Starting to Train

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Starting to train in a martial art is rarely portrayed as inviting in the media. The Karate Kid ‘s Daniel starts training out of fear of bullies, and gets frustrated when he is assigned chores rather than punches and kicks. The heroine of Kill Bill must endure insults to her race, gender and skills and a humiliating defeat in a challenge in order to win acceptance as a student to Pai Mei. In the most recent example, Kung Fu Panda, an eager new student is mocked whenever he isn’t actually being pummeled.

There are excellent cinematic reasons for this. No screenwriter on earth can wring dramatic tension from the completion of a new member form and a tour of the changing rooms. “To train with us, you need to have…a water bottle” will never in a million years be accompanied by swelling music. As a movie fan, I understand this. As someone who loves karate, I worry that people who would otherwise thrive in training are scared off from taking the first step.

However unintentionally, martial arts are intimidating to beginners in the best of circumstances. For starters, adults are generally unaccustomed to asking for help in dressing themselves. The first time I put on a hakama for kendo (picture enormous billowing blue pants, then envision them larger that that), I had to seriously weigh which made me more uncomfortable: asking a near-total stranger for help tying my pants or the possibility that I might get it wrong and thus learn the Japanese term for “suddenly pantsless.” The vocabulary is Japanese, and filled with words that sound deceptively similar. The etiquette rules are unfamiliar. Joining solo, as most students do, means joining classes full of people who have been training weeks, months or years longer. These aren’t the challenges faced by people who join a gym or a softball league.

This period of confusion is a rite of passage, and there are two bright points for anyone going through it. The first is that it will end for anyone willing to keep coming back. The second is that absolutely everyone in the room has gone through it as well. It’s often said as a white belt it’s impossible to do anything wrong, and that is demonstrated in support offered to new students. I was never criticized for being slow or uncoordinated, or ending up in strange configurations that looked nothing like the people next to me. The instructors explained vocabulary words, and then explained them again until they began to make sense. My etiquette errors were gently corrected. Copying a more advanced student when I got lost wasn’t just okay, it was encouraged.

I’m forever grateful that I found Sun Dragon and took the first step in joining. I experienced the kind of learning environment that I would wish for anyone, without any of the harsh instructors or humiliating challenges that make for good drama but poor training. I did end up cleaning, as all students do in order to maintain the dojo, but never had to wax anyone’s car or paint a house.

- Summer Cacciotti