Friday, February 3, 2012

Minimalism as Feedback

Queen Michelle's post on ballet grading prompted me to make some comments about karate and belt gradings (called "testing," in our dojo).

She talked in her post about what it's like to be involved in ballet as an adult. I am enjoying learning about it from her perspective. Queen Michelle strives for continuous improvement, which I admire. Improvement in ballet can be benchmarked through gradings. She mentioned that she can gain access to her grading papers to read the notes written on them by those evaluating her skills. She can then use these notes as cues to how to improve. If I were in her pointe shoes, I would appreciate getting this kind of constructive criticism, too. In my dojo, students don't get that kind of feedback.

Me in my karate suit
I think I can draw some parallels between Queen Michelle's "learning-ballet-as-an-adult" story and my karate narrative. I started Goju-Ryu karate as an adult (I was 42). It's very humbling, and I bet Queen Michelle would admit to humbling moments in her ballet training. I can't imagine that any aspect of ballet is easy for an adult or for a child. Her descriptions of what it's like to move and function with such grace show clearly that there is much work involved, work that is difficult to discern for the untrained eye.

I think that's true in karate, too. There's so much nuance, detail, and invisible stuff going on, it can be dizzying. Sensei's movements and execution look easy, but I know that even a feeble attempt at moving basics or renzoku bunkai takes (sometimes massive) effort. Improvement comes by degrees and inches. One cannot expect to breeze through the training if one hopes to really absorb the material.

Queen Michelle points out that adults move more quickly through ballet grade curriculum than children for various reasons. The same can be said about karate, because generally, adults have better motor control and processing skills than children, but unless one is extremely gifted, the process still takes time. I have been impatient with myself at times, feeling I'm learning more slowly than my grasping mind would prefer. Some say that we are never "done" with karate, that we are always learning, even at Seventh Dan. Karate is a moving goalpost.

In karate, the grades are called "kyus," and are visually represented by colored belts. Some kyus are signified by stripes made of black electrical tape, which are stuck onto the belts. When one begins training in karate, he or she enters as a white belt.

Here's how the Goju-Ryu kyus go:

White Belt (no kyu)
10kyu: add one stripe (What do you say when you get a stripe on your white belt? 10kyu!)
9kyu: add second stripe
8kyu; add third stripe

7kyu: Yellow Belt
6kyu: add one stripe

5kyu: Green Belt
4kyu: add one stripe

3kyu: Brown Belt
2kyu: add one stripe
1kyu: add second stripe

Shodan: Black Belt
(Grades proceed up from here)

One must work through 11 kyus before obtaining a black belt in Goju-Ryu (other karate styles have different belts and gradings). There are several grades, or "dans," of black belt. Dans are not evident on a black belt, as no electrical tape is applied at this level. It's said that once you reach black belt, you are finally a "beginner." So I am an intermediate sub "beginner," at 5kyu. (I recently told someone I had a green belt, and she asked "Isn't that one of the low belts?" groan.) I'm finishing up my third year of training this month. Some move quickly through the kyus, and some don't.

Back to constructive criticism: I wish, in our dojo, we had an opportunity to view our test comments and notes, like Queen Michelle has in her ballet school gradings. If I had that opportunity, maybe I'd be able to pinpoint areas where I need more work, and perhaps it I'd feel a more concrete sense of my own accomplishment. Alas, that kind of control is not in mine to behold. It must stay in Sensei's hands.

Validation of one's progress in karate will come as a surprise when Sensei issues a student an invitation to test/grade. A student is invited to test only when Sensei is confident that the student can satisfactorily meet the test's challenges. The test at this level* consists of performance of basic skills, kata, bunkai, sparring, and perhaps some physical challenges, usually done in a class setting. (Once, I tested in the company of two Senseis and only one other student, who happened to be my husband. I really prefer this to being in a full classroom, performing kata by myself, while everyone looks on.)

After one completes a test, one might receive two or three complimentary remarks, delivered in front of the whole class, but that's it. If you're not invited to test/grade, the implication is that you must keep working at the current level until further notice. Thus no feedback equals feedback. And there's no indication of exactly what you need to improve upon, or how long it'll be until you're invited to test/grade next.

It's a minimalist approach. One must be content to just keep training without input. One must train on a foundation of self-assurance and dedication, and look inward for guidance, rather than outside oneself. Learning without feedback has been a challenge for me. Sometimes I feel I'm completely at sea, with two left feet and an aging body, but it forces me to trust in something I don't fully understand.

*I might add that these feats are mild compared to what is required for a black belt test. And brown belts must begin teaching at some point, and carry on teaching as they progress toward black belt. Additional requirements at these levels include writing a research paper, community service, workout programs, nutrition assessments, etc.


  1. I can see how it would be frustrating not getting feedback in the same way I do in ballet. Whilst, in my self critical head, I still half believe the examiner is being generous in her grading since it's harmless enough passing adults because careers are not being begun, the comments she makes are none the less useful and allow me to really focus on things I wasn't aware I was doing wrong. But the parallels between the two disciplines are uncanny in so many ways.

    I think it's amazing you started at 42. I will be mid forties by the time I finish my own ballet training, which is scary and amazing at the same time. Of course, rarely a day goes by I don't regret not having the opportunity to study as a child, as I believe I could have been a professional ballet dancer, but I am determined to piruoutte en pointe regardless!

  2. I would love to start some martial arts. In my dreams at least.

  3. Oh, your karate school sounds great,and properly traditional. Feedback from examiners? Don't hold your breath. The only useful thing I found on my ballet grading form was ' point feet fully in glissade' .
    I like your drawings, btw

  4. Thanks for sharing about your experience. I've found in my years, testing and being 'tested' can be nebulous. Nice article. :)