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More on Disney’s Martial Arts Festival 2007

November 1, 2007

Pete Starr author photo

Even as recently as ten years ago I could never have even imagined that something like a martial arts festival would be held at Disney World. It’s a dream come true; a chance to present the martial arts—their values as well as their myriad techniques—to the world. This year the festival attracted about 2,000 competitors and I feel certain that the event will continue to grow.

The developers of this remarkable event did it right. They started small so they could work out the bugs. As it continues to grow, more glitches will be found and smoothed out.

Like many traditionalists, I feel that martial arts were never intended for competition. However, it’s obvious that competition is here to stay and I believe it’s possible to develop rules that will allow traditional martial arts practitioners to compete without compromising the integrity of their arts. In Japanese, the word used for this kind of competition is shiai, which infers a testing of oneself against others of equal skill.

In any case, I tell my students that it isn’t the winning or losing that’s important; it’s seeing so many other arts and styles firsthand, meeting other martial arts enthusiasts, comparing notes, swapping war stories, and making friends. It’s seeing what else is out there. I also tell them that, “A fish only grows according to the size of the container in which it lives.” If it stays in a small fish bowl it will never get very large.

I encourage them to swim outside their tiny fish bowl as I did so many years ago. Venture out into the open sea and see what’s out there.

I was encouraged and dismayed at what I saw and that’s a good thing. It lets me know where I stand, where my students stand, where the martial arts stand, and where they need improvement.

One young girl of about 14 performed a remarkable wushu broadsword form. She competed in several other events as well, taking first place in each of them. Her postures and techniques were very precise. Her free hand – which is usually the left hand because the right hand holds the weapon – was always in the correct position (this is a good way to judge how well the performer knows the form and handles the weapon). When she made a cut the blade hissed. My teacher used to tell me that if the blade makes a sound “like a bird’s wings”; a kind of flapping sound, the blade is not striking with the cutting edge and the technique is wrong.

On the other end of the spectrum was a young man who came out dressed in a hakama (traditional Japanese wide-legged trousers worn in aikido and iaido) carrying a wakazashi. The feudal warriors of medieval Japan, the samurai, carried two swords, the katana and the wakazashi. The katana was the long sword that was wielded with two hands and was regarded as the primary weapon of the samurai. The wakazashi is a much shorter blade. When a samurai entered the home of his lord or another warrior, he would remove the katana from his obi (belt) and it would be placed in a special receptacle. However, he would keep his wakazashi with him at all times.

Modern iaido (the art of drawing and cutting with the Japanese sword) was developed around the katana. Having trained in traditional iaido, I have a deep respect for this beautiful art. Naturally, I watched the young competitor very closely. Rather than using the traditional katana he wielded a wakazashi and to put it bluntly, everything he did – from kneeling down on the floor to gripping his weapon to footwork, stance, cutting…EVERYTHING – was wrong. Not just a little “off”, but totally incorrect. As one highly respected karate and iaido instructor put it, “In the world of martial arts you’ll often see practitioners who don’t have a clue. Then there are those who don’t even suspect…” This youngster was one of the latter.

However, I don’t necessarily view this in a completely negative light. It is, as one of my teachers put it, “an opportunity.” We can make corrections only after we first identify the problem.

I remember one small girl who looked to be about six years old. With her pretty blonde hair tied back in a ponytail, she approached the judges and announced her name, her style of karate, and the form she was about to demonstrate. She sounded like a cute little chipmunk. Then she exploded into a flurry of punches and kicks that would put many adult karateka (karate practitioners) to shame. Her punches were crisp and the snap of her kicks was clearly audible as she moved powerfully and gracefully through her set.

I recall an eight year old girl (with cute little freckles and glasses) who looked so cute and cuddly until she blazed her way through a complex Choy-Lay Fut Kung-Fu form. I’d hate to be the first boy to ask her for a date, when she’s all grown up and even more powerful.

It was truly a remarkable event that was topped off by the Saturday night “Martial Arts Showcase” that featured an 85 year-old Choy-Lay Fut master! Still very spry despite his advanced years, he executed a flawless form and drew cheers from the huge crowd.

And next year promises to be even better!

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