martial arts uniform?
  • If they were to actually hit something hard with the "weapon", will said weapon bend or break immediately?
  • Is the weapon at any time tossed high in the air and caught (one handed or both)?
  • Is the weapon tossed and caught behind the back?
  • Is the weapon exchanged from hand to hand behind the back while being spun or twirled?
  • Are they using a two-handed weapon (a bo, a jo, a Japanese sword) with only one hand for a significant portion the routine, um, I mean, "kata"?
  • Do they do a lot of high kicks and flips while holding a very long weapon?
  • If they are using a"bo", are their elbows held high and away from the body for most of the form?
  • If they call it a "bo" or a "bo staff", is it shorter than 5 feet?
  • Is the weapon silver, gold, shiny, glittery, or covered in reflective or rainbow tape?
  • Are they screaming?  A lot?  I mean, really screaming
  • Do they scream at long pauses in the routine, generally while posing with the weapon?
  • If they are using an edged weapon (sword, kama), do they ever grab. grip or twirl it where the edge is in contact with the skin
  • Do they spin the weapon on their palms, around the neck, around the wrist/arm, or around the legs/knees/ankles at any point?
  • Do they pass the weapon between the legs?
If you answered "yes" to two or more of these, most likely you are looking at a performance, people.

It's not a demonstration of martial arts weapons expertise.

If you want to see experts, there's plenty out there and it's not hard to find.  For example, +Martial Arts with Colman often posts some excellent quality weapons videos. But I'm going to close this with an awesome video of a young girl who is learning Japanese weapons - sword and naginata - PROPERLY.  This video was posted on Facebook by Jim Alvarez (here) and I am grateful to him for posting it.

video


See?  Real-deal weapons training is amazing and beautiful, and kids can do it too. This is awesomesauce and this girl is being trained very well.

Enjoy martial arts performance for what it is, and please, stop claiming it's what it is NOT.  Let's give real weapons training and experts out there the honor they are due, as well as enjoying the martial arts performance folks, too.

I'd rather watch a martial arts performance than "Dancing with the Stars" any day!  Every video I've shared in this post is something I respect and I enjoy watching.

There's room for both actual weapons training and performance, but let's make sure we understand which is which!