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  • Writer's pictureJackie Bradbury

Dancing With the Martial Arts

Every so often, this video will make the rounds in martial arts circles online. You'll often see it titled or tagged "Little Samurai" or "Little Girl Sword Expert".

On the one hand, I'm glad to see martial arts weapons being appreciated, as I often get this shared to me by my non-martial arts friends and I always happy when they get a little glimpse of our world.

On the other hand, 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 one here (labeled "tomahawk" but those are competition kama):

And this here:

Folks, I've defended "Performance" martial arts before and I'll do it again, as I believe it has a legit place in the martial arts world.  I promise, I get the value of it in the wider martial arts world. I'm not putting people who do this sort of thing down.

While the people in the videos above are very skilled and talented, they're not displaying skill with using a weapon. They're showing skill in dancing with a prop.

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.

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. Even in martial arts circles.

No.  Just... no.

Take this clip, from this video HERE:

Yes, that's Taylor Lautner. The werewolf from the "Twilight" movies.

Do you think it's materially different than this, taken from this video HERE?

Yeeeaah, the baton is shorter, but other than that... it's the same basic thing. At least with the baton twirler, we don't get all the yelling and scowling and he looks like he's having fun (and honestly, he'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 marching 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!

Hey man, this was 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. Nobody called me a badass with my flag pole or awarded me a trophy for it.

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 still do a couple of basic moves I learned back then, believe it or not).  I learned enough to know how difficult it can be and to respect the skill.

See? I know all about sequins and spandex.

I know this stuff.  I've done this stuff.  I believe that my cheerleading, dance, and flag corps experience as a child and young adult helped me in the martial arts later in life.

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, even though I could manipulate a big ol' stick pretty darn well and some of skills I learned directly translate to a real-deal 6 foot bo.

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 we can all can tell which one we're 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.

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.

This is what a true "Little Samurai" looks like.

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 (including the baton twirling).

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

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