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  • Writer's pictureJackie Bradbury

Dancing with the Martial Arts

Every so often, martial arts performance videos make the rounds online, often showcasing a particularly talented kid doing something martial arsty. This particular one pops up at least once a year.

It's usually titled something like "Martial Arts Kid Expert" or "Little Girl Samurai" or "Little Girl Sword Expert".

I've studied weapons for most of my martial arts life. It's been mainly via the Filipino Martial Arts as well as via Japanese/Okinawan traditional weapons training, but I also just have a thing for quality weapons work and weapons traditions from all cultures. The endless ways that humankind has solved certain shared, fundamental problems most humans face is just fascinating.

Anyway, as someone who's serious about weapons, calling the kid above a "weapons expert" (as talented as she is) just makes me cringe.

Here's a few videos that are basically in the same vein as the video above.

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.

I mean, if it's being done to music.... c'mon.

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 before, and I still stand by that defense.  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. Yeah, that's Taylor Lautner. Yes, that one.

And check out 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!

Totally 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.

My point is that I have studied honest-to-goodness, real-deal, fighting with a 6 foot white oak bo as well as having used it as performance, personally. And I'm telling you, the real-deal doesn't look like Taylor up there. Not at all.

Here's Jesse Enkamp, the Karate Nerd, doing a bo form. Compare the two and tell me what Taylor is doing above demonstrates being an "expert" in knowing how to use a weapon as a weapon.

Jesse is gonna hurt somebody, and he's not going to drop his weapon in the process.

I was in dance classes for much of my childhood as well as cheering and other sports. In dance, 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 even today).  I learned enough to know how difficult it can be and to respect the skill.

Sequins? Check. Spandex? Check. Somebody should have handed me a "samurai sword" and I'd have been set...

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 (I wrote about the cheerleading thing HERE).   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 that "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 katana) 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, pose 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. Dances with weapons is still fundamentally dance.

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.

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.

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

I believe that there's room for both actual weapons training and performance, but let's make sure we understand which is which, y'all.

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