The test for First Degree Black Belt is simpler and harder than anything that came before.
There are no techniques at this belt level, and unlike the last several ranks of tests, where you had to do a bunch of practice with a partner to demonstrate techniques, you do this test entirely on your own.
It’s got the most mental work so far. There’s an essay. There’s another set of combination blocks, kicks, and strikes that you make up. You do a few specific katas — and unlike previous belts, where the teacher might throw Short 2 at you just to see if you remember it, the test is entirely locked. You know exactly what you’ll be doing.
Your job is to do it perfectly.
I believe I was the first person ever to fail the black belt test. I overthought it, psyched myself out, and messed up part of a kata. (Boy, is it is still hard to type that out twenty-five years later, but I did not start this just to talk about the parts where I kicked ass and was totally awesome.)
I did the test again later that night and nailed it, and when I passed, I was, at that time, the youngest person ever to reach black belt at the school. (Another student took the title a few years later. I was one of the judges at his test, and he was amazing.)
Beyond the katas you already know, the three big ones you’re tested on are:
Thesis Weapon: You learn any weapon, with the help of your teachers, and make a kata showing how to use that weapon. One of my friends chose a pair of sai. (Sais?) I, being somewhat ridiculous, chose the kusarikama, which, if you don’t wanna follow the link, is a sickle with a weighted chain attached to the handle. It is complicated and finicky and, despite having a haft and a blade and a chain for extra reach, it is still almost never going to win against a sword unless you get the drop on your attacker (which people say as though that wouldn’t work just as well for, like, hitting the swordsman in the head with a well-thrown stapler). Nevertheless, as a weapon that teaches how to get comfortable dealing with flexibility and with a blade at the same time, it is fantastic. When I got good with a kusarikama, I could pretty much pick up anything and use it as a weapon.
Black Belt Set: Black Belt Set is a not-super-long kata where you go through doing a series of alternating blocks and strikes. Back-knuckle, extended outward block, layout chop, elbow guard block, and so on. It doesn’t seem super impressive until you realize that it has two parts, and that the two parts are meant to be performed together. It’s a two-person kata, and as someone who started Kenpo because they were a big fight-scene nerd, I absolutely loved that.
Tiger and Crane: And then there is Tiger and Crane.
We learn katas that are longer than Tiger and Crane, but this has always been the hardest for me to remember. I think that it might be because the other katas we learn are longer but are made out of a number of techniques. So in the same way that (back when you had to remember your friends’ phone numbers instead of just hitting their name on your phone) when you remember a phone number, if you know lots of people in the area, the area code isn’t three numbers for you as much as a short word, like “415” means “San Francisco”? A long kata like Number Four might have a ton of moves, but really, it goes, “Modified Dancing Cat, Modified Dancing Cat on the other side, Billowing Sails, Billowing Sails on the other side,” and so on. If you know Billowing Sails, then once you’ve started doing it, your body pretty much just does the rest on its own, and all you have to remember are the transitions and which way you should be facing when you start the next technique.
Tiger and Crane doesn’t have that. It’s not a technique kata — or it’s in that nebulous space where some of the moves you’re doing could be a technique against an opponent, but some of them are more like very advanced versions of basic combinations. You didn’t get to go, Dancing Cat, Billowing Sails, Shield of Death, Rising Sun… You had to go “the part with the knife-edge kick and then plant at a 45 forward, and then a pair of claw hands, and then…” And it isn’t symmetrical. Some parts are, and some parts you only do once, and some parts you do three times. There’s one bit that has, I think, thirteen crane-beak hook parries back to back, with stance changes while you’re doing them.
It is a giant test of memorization and physical memory and ability — because the moves themselves aren’t easy, either. You’ve got some kicks with leaps in them, and a lot of moves where even an untrained bystander can see the difference between someone doing it sort of okay and someone doing it with all their weight in the right place. If you do it right, it flows, and if you don’t, it’s obvious. It’s all the physical conditioning of Book Set back at brown belt combined with moves you never do anywhere else.
It’s an amazing kata that has beaten me more than once, and I love being able to do it again.
(Also, for folks who have studied Hung Gar Gong Fu or other Chinese arts that have a Tiger and Crane kata: yes and no? When I’ve watched folks do a classic Shaolin version of this kata, it is hugely different. I cannot say that I know your version of the kata with this name. And yet, there’s enough of it that is similar — the starting bits with the hands, or parts that in my mind I call the “and then we do two-handed pulls and steps at the same time for a bit” parts? They aren’t identical, but there’s enough overlap that I would guess that when American Kenpo (which my school taught a descendant of a descendant of a descendant of) came together in a mix of the Okinawan stuff and the Filipino stuff and the Chinese stuff, this was in there somewhere, but it’s been changed to work with the moves that Kenpo eventually went with. I wonder if anyone has ever done an exchange, looking at the two katas back to back. It might be a fun project.)
And then, after you pass that test, doing all the katas perfectly and then reading your essay while in a moderately uncomfortable position, you take off your brown belt for the last time and put on the black belt.
A black belt means different things to different schools. Sometimes it means that you’re next in line to run the school if something happens to the teachers, while other times it means “advanced student we trust knows the basics pretty well.” It’s the belt rank that sounds cool to people who don’t know anything else about your style, and as an American who grew up watching martial arts movies, black belt meant a lot to me, but in retrospect, it was the first stepping stone on a road I’ve put a lot more miles on since.
As I said elsewhere, I’m not sure if I’m going to continue the additional stuff I’ve learned since. We are in a different era now, and it’s not like this is sacred knowledge, but even if I’m not teaching anyone exactly how to do all of this, it feels odd to just spell out exactly what we learned after First-Degree Black. When you came in to train at Livermore Kenpo Karate, you might see blue belts and green belts doing their stuff, but you almost never saw black belts training where the more junior students can see.
On the other hand, I do still really like talking about all this. So who knows? Maybe I’ll find a middle ground and talk about general stuff without doing it belt by belt like I’ve done up to this point.
Regardless, thanks to everyone who read along for the journey.