A bad day can turn into a good one when you walk into the dojo. Ideally, you put aside everything that is happening. You take off your shoes and bow before stepping onto the mat. Soon you will be practicing in drills and exercises; perhaps practical forms, sequences of choreographed techniques; maybe in sparring with your comrades. You will need to be focused in order to perform well and to minimize the risk of hurting yourself or someone else. Whatever your abilities, you should strive to improve them, because there is no limit to what you can learn.
I am a student at Mayer’s Karate & Fitness, North Haledon, New Jersey, where I trained for about five years. I currently hold a brown belt and plan to become a black belt, which hopefully could be as early as next year. The four hour black belt test at school is a formidable challenge, usually undertaken by people much younger than me (56); often about four decades younger.
Our main instructor, Dan Scielzo likes to tell the new black belts that their martial arts careers are starting now; that their years as lower belts were a preparation. One can continue in higher degrees of black belt; Mr. Scielzo’s black belt is six degrees and Mr. Mayer, the founder of the school, has a seven degree belt. (An honorary title such as “M.” is usually awarded in martial arts upon attaining a black belt or similar expert status.) Tang soo do, a Korean style which is the mainstay of what we learn at Mayer, is taught in some schools with a midnight blue belt instead of a black belt, to emphasize continuous improvement rather than finality.
Also, since there are many styles of martial arts, becoming an expert in one style can be a prelude to learning other styles. Bruce Lee was adept at crossing such boundaries; and partly inspired by him, the sport of mixed martial arts is based on combinations of various techniques, worthy of its name. Building a martial arts taxonomy is a complex task, as they can be categorized in different ways: for example, whether they focus on hitting (like karate or taekwondo) or on wrestling (like judo or jiu -jitsu); unarmed or armed styles; or different degrees of orientation towards self-defense, sport or spirituality.
The term “karate” refers to particular traditional styles from Okinawa and Japan, but is also used to encompass hitting martial arts more broadly. Tae kwon do, sometimes referred to as “Korean karate”, was born out of a push backed by the South Korean government in the 1970s to unify several styles under a single national umbrella. While tae kwon do means “the way of the foot and the fist”, tang soo do is “the way of the empty hand” and was originally “the way of the Tang. [Dynasty] main ”, reflecting the early Chinese influence.
While some tang soo do practitioners refused to join the tae kwon do movement, others accepted it, resulting in variations in style and nomenclature. Moo duk kwan, or “school of martial virtue,” evolved from tang soo do, and some practitioners have transformed this into tae kwon do moo duk kwan; Mr. Mayer told me that the forms we use are consistent with this approach. However, in general, traditional tae kwon do places a heavy emphasis on kicking, while tang soo do and its close variations teach more of a mixture of hands and feet. At Mayer, our drills include top cuts and hooks, the most familiar shots in boxing. Some other hand movements we do might be more likely to be seen in a martial arts movie: for example, the cobra strike, with two fingers raised ready to aim at someone’s eyes.
There is always more to learn. Consider the ax chop. Your leg swings forward in a curve, then crashes in a straight line. An excellent young black belt who taught me one-on-one recently worked on my leg elevation; you want to be able to hit someone’s arm or even the head from above. Then he taught me a rare variant that I had never seen: the jumping ax. You start in a fighting stance, oblique to your opponent with one leg back, then jump off your back leg and quickly bring the front leg up and down. It’s tiring.
A front kick may seem simple: the knee rises and the lower leg springs out. But there are subtleties. You strike with the top of your foot if you kick upwards; if the kick is pushed further forward, then the ball of the foot is the point of contact. With the circular kick, the hips should be heavily strained. In the standard rotunda, the front foot pivots as the rear leg rises and bends and extends quickly with force. A front leg rotunda, like a front leg front kick, can be a quick and surprising move. A vault rotunda also uses the front leg, with hip movement occurring when you’re in the air. One way to follow a roundhouse is to kick back, bringing the other leg back after your body has rotated.
There are different positions. Most of our forms start with a ready position, two fists pushed down as if to slam someone’s groin. You are supposed to step back into a ready position, not forward. The horse stance, with the legs bent wide apart, appears in various forms and exercises, keeping you grounded while building leg strength. Attacking position is a critical part of the exercises, with one arm in block low and the other ready to strike so a partner can practice blocks and kickbacks. The cat stance has the hands open, the front foot on the ball and the flat back foot supporting the most weight.
Recently, I learned the last of the 11 forms required in the dojo program. Showing that I can do them all well will be the key to getting a second black stripe on my brown belt, one step towards the black belt. Many challenges await us, including those of endurance, balance, flexibility and finesse. Raw horsepower is one of my strengths, but not running out of steam takes work; especially under COVID protocols, because we are currently hidden in the dojo.
Still, I have the hope of continuing the martial arts for decades to come. One of my comrades, Ms. Becker, is a fourth degree black belt who is in the early 80s and still shows up regularly. She is an inspiration to me and to others, a reminder that a lot is possible on the mat.
—Kenneth Silber is the author of In DeWitt’s Footsteps: Seeing History on the Erie Canal and is on Twitter: @kennethsilber