This past September, Urban Kempo celebrated its first homegrown black belt promotion ceremony, which is a defining moment for any dojo, and especially for ours.
Honestly, if it were up to me, I would eradicate the belt system all together. As stated on the website, and written with passion from the heart of a martial artist who had been teaching in a park for the previous year, “To me the martial arts is a journey to be enjoyed and I heavily warn against preoccupations with achieving belts because they never mean what people want them to mean...When the experience becomes secondary to the belt, one accomplishes only a bland façade of martial arts.” Unfortunately, a vast majority of people today view the black belt as a commodity of achievement or a symbol of physical prowess, something to brag about to their friends or to parade upon their social media accounts. Something seems to have been lost amidst the instant gratification whims of today's society. Karate schools have become so prevalent that the black belt has become a spectacle for purchase, a touted accomplishment along side the master's degree, or an additional attribute to list upon one's dating site to demonstrate that one is both interesting and well rounded.
But let me put it like this:
A true martial artist adopts the arts as a way of life, not as a chore or task to be performed in pursuit of some future goal. We refer to these types as “old” vs “new” black belts respectively. My best students over the course of my career have at times, literally, forgotten their ranks. Whether after wearing an instructor’s belt for a couple of years, or after we spent that year practicing in the park, when inquiring about rank I received blank faces at times. My students had simply forgotten their own rank! They probably didn't realize that their expressions of ignorance warmed my heart, as I interpreted their awkward responses as symbols of their “old heartedness”, if I may use that as a word. But I was pleased to learn that it wasn't a priority to them.
The preoccupation of the black belt reveals itself through the thoughts, feelings and actions of the student, and ultimately in their martial arts. It will reveal a distinction between the “old” and the “new”, between the “us” and “them” axiom that invariably exists within any community, as communities are defined first and foremost by commonly shared values and practices. Attempting to fit the “new” into the “old” is like trying to force a square into a circle. Not only will it not fit, but the circle will become sensitive to the awkwardness of the elephant attempting to fit itself into the room. Eventually, that student will quit. It was never a lifestyle for them anyways. And the actual belt--a martial artist’s symbol of comradeship--well, it simply resonates as a piece of cloth with no real meaning.
Here it becomes timely to address one of our black belts, Soraya Garcia-Semedo, as a shining example of what a black belt should be. Soraya came into the dojo at age 13. After taking her first lesson, she sat awkwardly in my office next to her mother Leila. She had literally just moved to the United States after being raised overseas. Her Garfield Street address was her first American address ever. Long black curly hair, wearing a perforated tank top and basketball shorts, and the gaze of a young teenage girl who was unsure of her identity, but beaming with an awkward and childish confidence in who she was, she sat slouched in a chair with her elbows on her knees, staring me in the eye as if to say, “So what on earth are you going to do for me?” I knew in my heart that this little girl had the soul of a black belt, and that she just required a little cultivation, and a LOT of motivation. I said to her, “You’re gonna love it here.” She responded, “You don’t know me!”
It takes one to know one!
Soraya began helping me teach at age 14 and soon thereafter became my first protégé. As the leader of my first very own dojo, I expected to develop an apprentice in time. But I didn’t expect fate to deliver a 13-year-old girl to my doorstep. I decided to lay some laws down early, and treated her time in the dojo like an extracurricular activity. Whether she wanted to or not, I wanted to see her a few hours a day—every day. Like a father type, I was probably a little too demanding of her at times. And she certainly, like any teenage kid, created her fair share of teenage-like excuses. At first she was considerably awkward during her time at the dojo. But what 14-year-old girl isn’t? (Yes, I grew up with sisters!) And her very first lessons…well, they sucked. But I had faith in her as her spirit evidenced, and was sure that in the coming years other people would take note of the burgeoning star that she was destined to become.
Her old black belt nature soon came into maturity, and she not only developed a sense of responsibility to maintenance the dojo, but she grew into it like a home. This became evident when she told me that when she opens the doors to the dojo, even on days when she doesn’t feel like going in, that the smell of the dojo made her feel like she was “home.” As the creator, founder, father…whatever you want to call it…of Urban Kempo, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve opened those doors to that same feeling. That in itself speaks volumes of Soraya's commitment to the arts.
Like a sick mother who has the flu, there have been many days when Soraya arrived at the dojo, snotty nosed and fatigued, and opened the doors to oversee classes. After her school lets out at 3:00pm, she schleps her way through the streets of Arlington, backpack and all, routinely making her first stop the dojo. She is adored by the children, parents and adults alike. If she doesn’t know you by name just yet, she will by the end of the week. She has assumed the role of a surrogate parent, at such a young age, by her own choosing. No doubt a master in the making, Soraya is the embodiment of a black belt. And oh yeah, I forgot to add that while she’ll be the last one to ever do it…the girl can fight! I really mean that actually--she is an amazingly talented martial artist.
If Soraya has become the surrogate mother of the dojo, then our black belts have surely taken on the role of aunts, uncles and godparents. In my absences, these students routinely step up and become custodians of the school, which by definition can mean people entrusted, “with guarding or maintaining a property.” At any given time you can catch one of them teaching the lower ranks, answering the phones, talking to walk-ins, or simply practicing their beloved art. I am so proud to have this group set the future trend of the Urban Kempo black belt. After all, the best way to become a black belt, is to behave like one. So newcomers, please observe!
So congrats to all of you who have put in the hard time, sweat and sacrifices necessary to achieve your new ranks! Thank you for choosing my school as the grounds through which to pave your own personal journeys. You’ll never know quite how much you mean to me. And as a black belt, you may never know just how much of a difference your simple example impacts those around you.
One last thing:
Forgive me if I neglected to address the physical accomplishments on behalf of my students. Absolutely, I take the training seriously as a couple times in my own life it has come in handy. Actual self-defense is not a joke and indeed, sometimes without realizing it, we are creating weapons out of our bodies. Primarily because of this, a proper black belt spirit becomes a requisite to obtaining the physical ability to carry out the discipline, at least in my dojo. What you have as an end product is one who is capable, but at peace. And unlike an athlete who trains to score a goal and celebrates upon the realization of victory, a true martial artist mourns the physical execution of his discipline in the street. Rather, we derive enjoyment by practicing the art safely in the company of our peers and under the supervision of our teachers.
And that is what constitutes a dojo—peers and teachers who come together under the same roof at the same times to engage in a common practice that brings them enjoyment. In our home, that practice just happens to be the art of Shaolin Kempo. At the end of the day, it is all really as simply as that!
To Urban Kempo’s new black belts!