My Black Belt Dance Moves

A tale of the first time I was able to bring my two opposing sets of muscle memories together in harmonious partnership.

One of the primary characteristics of studying and training in any complex physical discipline such as martial arts, dance, gymnastics, or any of the professional sports is constant rigorous practice of the basic skills required. Not only to make them second nature but to hone them to as effective and efficient level as possible. You program your body to become an ideally suited instrument for the discipline. Achieving such a result is worth being proud of but if you then seek to train in another discipline those different sets of physical programming can often end up at war with each other.

Even though dance and martial arts in many ways are very different disciplines I was eventually able to find a rather impressive amount of overlap between my them. It was a very specific moment which first enabled me to bring both skill sets into the same room and interchange their applications but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Before I started dancing I spent just under eight years training in Goju Ryu Karate, a style of Karate originally from Okinawa which combines hard linear Japanese techniques with soft circular Chinese elements. This gave me a very balanced palate of physical skills, very much of the martial arts variety, and I obtained my first degree black belt nine months before I began studying ballroom dance.

As I started my dance training the flexibility, coordination, strength, and stamina were obvious assets but there were a great many aspects of the postures and approaches which were far from compatible. My body was trained to keep my elbows in, my arms relaxed until the point of impact, my balance rooted to the point of immovable, my feet either pointing forward or slightly inward, my spine upright but relaxed and supple connected to a low and grounded center.

Aside from the occasional out-of-place reflexive during practices with my training partners, they were perhaps a little startled but never harmed, my feet became a symbolic nemesis in the war between my two differing sets of physical skills. In my early youth my feet had been a bit turned in, ‘pigeon toed’, but I had managed to consciously straighten them out. Then came the years of martial arts training with the rooted and often slightly turned in stances and my pigeon feathers returned.

In most formal dance styles and especially Latin ballroom the feet are to be pointed and turned out, sometimes to extreme degrees. After about a year and a half of focused dance training, with my coaches giving me no end of grief for my turned in feet, I was just starting to get the hang of the pointed toes, expansive arm movements, and upwardly stretched spine when decided to grade for my second degree black belt.

Grading procedures can vary greatly from one style of martial art to the next and from one dojo to the next. In the more traditional dojos they are lengthy, intensive affairs designed not only for you to demonstrate the required skills but also for the grading panel to test you and your skills under the pressure of intense scrutiny and the weight of physical exhaustion. In our dojos black belt gradings were usually about six hours long.

After a brief warm up to make sure we were properly limber they began with an exacting demonstration of the basic punching, kicking, and block techniques one by one. This was followed by sequential performance of every single kata, traditional sequences of techniques, starting from the very first beginner form all the way up to those commensurate with the level you were grading for. During the kata section it was also quite common for the examiners to ask you to repeat a form with an added random complication such as doing the form with a chair in each hand, someone riding piggy back, twice as fast or twice as slow, blindfolded, or just to see if making you do the same form twelve times gets under your skin at all.

This was followed with a section of demonstrating specific single technique applications from the katas upon command wherein the examiners would inform you which technique they wanted to see and then someone would come at you with a prearranged attack you were not warned of forcing you to improvise the requested technique into whatever scenario you were suddenly being presented with.

Then came another single technique drill in which you were placed on a two foot square and then attacked one from people in a line who were allowed to attack in whatever way they wanted to. You could use whatever technique you wanted to in order to defend yourself, you just had to stay in your small square. After that several rounds of free sparring and grappling then the whole thing concluded with a serious and personal verbal questioning from the grading panel while you stood there with your lungs heaving, your body on fire, and sweat pouring down your face.

It was during the ‘stay on your square’ drill that I had my dance and martial arts uniting epiphany. And it came, as such epiphanies often do, as a completely unanticipated side-effect of an attempt to give the grading panel back just a small measure of the grief they had been giving me for the previous five hours.

As I mentioned, when I went for the grading I had just started to truly get the hang of the principles and structures of ballroom dance. This meant that elements of my new discipline kept making appearances in my attempts to demonstrate the old one. Some of my kicks wound up having beautifully pointed toes. A few of my stances had rather excessively stretched up posture. Here and there my arm movements might have had a little more grace than was traditional. And thanks to working so doggedly at it my feet were almost perpetually turned out just a touch. Lovely for my dancing, not quite what the grading panel was looking for.

The examiners were fully aware that I had at that point been a full time professional ballroom instructor for the past year and a half but that didn’t mean they weren’t still grading me according to the demands of Goju Ryu Karate. Nor did that mean they were going to let any opportunity to give me grief over those little dancer moments pass them by. The ‘pressure of intense scrutiny’ often tends to be accompanied with healthy doses of ribbing, teasing, and name calling.

I was asked if I wanted some toe shoes or a tutu. I was called ‘twinkle-toes’, ‘Ginger’, ‘Swan Lake’, and just about every other dance related jibe they could come up with. They made me count one of my katas with ‘quick, quick, slow’ and they belted out a rather drunken version of the Blue Danube during my performance of the one kata which is traditionally meant as a demonstration of extreme focus and concentration. It was all completely expected but after a little more than five hours of it I figured I was within my rights to try and give a little of it back.

There were about a dozen people in the line of attackers coming at me one by one in the ‘stay in your square’ drill, a mixture of men and women. After the first couple of attacks came and went inspiration struck me and I waited for my opportunity. To be honest it wouldn’t have mattered who threw the big hay-maker punch I knew would come at some point but as the fates would have it one of the ladies was the one to deliver the attack I was waiting for.

Still staying with my designated space I blocked her incoming punch, stepped in close as I swept it out wide, took hold of her waist as though preparing to execute a standard hip throw, then instead rolled her in my arms into a grand and sweeping dip worthy of the classic silver screen. I held the elegant pose for a beat or two before swooping her back to her feet where she stood blinking and looking around in flustered confusion before blushing slightly and scooting back to the end of the line.

The completely stunned and bewildered looks on the faces of the examiners was everything I could have hoped for, with the cherry on top being the sight of my Sensei burying his face in his hands. I let them blink at me and each other for a moment before addressing them.

“What? You said use any technique I want. She’s confused, I win….…and it was pretty!”

“I don’t know who let him in here, I’ve never seen that man before in my life,” my Sensei muttered from behind his covering arms as I finished with a curtsy.

The rest of my grading went swimmingly and I was awarded my second degree black belt with unanimous approval.

I was also later informed by one of the examiners that they had prepared a few questions for me about my perceptions of the differences between the worlds of dance and martial arts but, strangely enough, they had decided to skip them.

A professional dancer, choreographer, theatre creator, and featured TEDx speaker with an honours degree in psychology, two black belts, and a lap-top.

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