Many beginning martial artists dream of one day reaching the black belt level. This is an ambitious goal requiring a commitment of time and attention comparable to pursuing a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college. The curriculum of Tae Kwon Do can be divided into four basic parts:
- Tae Kwon Do students begin drills from their first class, when they learn one or two basic stances and techniques. A significant portion of each class is dedicated to drilling particular techniques — alone or in combination, moving or standing still. This is the martial arts equivalent of playing scales and chords on the piano. A student practices each technique literally thousands of times until it becomes a part of his or her being. Many people believe that martial arts “masters” have learned the techniques so deeply that if they need to defend themselves, they can perform automatically, without thinking. This is true, but learning techniques at this level is really only the first stage of martial arts study. What seems like mastery is really only an introduction which must take place before real training can begin.
- A form is a traditional sequence of techniques arranged in a specific order to distill and express essential concepts of motion and spirit. Forms are the heart of any martial art, and the serious martial artist practices them with great diligence. The Ji Do Kwan school uses the traditional Pal Gwe series of forms for students up to the black belt level. It uses the World Tae Kwon Do Federation black belt forms, but also adds a few traditional forms which are rarely seen outside Ji Do Kwan.
- Sparring is the term for simulated fighting, and depending on the individual, it can be one of the most exciting or most intimidating aspects of Tae Kwon Do training. In the Ji Do Kwan school, students are introduced to non-contact sparring only after they have developed well-controlled techniques. This helps prevent the types of injuries that can occur when inexperienced students spar prematurely — injuries stemming from lack of control, from improper aggression, or from a fear that they will be hurt. It was a high priority of Mr. Choi and continues to be essential to the Ji Do Kwan school today that students learn to trust each other while sparring. They learn to work with an opponent so that both improve, rather than attempting to dominate each other. Only as students gain experience, control, and mutual trust does the level of contact rise to keep pushing students to the edge of their abilities.
- The fourth and least frequently practiced area of study in Ji Do Kwan training is the breaking of solid targets. Most breaking occurs during tests: although a beginner may break only one pine board with a punch, more advanced students break larger numbers of boards with more difficult techniques. By the test for First Dan, students will be able to break a patio brick with their unprotected hands. Breaking boards and bricks is not the point of Tae Kwon Do study, but rather a way of testing the practitioner’s strength, precision, and spirit. It is a way of measuring how all of the components of training come together into one instant of practice.
Testing and Advancing through the Ranks
Periodically throughout Tae Kwon Do training, the school will get together to test students for promotion. The test is half examination and half ceremony, as the practitioner demonstrates the result of months of training. It is a time to reflect upon progress and to renew goals for the future. Tests are public events and present an opportunity for students to show friends, family, and peers a glimpse of what they spend their long hours studying. Each test is a significant milestone in a student’s long journey along the Way, but it is important to remember that it is also just another day, another workout. Much more meaningful is the period of study that comes before the tests: the long period of training that happens one workout — indeed a single technique — at a time.
Ji Do Kwan, like many martial arts, recognizes a student’s progress by awarding rank. For the first several years of training, the student progresses through the Gup, eight levels of rank symbolized by a system of colored belts. Eventually a student may reach the Dan, representing a mastery of the basic techniques of an art, symbolized by the black belt. In the Ji Do Kwan school this journey usually takes about five years, although it may take a little less or much more time depending on a combination of a student’s natural abilities and diligence in training.
Many martial arts schools, including Ji Do Kwan, require new students to attend class for about a month before permitting them to wear a Dobok, the traditional white cotton uniform of Tae Kwon Do. This privilege is the first milestone in a beginner’s training, and it recognizes the individual’s commitment to follow the Way. The newly admitted student wears a belt of white, the color of innocence, to symbolize an “empty” state of being. He or she is like a blank piece of paper, or an empty porcelain cup waiting to be filled.
White belts learn several fundamental techniques and one form, and after a few months of hard work, they reach the rank of yellow belt (7th Gup). A yellow belt is still essentially a Tae Kwon Do beginner, but one who is comfortable with dojang etiquette and procedures and has begun to absorb the basic skills of the art.
After several more months, the Ji Do Kwan practitioner reaches the rank of 6th Gup, symbolized by a green belt. During the three levels of green belt, students are exposed to most of the basic techniques and skills of Tae Kwon Do. For many students, this period of rapid learning is the most exciting of their training. Others may feel overloaded, that they are learning too much too fast. Both are right — the pace is too much for a mind or body to contain, but there is plenty of time later to let these techniques and ideas become part of a student’s being, to develop a solid base for a powerful spirit. Green belts may begin to show skill in the simplest techniques, but the real challenge of this rank is to develop a relaxed and open mind to receive knowledge during training.
Only time and practice can lead to mastery of the basic techniques of Tae Kwon Do. Although the Ji Do Kwan brown belt continues to learn new techniques, the motions and processes of the art become more familiar, and the flow of knowledge seems less intimidating. The intensity of training continues to increase, but the brown belt is better equipped to deal with the demands as he or she strives to perfect skills already learned and to smoothly incorporate new ones. The task of this level is to reconcile power and speed with precision, agility with stability, strength with humility. At this stage, a student has made significant progress along the Way — enough to understand just how much lies ahead.
Ji Do Kwan students wear a uniform of simple white cotton, adorned only by a belt and an embroidered patch symbolizing the school. The jacket and pants of the Dobok should be replaced when worn out and kept clean and white to show respect for the art. The belt, however, is considered a part of a student’s identity and so must be treated with special care. Ji Do Kwan students never wash their belts, and so during years of training, the belt would darken by degrees from white to black. Instead of buying new belts when promoted, Ji Do Kwan students keep their old belts, changing the color with dye to symbolize and preserve this tradition.
And so tudents keep the same belt until they reach the Dan, at which time they receive a black belt of thicker, heavier material. They keep this belt as long as they practice Tae Kwon Do, and as years pass, the fibers may begin to fray and fade with age. Thus the master’s belt returns slowly to white, completing the cycle and symbolizing a gradual return to innocence as a practitioner reaches the highest state of the Way.
Achieving the Dan Rank (Earning a Black Belt)
It is generally acknowledged among martial arts instructors that only about one in every thousand students who begins to follow the Way eventually reaches the Dan or black belt level. These long odds reflect the difficulty of sustained training over a period of several years. But the dedicated few who succeed in achieving this recognition have reached a major milestone. They have mastered the basics of their discipline and are ready to begin a new phase in their lives as martial artists. As a student of Tae Kwon Do reaches the black belt level, he or she registers with the Kukkiwon, the headquarters of the World Tae Kwon Do Federation in Korea. It is at this point that a practitioner truly becomes part of the school, having earned the right through hard work to join the ranks of the leaders of the art.
But while this may appear to the novice student to be the goal of training, the new black belt has learned enough to realize that this is really just the beginning of Tae Kwon Do training. Having gained a solid mastery of the basic techniques, the black belt must begin training again, relearning the art on a much deeper level. Although the black belt begins to work with the Bo, a simple wooden staff about six feet long, and continues to learn new empty-handed forms and techniques, the journey becomes more internal. The practitioner begins to test and extend the limits of his or her body and to develop a deeper relationship with the techniques so that the distinction between mind, body, spirit, and motion begins to blur. Some black belts may start working with new students, beginning a new cycle of learning, and adding the next link to the chain of learning that has been growing for thousands of years.
Before all this can happen, though, the student must pass the test for the Dan. Preparing for this test will take each student to a new level of fitness, as he or she attempts to reach specific goals — usually in lifting weights, running, and other measurable standards — set by the teacher. The black belt candidate will perform all of the Gup level Pal Gwe forms and the first two black belt forms, execute several arranged self-defense techniques, spar with multiple opponents, and perform a series of challenging breaks, including a patio brick.
Achieving the rank of First Dan is a significant accomplishment, about as difficult and rewarding as graduating from a four-year college. But like graduating from college, it is not an end but a beginning. Just as an English major has not read and understood every book, or a recently graduated engineer has never designed a machine or bridge, the new black belt has simply acquired the body of knowledge necessary to enter the world of the martial artist. Each individual must then decide what to do with this knowledge. Because getting this far is a long and difficult journey, some who reach this stage do not continue their study, but those who go on soon realize that the road ahead is longer and more satisfying than what lies behind.