I have been involved in the martial arts for almost 13 years now. When I started, really as a try-out, I never anticipated to be standing where I stood yesterday night: on the threshold of receiving my Third Dan, otherwise put: the 3rd Degree Black Belt in US Urban Goju Karate and Shaolin Kempo. Now, all the Dan exams at American Dragon Martial Arts are different, as they are tailored to the individual(s) undergoing the test (which also means that future candidates will not be able to use this report to prepare for their own test. It will be completely different!). So, I had no idea what to expect, all I knew was that a board of high-level martial artists was going to evaluate me and my knowledge of the martial arts. I decided to approach this as a lesson, a “Master Class”, so to speak. And it turned out that this was exactly the only right approach, because, as we were informed right at the start:” You have already completed your material test during last months, this is to see if you are ready to take the next step.” I took this exam together with (now) Sandan Patricia De Jager who will –hopefully- write her own story as well
The first stage of the exam tested our ability to modify one of our katas (standard forms) to include special movements and approaches one needs in order to defend against a weapon attack, in front of the entire board. Most of these are designed to defend against fist attacks, and need to be modified in order to be effective against e.g., a knife attack. My kata of choice was Tensho, the 1st degree black belt kata which I have studied extensively, as it is an excellent kata to work on and with the Qi. While performing this test, I noticed very quickly that the usual energy build-up and release would not work against a knife, one simply has to be a lot quicker with the movements. So, I completely changed the katas flow, introduced some dodging and indirect blocks to avoid an imaginary incoming stabbing knife. A very interesting exercise that you cannot prepare for, it simply has to come out there and at that moment.
That also applied to the follow-up assignment: four weapons were selected and we had to give an impromptu lesson about the weapon and then create a form which showed these lessons. Out of the window went all my carefully prepared “special weapon katas”, because this required an entirely different approach. I got Bo (the long stick, one of my better weapons), Nunchaks (which are my worst), Katana and finally the Kamas, a subject we had addressed a long time ago, so I had to examine the weapon on the spot to find its specialties and peculiarities. Again, this is not something you can prepare for as it is testing how deeply the knowledge has become a part of you.
By that time, the board members had seen enough to find our weak spots and in the second half of the exam, we spent 20 minutes with each of them to work out these weak spots and receive a lesson about them. The “Master Class”, I mentioned earlier.
I was first handed over to Sensei Sandan Alex B. who is an excellent worker with the katana and that was also the subject of his work with me. For twenty minutes we worked on the specific flows and techniques with this weapon, and to me that was really an eye opener. Until now, I have worked with the katana -and actually with all weapons- as an exercise in techniques. Sensei Alex taught me to really feel and use this most venerable weapon as an extension of myself, indeed becoming a part of me. An invaluable lesson!
Then Renshi Godan Rumley-van Gurp took over and for the first part of his teaching we worked on self- defense flows against the knife, in which I needed to demonstrate as many different techniques as possible. But then the Renshi followed up on the previous session, by letting me work on the same kind of flow with the knife and-finally- with that underestimated weapon, the Kamas. It is amazing how different all these weapons feel while doing that kind of exercise!After a small break, Sensei Godan Rene Bommele worked with me on self defense but at a considerably higher level than “what I am used to”. If there is one lesson from this exam, it may be that I need to start working beyond the “techniques” (which still have to be perfected) and more ‘from the inside”. Sensei Rene showed me the importance of awareness in the area of self-defense and how gaining control should be a first step, rather than a focus on ‘disarming’ your opponent. Again, a valuable and though provoking lesson.
And finally, it was my turn to be taught by Sensei Martijn Smith, 6th Dan in Taekwondo, who proved to have a very keen and critical eye. With him I went back to the basics in order to take my performance of forms and katas to a higher level. Sometimes very simple and subtle things will make a tremendous differences, and I was actually quite astonished how a few modifications completely altered (and considerably improved!) my experience. It is actually true: there are at least a thousand lessons hidden in each kata, and this short 20 minute work with Master Smith gave me some valuable keys to learn a few more!
And then: the exam was over, the board convened and were satisfied enough to promote us to Sandan. As a token of this, we received the certificate, the belt rank insignia and a special token of our new found dignity: a wonderful and beautiful katana, handed over by the senior members of the board.
So, what’s next? On to the Fourth Dan? Maybe, maybe not. These Dan grades are not really achievements or accomplishments, they are more like doors to a new area of development and growth. As this account hopefully has shown, one can only prepare so far for this, the really important things have to come from inside. In order to do that, the knowledge and experience one has gathered needs to ‘mature’. So, there is definitely more material to be learned. But there is also a lot to be done to bring the material I have now to a higher level. And that is what I am going to work on.
And that 4th Dan? We’ll see it when and if I get there…
I ‘d like to thank Sander and Erin for, being there and helping us out and I’d like to thank Sylvia van Herrewijnen for helping us with the video. A very special thanks to the board members Sensei Alex B., Sensei Rene Bommele and Sensei Martijn Smith for inspiring me and finally, many thanks to my husband and Renshi, Godan William Rumley-Van Gurp for making this wonderful exam possible and for believing in me…