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Kata: The Dance of…Death?

By Thomas "Shogun" Fry, Karate / Kickboxing

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Kata is a Japanese word describing detailed choreographed patterns of physical movements often practiced by either a single individual or in pairs. Kata are used in many traditional Japanese arts, such as theater forms like kabuki and schools of tea ceremony (chad), but are most commonly known for their presence in the martial arts. Kata are used by most traditional Japanese and Okinawan martial arts such as aikido, jiu-jutsu, kendo and karate. Other arts such as t'ai chi ch'uan and taekwondo feature the same kind of training, but use the respective Chinese and Korean words to describe forms training instead.

“Have you ever noticed that Ballerinas have such perfect balance?”

Some Martial Artists practice tactile and partner oriented drills to come closer to achieving such balance and poise.

For instance; In the world of Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), you may first learn a technique that is demonstrated on an assistant or fellow training partner. After you have watched it being done enough, then you are generally partnered up with a fellow student to continue working on it, each person taking turns working on the offense and defense aspects of the move until it becomes more refined. After you have worked on a few initial techniques, it's then time to "roll" on the floor-mats in search of further refinement. In this type of “live” drill you are simply using the techniques you’ve just learned, as well as any you have accumulated, with your partner to offer one another a bit more realistic resistance.

This efficient form of partner drilling is uniquely formulated, highly stylized, and can eventually become very effective for the rigorous needs of the BJJ system.

Mind, Body, Spirit

The physical demands of a “stand-up” martial art system, such as Muay Thai or Kick-boxing, can be very similar. The techniques used can also be easily demonstrated using a partner. After the foundation of a technique is learned, the Karateka or Kru partner up and take turns attacking and defending. Once a few basic techniques have been practiced enough, the students can then use a less than full speed sparring format to try out their new moves along with any they may have already accumulated in a free-form environment. This type of drilling is also formulated for the system, highly stylized and a very effective process of learning.

Most martial arts systems may also have, in one form or another, a solo training set of drills. For the BJJ player, it may be "shrimping" drills or other scooting and rolling exercises. In Judo, primarily a grappling or throwing art, there is also a large number of solo exercises one can practice. However, grappling arts seem to incorporate mostly tactile partner driven drills due to their nature and design.

Most of the “stand-up” martial arts, primarily Boxing; utilize many blocking, punching and kicking drills, along with “shadow-boxing” and muscle memory drills to instruct students. Muay Thai has a stylized dance called the Ram Muay, which honors their history, school and teacher. This dance tends to showcase some of the systems favorite forms. All of the practices mentioned above are meant to help in a students’ physical development towards their chosen art form.

Karate has a similar practice called Kata (Tae Kwon Do practitioners call their set of forms: Poomse) to aid in student development.

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However, there is quite a wide variety of approaches and conflicting opinions regarding the benefits of forms training in martial arts.

On one level, Kata may actually help to strengthen the body through dynamic muscle movement, isometrics, plyometrics, static tension, breathing and the neuro connection that is created between the mind and the body by repeatedly using the body’s muscles in a fashion that is similar to the bio-mechanics used in a potentially violent art form.

Kata can be described as being similar to the training wheels on a bicycle because it aims to train a person in specific self defense applications at a basic level. Eventually, increased knowkedge, better balance and the physical agility necessary to “take the training wheels off” will occur once the student learns to begin defending ones self “where the rubber meets the road”.

In the original Okinawan tradition, martial arts forms are at first done alone, but are then practiced with a partner to learn Bunkai (self defense applications), and finally the techniques are practiced in a freestyle sparring environment.

At the beginning level, the movements of Kata usually are quite simple and repetitive, requiring little in the way of physical power. Gradually, as a student becomes more proficient at what is being learned, they will find themselves becoming very disciplined within a system. The focus on form has slowly transformed the Karateka into a methodical and well-rooted fighter, who is not easily moved or taken off balance.

The isometric and plyometric values in the Kata becomes more evident in the resulting agility and application of knowledge. The student’s reflexes have been given a reaction that is more productive than the usual "spazzed out" type of amatuer’s flinch-reaction that often comes naturally at the start.

“The disciplined body reacts without the need for conscious thought.”

There are detractors who would claim that Kata is a dead form. They often insist that the techniques trained in Kata are hundreds of years old and that these ancient practices are no longer relevant in the modern age of Martial Combat. Many detractors say that the pre-formulation of Kata takes out the spontaneity of a live situation.

Critics of Kata also tend to claim that it more often molds a student into a robotic automoton who only has a limited reaction or response under serious pressure from an unforeseen attacker. Those critics may really be making comparisons between the original purposeful ancient forms as opposed to much of the post WW-2 commercialized version of Kata, which has become even more formulated.

“It has been found that any movement that is undertaken, with resistance applied, becomes easier when the resistance is removed.”

Personally, I consider Kata to be the resistance the body needs to make actual fighting easier. While Kata is not a stand alone training method, a fighter who drills with partners or practices a decent amount of shadowboxing, but doesn't use a set of multifaceted Kata, is ignoring a dimension of training that can potentially help a person reach a level of expertise quicker and with more complete tools than any other mode of martial arts training.

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