I read once that a karate kata could be called a dance of death
Now, I am not talking about some of the highly sensational “stuff” that has come out over the years. There are many books out there by such prolific “martial arts” writers as Ashida Kim talking about Count Dante and others, claiming that The Dance of Death is the most deadly collection of “poison hand” techniques known to man. There are also several “martial arts” genre movies that have been released using versions of the phrase “Dance of Death” in their titles. All I am going to say about that martial arts “pulp fiction” is, buyer beware.
But in general, I think you could consider a kata to be a form of dance. It is a series of movements combining concepts such footwork and stances, proper posture, presence, balance, flow, relaxation, dynamic tension, etc. They have a certain rhythm which can vary as skill grows or even depending on what the practitioner is thinking technique-wise. And, you could easily receive a description such as this from a karate instructor – or a ballroom dance instructor.
Ballroom Dancing and Karate-do
Ballroom dance and karate both require years of practice to achieve real skill. Both require the study of and understanding of body mechanics, timing, breathing, distance, technique, and posture.
Both require a great deal of time spent practicing basic techniques, simple patterns, and advanced choreographed movements, the mastery of which later allows the skilled practitioner to forget the patterns and to allow his own expression of technique or dance to flow.
The similarities do not end there!
For both karate and ballroom dancing, a good instructor can make all the difference in the world. I first started out learning basic steps from instructors that were essentially a few lessons ahead of me. Having studied karate with a few excellent instructors, I soon became bored with this level of teaching. I wanted more.
Then I met Mark and Rhonda Becker at Champion Ballroom in Knoxville. This husband and wife team are both great instructors. They did not teach steps – they taught you the art of ballroom dancing.
That was when the similarities between karate-do and ballroom dancing began to really show.
So, are karate kata really a dance of death?
Well, if you consider that a traditional karate kata has so much in common with a dance, and then take into consideration what a kata contains, I would say the answer is – yes.
What is a kata? It essentially is a collection of effective and proven combat techniques distilled down to their purest form. Like a dance, they require balance, breath control, timing, focus, proper body mechanics, and flow.
They also require understanding. Many of the techniques, while they certainly can be modified, if executed to their fullest potential, have disastrous effects on the human body. Many can, indeed, be fatal.
So, from that perspective, I guess they could be called, “The Dance of Death.” But they are so much more than that.
Preforming kata is a great form of exercise. And depending on how you work them, you can achieve a great variety of results. You can blast through them as a good cardio workout, or you can perform them slowly to work on balance and strength. You can work on timing your breathing to techniques or utilize dynamic tension. Then kata can become moving meditation and help you improve your focus, or relax and reduce stress.
Working on kata will improve your ballroom dancing – and working on ballroom dancing will improve your kata.
It’s almost like a Yin Yang relationship, isn’t it?
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I have had a long-held interest in the martial arts. One Christmas, I received a book called Best Karate, written by Mas Oyama, when I was 13 or 14 years old. I spent hours in my bedroom trying to learn from the book.
When I began attending the Charles H McCann Technical School in North Adams, Massachusetts, I was invited by a friend to a Uechi-ryu Karate (a very traditional Okinawan system) class in nearby Adams and started attending. But once I discovered cars and girls, that pretty much ended that … as well as my interest in scouting.
When I was stationed in Korea (12/81 to 12/82), I studied Tae Kwon Do with the battalion instructor. He was excellent. I earned a red belt, which, in that system, was the equivalent of a brown belt in the ranking system used by many styles. When I got back to the U.S., I started competing in tournaments and did okay. However, I discovered these Isshin-ryu guys who had a wicked reverse punch. They would slide up your extended kicking leg and nail you with it. I decided I needed to see what they were doing and so sought out an Isshin-ryu dojo.
Years later, I was running my own dojo and hosting tournaments. But I was very disappointed in the way things were evolving. I was never that wild about sport karate. I just did that to keep students. I saw limited techniques being used in sport karate; it was more like a game of tag. The rules seemed to violate the karate “maxims” I was trying to adhere to.
For example, in Okinawan Karate, all kicks are targeted below the waist. Step into the ring, and now all kicks must be above the waist. That seemed odd!
And kata, especially with the advent of musical kata, quickly devolved into breakdancing with some kicks thrown in.
Note: Let me just say that full-contact karate and MMA fighters of today are great athletes and some damn tough individuals. They are very good at what they do and deserve respect. It is just not “karate” as I had come to understand it.
The problem was that I do read a great deal, and I had read a lot of history about Okinawa, the birthplace of Karate, and the early pioneers of Tang Hand, which later become known as Empty Hand … or Karate. I was simply not seeing the Karate I’d read so much about. Either the stories were all lies, or there was nobody around who could do that stuff anymore. I was actually ready to throw in the towel. Then I met Sensei Sherman Harrill.
Sensei Harrill was from a cross-roads in the cornfields called Carson, Iowa (near Council Bluffs). He was an ex-Marine who trained with the Isshin-ryu system’s founder, Tatsuo Shimabuku, while stationed in Okinawa in the late 50s. And he was the real deal.
Everything I had ever seen paled when stacked up against what he did. No matter who you were, how big, how strong, or what you knew … he would effortlessly show you the error of your ways. Organizations, rank, who you knew did not matter. It was what you could demonstrate on the mat that counted.
So, I started over. I traveled all around the country to seminars for years to train with this guy. It was a humbling and memorable moment when I asked him how I could become his student. He laughed and replied. “well, most folks just ask.” So, I asked. And he replied, “Darren, I have seen the changes you are making in your Karate and how you train … so welcome aboard.”
That was the beginning of the journey of a lifetime.
The origins of JD’s Nguyen-ryu
Nguyen-ryu is an indigenous martial art found in Vietnam. Mai’s father, Ang, was a village elder, and in the book Serpents Underfoot, a well-respected practitioner of this art. Ang taught this art to both his daughter, Mai, and the son of his old Montagnard friend, Dish. Dish and Mai both taught the art to Curtis Cordell, Mai’s American husband, and JD’s father.
Curtis tried to teach Nguyen-ryu to his son, but that old father-son thing interfered. Eventually, Curtis took his son to a dojo run by a friend of his. That Sensei taught a very traditional version of Isshin-ryu. JD did learn a great deal of Nguyen-ryu from his mother, which blended well with the Isshin-ryu.
It has been my experience that most “real” martial arts have more in common than differences. That is because when you get past all the marketing hype, it is body mechanics that determine what works … and the human body only moves powerfully so many ways.
My exposure to Nguyen-ryu
Enter Charlie Taylor, a good friend, a Vietnam veteran, and a damn good martial artist. He just showed up at my dojo one day and started helping out.
Charlie had served several tours in Vietnam as a medic on Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols in the region of Vietnam my books focus on. He was a quiet guy, but when the mood struck, he had some fantastic stories to tell about his experiences in Vietnam. I am sure he embellished them a bit to make them more fun to listen too, but there was something in the stories and his eyes when he told them that led you to understand that there was an element of truth to each one.
Charlie was also a highly-skilled martial artist, and there was nothing “superfluous” in what he did. I remember spending time training what was essentially a “silent sentry removal” technique with him and being shocked and a bit disturbed at the ease with which it worked. I still remember asking him, rhetorically,
“And, you’ve used this before.”
He just looked at me kind of funny and replied, “On a few occasions.”
While he knew a few of the kata, Charlie didn’t practice Isshin -ryu. In fact, many of our workouts consisted of me teaching him more Isshin-ryu kata. He practiced what he called Nguyen-ryu. Charlie claimed he’d learned it from his grandfather, who’d married a Vietnamese girl while stationed in Japan after WWII. This girl’s father was a skilled practitioner of the style, and after a suitable period of denials, consented to teach it to his daughter’s round-eyed husband.
I know it sounds like a movie plot. And maybe it is. I can neither prove nor disprove Charlie’s claims. However, I can definitely vouch for his abilities. Charlie could be damn scary when he was “in the zone,” much like my former instructor, Sensei Harrill. Those who have trained with Sensei Harrill will understand what I am referring to. We called it “shark eyes.”
Charlie did have an honorary 5th-degree black belt in Isshin-ryu Karate signed by Harold Long. However, he always claimed it was not worth the paper it was written on. It seems Charlie had impressed Harold Long with his abilities while training for a period at Long’s school in Knoxville, Tennessee, but, as mentioned earlier, had only learned a few of the kata. He held no official rank in Nguyen-ryu, so he always wore a white belt.
I will say that the kid’s classes loved it when Charlie regaled them with stories of his early training days. He always referred to them as “Papaw Days.”
Unfortunately, Charlie passed away a few years ago from a combination of medical conditions, several of which I am sure originated with his tours of duty in Vietnam. Some of the threads in Serpents Underfoot and Montagnard are based on past discussions with Charlie. And I think Charlie may be resurrected from the dead for a character in the next book in the series titled Reciprocity. I think he would like that.
Martial Arts scenes in the two books …
I have seen a large man knocked unconscious with a punch to the shoulder. I do not know too many people who could do that. Sensei Harrill certainly could. And, his “fence post punch” was something to behold. You did not want to get hit with it.
On more than one occasion, MMA fighters or cage fighters from the casinos in Council Bluff would make their way to his dojo after hearing about this karate guy who had a reputation for being a badass. Every one of them left with a new appreciation for karate … well, at least Sherman Harrill’s version.
The technique JD uses to take out the drug smuggler on the trail from Laos into Vietnam is simply one of my variations on Charlie Taylor’s sentry removal technique.
Putting it all together
I like to think my stories are written to entertain, but there is so much more to them, at least for me. They are ways to remember, record, and share the people I have known, places I have been, things I have seen, and the stories I have heard, as well as the possibilities those things can combine to create.
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Joe Bonamassa is probably the most gifted guitarist I have ever seen and listened to in my life. I saw him play in Knoxville, Tennessee and was utterly blown away. It was about a three-hour set. In the middle, the band went off stage for a break. Bonamassa just grabbed an acoustic guitar and continued to amaze the audience. I have never before or since heard anyone play an acoustic guitar the way he did.
Mountain Time (Live From The Royal Albert Hall, 2019)
Now that is a grand performance.
Blues Deluxe (2007)
While a blues guitarist, Joe Bonamassa also covers some really great rock as well. However, Led Zeppelin, despite their moniker as the founders of Heavy Metal, was essentially a blues-based band. Here Bonamassa performs one of my all-time favorite blues songs by Zeppelin.
I Can’t Quit You Baby (KTBA Cruise 2019)
Your really need to watch this video to the end. It is freaking amazing! A great showcase of both Joe Bonamassa and Jimmy Page’s guitar virtuosity.
For those of you who, like me, love to take the guitar ride, here is an awesome guitar duel between Joe Bonamassa, Tommy Emanuel, and Josh Smith. Check this shit out!
I will just end this post here … with this great video, Remembering BB King, that Joe Bonamassa did for his mentor and friend, BB King.
If you enjoyed this Tunes for Tuesday post, please take a few minutes and check out some of my other blog posts by clickinghere!
And, if you happen to love reading great action-adventure stories, check out my award-winning novel, Montagnard.
Tuesday, February 27th, I arrived at McKay’s Used Books and CD’s in Knoxville, Tennessee to set up for my first “commercial” book signing for Serpents Underfoot. The book signing was scheduled from 12:00 PM to 3:00 PM. It was a bit intimidating. I mean, what if nobody buys a book? How silly would I feel then? Anyway, I got set up and waited. My daughter-in-law Leah, a great photographer, came by to take s few pictures for me. That was very kind of her, and she also did a great job!
The First Hour
The first hour went pretty slow. A few people looked as they passed by, but nobody stopped. I started to wonder if my initial worries might come true. Leah and I chatted about odds and ends, but book sales-wise, it was looking pretty grim. We noticed a military service member come in. He did stop by, and we chatted a bit. He was a Captain in the U.S. Army. I had served in the Army from ’79 to ’83, so we discussed Army life for a bit. I ended up giving him a book and signing it for him to thank him for his service. I figured, at least I could give one book away!
The Second Two Hours
However, I think giving the book away started something! A few minutes later I had sold a few books. People were stopping by and asking questions about the book, me, how long I’d been writing, etc. It was fun at that point. Then Brad Walker stopped by and chatted a few minutes. Brad is an Isshin-ryu colleague of mine and also sells real estate in Knoxville with Keller Williams. As time went on, I sold more books. All-in-all it was a great experience and a lot of fun. I am looking forward to doing more. I guess I will start in the Cary area, then maybe Charlotte and Asheville!
If I Missed You at the Book signing
Serpents Underfoot is available at several online booksellers: Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and Books-A-Million. Anyone interested in acquiring a signed copy can always reach me through my website. I am willing to ship the book about anywhere. I have shipped one copy to the UK so far.
I am also working on the sequel, Montagnard, and will be posting excerpts in the not too distant future.
Onwards and upwards!
One More Thought!
If you have purchased a copy of my book, Serpents Underfoot, I want to express my sincere appreciation for your support! If you read my book and you enjoyed it, please take the time to give it a review on whichever website you happened to purchase it from. Reviews are a big help to authors … especially good ones!
U.S Rep. Zach Wamp, who is seeking the GOP nomination for governor in 2010, spoke at a town hall meeting held at Gunny’s Indoor Shooting Range in Maryville. The town hall meeting was sponsored by a local Knoxville radio station. Flanked by Phil Williams (of Knoxville News Talk Radio) and David “Gunny” Perry (owner of Gunny’s Indoor Shooting Range), Wamp told the crowd who had gathered for the meeting that if President Obama ever issued an executive order “taking up guns” that, as governor, “We will meet him at the state line.”
All I can say to that is HOOYAH!
Now …. I may not agree with Zach Wamp on every issue, but … if he means what he says when it comes to supporting honest, law-abiding Tennessean’s Second Amendment Rights against the soon to be renewed attacks by the most conniving, anti-gun administration the U.S. has ever seen … then he will probably get my vote as governor in 2010. Unless … of course … he screws up!