"Hanna. Dul. Set. Net." The cadence is familiar, although the language is still foreign to my ear. Similarly, the controlled 1-2-3, ready-set-go of practice drills is like a heartbeat. But the moves are still a step away from intuitive. Which is why they call it "practice."
It's Thursday night at the U.S. Tae Kwon Do Association at Fitworks in Norwood. Upon entering the training room, we bow to the room.
After lining up, we bow to the instructors at the front of the class and then to the flags in the corner.
We start with 15 minutes of stretching, slowly working out the tightness of the day — smoothing out the knots tied by deadlines, worries and stresses of modern life — and generally warming up the muscles and joints for the kicking drills that follow.
It's six weeks into a new session and a new sport. While my 11-year-old son and I are no longer the newest students in the class, we have moved forward only a metaphoric moment in a centuries-old practice of martial arts.
Karate, kung fu, tae kwon do and virtually all the martial arts are flourishing in Cincinnati and likewise are on the rise around the country. Sixty-four separate training centers are open in this area, as evidenced in the phone book, online and by word of mouth. And that doesn't count the various YMCA/YWCA locations and health clubs that offer classes.
Hollywood is helping as well, as the explosive moves of Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix Reloaded spotlight an array of spinning wheel kicks and high and low blocks for a mass audience.
But there are other reasons for the resurgence of martial arts — improved self-defense, an attraction to rigor and discipline, an appreciation for the spirituality behind the physicality, a more sophisticated exercise regime to follow kickboxing and other more calisthenic-like pursuits.
Serious students would tell you that these elements are more important. An amazing movie sequence might bait the hook, but it's the internal and physical rewards of martial arts that keep you on the line.
The family that sweats together stays together
When visiting the various martial arts centers around town, a subtle perception settles in. The starkness of the white uniforms is topped by skin tones and features from around the world.
The classes fairly represent a population sample of Greater Cincinnati, which is actually unusual, since recreational activities usually tend to divide themselves along racial, cultural and economic lines. Not so with the martial arts: Korean, African-American, Japanese, Chinese and American instructors are leading classes comprised of the same bandwidth, plus students with Latin-American, Appalachian, Thai, Greek and Mexican backgrounds.
Surveying the practice rooms, it also seems that at least half of the class is under 12 years of age, and in many cases the classes are only for kids. While this infusion of the next generation is on the rise, instructors who've been teaching for a decade or more say that periods of increase are cyclic and can often be in response to outside events.
A few years ago when a fourth-grader at Vine Street Elementary freed herself from an attacker with a jump front kick, class enrollment increased for a month or two. On a less predatory note, the popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a decade ago likewise spurred sign-ups.
What's new for the younger student is the push from schools to get kids involved in martial arts training. Teachers and guidance counselors are feeding the system, as they've seen marked academic and social improvement in students studying a marital art.
For any students with ADD or ADHD tendencies, the power of focused concentration developed from tae kwon do is a tangible benefit. Conversely, most instructors ask to see the younger students' report cards as a reality check that the improvement in the practice room is mirrored in the classroom.
"Dasut. Yasut. Ilgop."
Semi-serious athletes in virtually any sport will confess that they develop a jones for practice, a physical addiction to the sweating and stretching and physical coordination that comes from doing the moves again and again and again.
From ballet to wrestling to soccer, this is where the learning takes place, where the camaraderie is developed, where the respect for your own and others' abilities is recognized. It's here where limits are drawn, approached, not quite met, tried again and finally exceeded.
The class is separated by belt ranks, allowing the black belt instructors to focus their instruction on teaching moves at the next level — specific kicks, punches or forms (a series of interrelated moves built on a philosophy as well as a self-defense). Like practicing scales on the piano, the moves of a form might not be a sequence used in real life, but they build dexterity, muscle knowledge and discipline for the overall technique as well as develop a flow and expectation that one movement is followed organically by another.
One trademark of the martial arts not evidenced by most American sports is the all-inclusive approach. All ages, both sexes, varying levels of experience from three decades of training to first-timers — everyone gathers in the same room, participates in the same drills and hears the same message. Where basketball, volleyball, baseball, football and other traditional competitive sports quickly sort themselves out by level and gender, martial arts doesn't impose, nor really allow, such division. It's not uncommon to see a whole family training together.
Paul and Brian Cornwell, father and son, have participated together for nine years. As black belts, they speak reverently and thankfully to a fundamental bond developed through these years of training and instructing together. Individually and collectively, they acknowledge that involvement in the martial arts has changed their lives and added perspective and meaning to their relationship.
Over the years, they've taken every promotion test together. When Brian needed surgery some years ago, Paul essentially "trained in place" until his son could resume practice and continue moving up the belt ranks.
"Parents in other sports may coach their kids," notes Paul, 45, "but don't necessarily train together in the same arena. By doing this together, we added a dimension as friend and confidante as well."
Brian, 15, says they have "different — and more interesting — conversations because of martial arts. Every time we come into the room, there's a personal challenge in meeting the next set of goals. But knowing that the other person is there for us has allowed us to have the confidence and support to meet these challenges."
"We've expanded our horizons individually and together," says Paul. "We see things differently because of our experiences."
Melissa Bartel (12), her brother Gabe (14) and two sisters, Chi Chi (9) and Georgina (8), exemplify an All-American family approach to their martial arts training that adds an element of dimension and distinction to their Hispanic background. While each is still working toward his or her black belt, Melissa won a gold medal at the Ohio championships in form and sparring last month and Gabe took the silver medal. Both will be competing at the national tournament in Orlando.
Lorraine Bartels, their mother, prizes what tae kwon do has given their family. (She participates, too, although a back injury has sidelined her for the last couple of months.)
"Here, we do everything together, we're all involved," she says. "This sport is a wonderful way to stay healthy and help each other out. They all like to help other people as well. As a parent, what I appreciate is that the classes and competitions provide a structure that the kids need. Here they get to meet people, they enjoy the activity and develop friendships. They're building confidence."
Having witnessed more than the occasional skirmish between kids at home, I wondered aloud about what a sibling conflict might mean to the Bartels.
"No, they don't hurt each other," Marjorie says. "No kicks or punches at home. They just fight the regular way all kids do — 'She won't help me' or 'He said this.' "
Lots of styles to choose
"Yudulb. Ah-hope. Yul."
The count and drill has reached 10. We switch feet, right foot forward, hands up to protect the head, and begin a series of roundhouse kicks — tolya chagi — with our left foot.
So how should one start? How do you base a decision that will take a significant amount of time, dedication and a not-so-insignificant amount of money? Especially when the range of available schools and styles is akin to fanning out a deck of cards face up.
In broad terms, an individual martial art can be characterized as being "hard" or "soft." Hard styles tend to be more direct, aggressive and focused on combat rather than self-defense, with a lot of clenching and striking with the hands and feet. Even the animal names associated with these styles emphasize this approach — Tiger, Eagle, etc.
Soft styles tend to emphasize sweeping motions, the redirection of forces, moving others not so much by brute force or will or surprise of attack but by moving out of harm's way at the critical moment, then barring further responses.
There are similarities within the martial arts as well. Across the decades, forms that originated in one part of the world have been adapted in another country, with another mindset directing the style or another set of circumstances imposed on the style by local or regional conditions.
Aikido is the Japanese art of unarmed self-defense, a soft style built on redirecting an opponent's momentum and energy. Embedded within is a focus on a nonviolent attitude. Its movements are primarily ones of bending, arm bars, throws and locking action against the joints.
If there's a cinematic archetype that best reflects aikido principles, it's Steven Seagal as he accepts and anticipates an opponent's initiative, taking that momentum in one direction and then moving it in a direction it's not supposed to go.
Hapkido is the Korean equivalent of unarmed self-defense and also employs a variety of counter-attacks and a combination of kicking and grabbing techniques. Hapkido tends to use more kicking than aikido — it's at least 80 percent kicking moves and 20 percent grabbing and twisting techniques.
Judo is Japanese wrestling and one of the two martial arts that are included in Olympic competition, tae kwon do being the second. (Fencing is also officially labeled a martial art, although the inclusion of the long and pointy metal object makes it seem very different from judo or tae dwon do.) Judo uses a lot of throwing and flipping techniques as a method of turning an opponent's strength against himself.
Kung fu, which translates to "The Way," is emblematic of the wide range of diversity within martial arts, with 350 different kung fu styles practiced worldwide. It's both hard and soft. Even the animal names associated with Kung Fu emphasize this variety of elements — Tiger, Eagle, White Crane, Mantis, Snake, Dragon — creating images of graceful, extended movements as well as strong strikes.
Kung fu was developed in the countryside of China. As traditional weapons were outlawed there by the ruling regime, kung fu weapons were developed from farm implements — scythes re-fashioned, nunchuck coming from the tools used to separate seeds from stalks of grain. For any American over 25, it's hard to think of kung fu without having David Carradine pop into mind with the words "Ah, grasshopper" ringing in your ears. Curiously, it was Bruce Lee who developed the series, but the higher-ups at the network thought that TV viewers wouldn't accept a foreigner in the lead role.
Related to the softer styles is tai chi, if not a martial art then at least a practice of interconnected forms that sprang from kung fu. Most current tai chi students respond to its meditative and stretching/exercise benefits. But strictly speaking, if one were to do a family tree of martial arts, tai chi would be a cousin. And probably more welcome at the annual reunion than fencing.
Wing chun kung fu is a blend of kung fu and karate, the style Bruce Lee started learning before founding jeet kune do. Although jeet kune do is often called a style, it's more a combination of techniques of many styles formed into one concept, decidedly aggressive, marked by punches, flips, arm bars and spinning moves. It's centered on improvisation, using instincts and natural body movements to respond to any kind of action.
Karate is a Japanese offensive and defensive art form that contains both hand strikes and kicking techniques. It includes a variety of blocks and powerful blows and is a combination of short hand and kicking techniques. To wrap up the television connection, it's Kato from Green Hornet who's most associated with introducing karate to the U.S.
Tae kwon do karate is Korean karate, a martial art comprised of 90 percent kicking. Scanning the ads in the Yellow Pages, tae kwon do is the most popular martial art at this moment in time and, as noted, is in great part due to its current popularity with children.
Being around positive energy
So when selecting a style, you need to do a personal assessment and then some homework in terms of on-site visits. Think about what you're looking to gain from the training. Is it getting in shape or building self-defense skills? Are you looking for an inner balance? Body confidence? All of the above?
Jim Holmstrom, a fifth-rank black belt, leads classes at U.S. Tae Kwon Do Association locations in Mount Healthy and Norwood. As an instructor for well over a decade, he says that, regardless of style, the benefits of martial arts overall are similar, so the total benefit is based on competency of instructors.
"For those looking for increased self-respect and self-control, tae kwon do is attractive and engaging," he says. "There are a lot of big movements within the style, large muscle activities that in turn create a workout a level or two above aerobics."
Programs run the gamut, so you really need to observe classes before joining. Look for schools and instructors who care about each individual, taking the time to know where each student is in development.
"Be aware of what the next right step is for each student in terms of development," Holmstrom says.
Just as any parent checking out elementary schools would attest, a lot depends on the critical instructor-to-student ratio in classes. As instructors, Holmstrom and the Cornwells can't stress enough the preparation needed before signing up. Ask about the success rate with kids as measured by how they're developed at their own pace, whether a curriculum can be adapted for kids with special needs and how rigid the training is in terms of robotic-like movements — the range of personalities and various potential dictate that the best schools are the ones that accommodate a range of participants skill levels.
Parents checking out a program for their kids need to be allowed to observe the class at any and all times. There used to be instructors and school that never let the parents view the practice. Parish, school and other scandals aside, the parents need to be as plugged into the training as the students to achieve the most value.
Newcomers should also prepare themselves in terms of understanding the optimum learning schedule for a new style, which is two to three times a week. While some new students attend every single class, which at some programs could be every day, it's more important to make sure the schedule fits with the rest of your life and that it becomes regular part of life, as with any exercise program.
Many martial arts students aren't zealously interested in competitions, so the new student shouldn't be afraid of being thrown into scary territory without the necessary skills. The real competition is with the self, and good instructors don't want competitions to overshadow self-development and self-improvement. That's why a good instructor needs to stay in tune with students' needs, to develop leadership and to support the natural extension of personal ideals.
Phil Sexton started with judo at age 10 but truly came to martial arts in earnest when at Ohio State University nearly a decade later. The tournaments that were pushed as part of learning judo hadn't motivated him, so when he returned he looked to cultivate a thoughtfulness about himself.
He found in kung fu a style that embraced an appreciation of stillness. He also liked the sparring in slow motion, learning to anticipate and how to react. Although transferring schools from judo to kung fu entailed starting over again, the more spiritual elements of the new style suited his needs better.
Holstrom believes that younger students, and boys in particular, receive an extra benefit from martial arts — a rite of passage. Citing the importance of being around positive adult energy and a sense of being initiated in society, this element is the wisdom that other cultures foster. There needs to be a sense of elders bestowing learning and an ordeal one must go through to become recognized as an adult, he says, and often this is a role a father or mother can't do.
Such a process parallels the steps up through belt ranks and the promotion testing for black belt in particular. With the support of all the other black belts viewing this ceremony, there's significant intangible value for an adolescent.
While martial arts is a real opportunity for personal growth, however, it's not a cure-all. Progress is achieved through determination, focus and hard work — qualities that can infuse students and be applied to various parts of their lives.
As the kicking drills continue, I watch my son Taylor out of the corner of my eye. He'll be as tall as me in a year or two — no major achievement, trust me — but at this point his muscles and movements are still trying to catch up with his height.
I can already see that the physical exercise is squaring his shoulders when he stands, his back straighter. When he calls out "Yes, sir" in response to our instructor's commands, I can assure you this is the first environment in which he's responded that way.
The move from white belt to orange belt was indeed a notch up in confidence, and there was a shine in his eyes that day. Mine, too.
But he's already miles ahead of me in terms of flexibility and, obviously, raw potential. If he stays with it — and I hope he does, so I can continue as well without feeling I'm neglecting home duties — I can tell this training will be one of the most positive factors in his upbringing and possibly the most important one in terms of determining fortitude, balance, strength and mental focus. I hope his sister and younger brother, and maybe even their mom, will join the class in time — and that time might be soon.
As for me, I'm just working to smooth out my side kicks and hoping I don't fall down too many times. I'm relishing the opportunity to learn more about both human potential and a foreign culture, borne out in action and philosophy, that's thousands of years old.
The instructor's voice cuts into this reverie.
"Switch feet! Left foot forward, righting stance. Dui chagi (back kicks). On my count. Hanna. Dul. Set. Net." ©