When I came back to Kenpo and picked up, I decided that rather than egotistically assume I still had all the old techniques, I would instead (only somewhat egotistically) do one belt each week. I’d focus hard on that belt during my workouts, and at the end of the week, assuming I had it down, only then would I move to the next belt level. It’s worked well so far — I’ve got the memories and technical ability to do a lot of these moves, but still with a lot of work to do on the endurance and conditioning that let me do them well.

At my old school, we would use someone’s current belt level when talking about them, but all the material they were learning would be for the belt they were working towards. So when you started as a white belt, you’d be working on Orange Belt material.

Coming back to Orange Belt with fresh eyes has been fascinating. One thing that I really appreciate now is that Orange Belt is really teaching new students to do something when they are attacked.

In real-life situations, a lot of people who don’t have self-defense training will freeze when attacked. Maybe the attack is a grab to the wrist, and they want to pull away but don’t want to escalate the situation, or maybe the attack is a grab on the shoulder, and they’re worried that they’re misunderstanding what’s happening. The instant second-guess, the “wait, is this really happening, am I overreacting, just be cool, okay, they were angry and hit me, but now it’s over unless I react, right?” That is what Orange Belt is trying to get past.

So yes, we get basics, like the normal blocks and the starting line-up of kicks that cover most of what you learn in Kenpo. We get a simple kata, which is just learning to do the blocks while moving, and we get combinations like “Kick Punch” or “Inward, Extended Outward, Chop,” which are teaching students to put together multiple basic moves. But the techniques are almost entirely moves you could teach someone to do with little or no martial arts training. They work better if you do them with good stances and clean strikes, but they work fine if you do ’em messy.

Escape of the Lamb

The attack here is a two-handed grab to the throat from behind. The steps are:

  • Left foot steps to the right behind right foot. We call this a hidden step, and it’s one of the first moves we teach students.
  • Left hand does a chop down to the attacker’s groin.
  • Duck your head and come down and then up while spinning to the left with your feet in place. If you ducked instead of just turning your head, your attacker’s arms will have gotten crossed, and when you come up, they’ll have trouble hanging onto your neck.
  • As you come up, your right hand does an upward chop (which we call a sword hand, which looks like a chop but hits with the side of the hand closest to your index finger) to their groin.
  • Right foot steps in front of left, and then left foot steps back out, to get you distance from the attacker (which we call covering out, making sure that you end the technique in a safe position without dropping your guard).

Okay, so what has the new student, who might have learned this as their very first technique, picked up here?

  1. They’ve learned a few basic steps (the hidden step, the cover out).
  2. They’ve learned a few basic attacks (the chop, the sword hand).
  3. They’ve learned a really neat trick of using leverage to break an opponent’s hold. When I would teach this one, I would have students grab me and tell them to grab harder, and then I’d do the technique wrong, just trying to turn, and they’d keep their grip on my throat. Then I’d do the duck-and-up and show them how easily it broke their hold.
  4. But mostly, what they’ve learned is that when someone grabs you from behind, there is something you can do.

That last one is the biggie.

When someone grabs you, do something. Do Escape of the Lamb, if that’s what your instinct has you do. Or do something else. Throw an elbow backwards. Kick back at their knees. Stomp on their feet. And if it turns out that it was someone grabbing you just for fun and not a real attack, well, then you say oops, and then you tell them not to grab you by surprise anymore, and if it took two shots to the groin for someone to learn not to touch people without consent, that’s probably a bargain.

I think that was what Orange Belt taught me that stuck with me more than anything else. You are allowed to react when someone attacks you, even if that attack is a grab and not a punch. You don’t have to wait until you’re bleeding to fight back. In fact, the fight almost always starts well before the first punch is thrown, and if once you internalize that and get to, “I am now in fighting mode, and I am ready to do something if this guy starts trouble,” the funny thing is that you become a lot less likely to actually get into a physical fight. Your body language reads as a combatant rather than a victim, and a lot of potential attackers will pick up on that, consciously or subconsciously, and decide that you’re not a good person to target.

We’ve got 25 techniques at Orange Belt, and almost all of them are this sort of practical movement. While my friends were learning kicks that looked a lot cooler than mine, I was learning “if you get grabbed in a bear hug from the front with your arms pinned, you pinch their thighs, and then you knee them in the groin while getting a chop up into their throat, and you use that to push them backward, and then you punch them as hard as you can.” (Doors of the Shrine) Which, again, I have never had to use, and to be clear, practicing pinching someone’s inner thighs in the air at the park in a tee-shirt and sweat pants does not make you look like an awesome badass!

But it did teach me that when I got grabbed, I could and should do something. And as first lessons go for new students, I can think of a lot worse.