Onkur Sen

"The way to be is to do." Confucius

From Karate to Boogaloo: How Martial Arts Has Influenced Me as a Performer

Jun 24, 2011

I began learning Tang Soo Do, a Korean derivative of Karate, at the age of 5. At the time, I really didn’t have any say in the matter– my parents wanted me to do it, so I did. It turned out to be a transformative journey. The main methods of development were forms and sparring. Forms represented the technical side of the practice–crisp, well-defined moves were their hallmark. Sparring represented the variable component of martial arts and presented the opportunity for the flair to emerge within a practictioner–it was a test of adaptability. The combination of these two aspects of martial arts brought together two opposite but complementing forces–the concrete of forms, the always-changing of sparring; the clear, crisp techniques in forms versus the smooth, fluid motions encouraged in sparring. Forms and sparring remind me of the steadfast nature of a redwood tree compared to the ebb and flow of a neighboring stream.

I continued learning Tang Soo Do for nine years until the end of my sophomore year (by when I had reached the rank of 2nd Degree Midnight Blue Belt), at which point I had to quit due to increasing extracurricular pressures and changing schools. It wasn’t until later that I would realize what was ingrained in me as a result of those ten years or so of taking a bath in my own sweat and screaming at the top of my lungs twice a week. What I gained wasn’t just the moves or scoring points by hitting target zones on the other person’s body, or even winning trophies at our semiannual tournaments. Learning martial arts taught me a way of looking at the world and a way of looking at myself. It really presented a philosophy of self-betterment, internalization, and free expression that I had never seen anywhere else.

That is, until I started dancing. Before I went to college, I was never too keen on dancing in public at the few parties and dances I went to in high school. Instead, I used to walk videos of Michael Jackson and try to moonwalk. I would put on music by Justice (“Genesis” in particular) and try my hand at popping and krumping. The first night at college during our orientation week, there was a surprise dance, and that’s when it happened: I just let go and let my feet do the talking. That night started with my advisor (mentor during orientation week) saying “Oh my god” and ended with a danceoff with one of the best poppers in my residential college. That’s when I realized that maybe, just maybe, this is something I could do.

As the rest of the year progressed, I developed my newfound passion for dancing by trying to expand on my repertoire, persona, anad reputation. I became very involved in the South Asian Society at Rice and choreographed (and performed in) dances both semesters. It became something I enjoyed, some outlet as a way to express myself. I would frequently walk down the streets with my friends unabashedly flailing my arms and my legs in efforts to continually improve my dancing ability as it’s not somethiing that requires equipment. I even took a class in popping taught by another student at Rice. This course of action helped me make the connection–I realized that dancing is nothing more than the reincarnation and reorganization of the principles that define martial arts. Here again I saw the same two forces at work–the technique required to perform correct (e.g., crisp hits in popping and clean moves in Bollywood dancing) and the flair and fluidity required to perform in an appealing way. It almost seemed to me as if both practices were manifestations of the same concept, which reminded me of yin and yang. Indeed, I began to realize, after thinking about how playing piano, guitar, or other instruments works, that this is something that can be applied to any type of performance.

Essentially, this isn’t a highly sophisticated take-home message. To perform well, one must have a solid grasp on the technicasl requirements of the performance before introducing artistic creativities to make it something extraordinary. I remember that Master Rex Smith, one of my instructors, when asked how to improve one’s forms and technique, would reply with three words: “line, beauty, speed.” The line represents the acquisition of skill in correct practice, and beauty that of artistic grace. Lastly, speed represents the degree of fluidity and also adds to the aesthetic quality of the act. Even in cricket, commentators and coaches emphasize “line and length” with regards to bowling. This concept really is something universal: to think that this line of thought would have stemmed from martial arts is quite surprising for me. It’s heartening to see that the values embedded in such an ancient practice are still relevant today.

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