What is a Black Belt?

Dateline: 11/14/99

I'm very happy to announce my recent promotion to black belt. It's been a long journey, but a very satisfying one, and there's still a lifetime of learning ahead.

Our system has a different way of conducting promotions than what you might be used to. Many styles incorporate tests as a condition for promotion--at each level, you have to demonstrate your knowledge of techniques, forms, and implementation. Testing is both a chance to see if the student should be promoted and a celebration, where fellow students can join in the excitement of one of their peers attaining a new rank.

Our instructor has a different philosophy about belt promotions. Dave models his class after the classes of long ago, where a sifu (instructor) would teach his family style to a few people, often at his home. We've worked out in Dave's driveway and in parking lots (gives you an appreciation for grappling on pavement); basically, wherever we'd get enough space. In this informal dojo, formal ceremonies for belt promotion would just be weird.

Instead, Dave observes and watches our progress, and when he feels you're ready, he promotes you. We students joke that this way, every workout is a test. And so they are.

Black belt rank means different things in different styles, or organizations within those styles. The years of study and breadth of techniques required for black belt rank in one style may be vastly different than the requirements in another.

Many arts have multiple dan, or levels, of black belt rank, from first degree black belt up to tenth degree (The tenth degree black belt is usually the rank of the founder of a martial art, like legends Jigoro Kano and Ed Parker). The years of training required to earn a first degree black belt in, for example, Brazilian ju-jitsu, might result in a third or fourth degree black belt in a different style. Also, different styles may have different numbers of degree levels. In shotokan karate, the highest rank ever awarded by style founder Gichin Funakoshi was 5th dan. Yet in the Tracy system of kenpo, one of the larger American Kenpo organizations, there are no less than three 10th dan black belts.

And then there's the matter of determining "how good" is someone at a certain level. For example, many martial artists consider the 7th degree black belt held by Elvis Presley to be largely honorary, like the honorary doctorates bestowed upon celebrity alumni of various colleges. Elvis certainly devoted enough of his life and passion to karate to warrant legitimate black belt status, but in his later years, did he really train, teach, and pass on knowledge at the level of a 7th degree black belt?

Because of the differences between styles, you really can't say that a fifth-degree black belt in Style A is "better" than a second-degree black belt in Style B. And of course, that begs the question, "better at what"? Certainly, a third-degree black belt in tae kwon do has developed much more advanced kicking techniques than a first-degree judo black belt. But if the comparison is about grappling and throwing skills, the judo black belt would probably have a higher level of skill.

To me, the rank of black belt is solely important for what it means to the student and that student's instructor. "You're a serious student now," said Dave, when he handed me my black belt. That's definitely true. I'm at the point where I realize the martial arts is as much a part of my life as breathing--I can't imagine not studying and training. The martial arts aren't just a hobby anymore.

So that's what I'll always say when folks ask what rank I've attained--I'm a serious student.

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