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  • Writer's pictureJackie Bradbury

In Defense of Performance Martial Arts

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

If you're a long-time reader of this blog, you know that I'm not a fan of what I call that "Flippy-flippy, bo-spinny, sword-catchy" stuff.

Y'know, stuff like this:

But here's the thing: as much as I get annoyed by it, I believe it is critical that this stuff continues to exist - and thrive - in the martial arts world.

Again, long-time readers of this blog are doing this:

Here's the thing. That bo performance above should really go into categories of things like this:

That is one of my favorite fight scenes from "The Expendables 2", by the way. I love me some Jason Statham, it's true.

And this:

That's the Korean National Taekwondo Team doing their thing.

And this:

They all have one thing in common: These are all really, really entertaining to watch.

They are also all chock full of nonsense and shenanigans, and techniques that would never, ever work in an actual violent confrontation.

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

Listen, Mr. Serious Martial Arts Guy, 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 or even in fight scenes like this one from the Princess Bride:

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.

Tradition says that the Filipino Martial Arts in the central and northern Philippines was preserved after being banned by the Spanish during their occupation of the Philippines in "moro-moro" stage plays that had choreographed stick fights. So the thing I love best was kept alive, in part, by performance.

Capoeira 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:

✔ 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.

✔ 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, dying subculture.

✔ 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.


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.

Performance is performance, and fighting is fighting and self-defense is self-defense, and while they may look similar, they really aren't the same thing and those differences matter. It's up to us to make sure people know that.

Performance martial arts includes professional-style wrestling, too.  As I come from an amateur wrestling family - my uncle is in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame - you'd think I'd feel about pro wrestling the way we serious weapons people feel about rainbow-tape bo spinners.

You'd be wrong.

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 don't have to enjoy it yourself, but you have to give them their due.

Performance martial arts may not be something you want to do, but I'm pretty sure every one of us has some aspect they admire, be it in fight choreography, "creative" weapons, demos, or even pro wrestling.

Do you do performance martial arts of some sort? What do you like about it? Do you get annoyed by performance martial arts and disagree that it's important? Let us know in the comments!

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