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Pete Starr Shares His Philosophy

March 11, 2008

Pete Starr Author PhotoThis post was originally written for Martial Edge, and is being reposted here with permission from Martial Edge and Pete Starr.

Tastes like Chicken

Next time you’re watching different people practice their form(s), taste their performances. That’s right. Taste ’em. You may find that they all taste pretty much the same—like chicken, with no seasoning.

Each segment of a given form is often the same—no salt, pepper, garlic, or curry. And each form tends to be the same flavor. And if that’s the case, the form is wrong.

Just because you’ve managed to remember the correct sequence of movements doesn’t mean you’re doing your form correctly. It just means that you’ve memorized a sequence of movements. Granted, memorization of movements is the first stage of learning a given form… but it’s not really the form.

Tai Chi Martial Edge

How many of you ever learned to waltz? Probably not many unless you’re as gray-haired as I am (in my case, it’s really more of a bare-scalped sort of thing). Nowadays, people prefer to dance by themselves rather than actually touch each other—a pity. When people held each other as they danced they actually communicated through that sense of touch. But since dancing solo became popular people tend to be more interested in dancing with themselves than anything else. But I digress…

When you first learn to waltz your partner’s darned lucky if you don’t break his/her toes as you try to remember how the basic steps go. And you dance with all the grace of a wooden soldier. Sure, you’ve learned to waltz, but something is missing.

Someone who’s really good at this kind of dancing can adjust his/her movements to the music. You can really “feel” their spirits as they glide and spin across the floor with their partners. I remember watching television shows many years ago when Fred Astaire used to dance. I mean, people actually enjoyed watching other people dance! That just isn’t done anymore.


Most of you probably never had to listen to the Lawrence Welk Show (you’re darned lucky, too), but I did. I still remember his Swedish voice counting off, “A One, and a-Two and a-… .” Good old Lawrence.

But that’s how a lot of people execute their forms—as if Mr. Welk is counting off the cadence for them, as if their instructor is counting off the movements one at a time. And that’s not a form. It’s not even a dance. You’ve got to break free from the “counting cadence” thing that you used when you first learned the set and strive to feel the real spirit of the form and each segment within it (because the spirit of a form changes at certain junctures).

I recall a tournament many years ago when I was sitting on a judging panel for Black Belt Weapons. The senior student of a local (alleged) kung-fu teacher came and up and began running through a broadsword form. At one point, he performed a lower-level blocking technique to the rear, then he looked backward and lifted one foreleg up behind him. Then he hopped down and switched legs. Then he did it again. Darnedest thing I ever saw. I wondered—What in the name of heaven did he think he was doing? Suddenly, he hopped down, turned, and executed a cut.

Tai Chi From Martial Edge

For the life of me, I’d never seen anything like that. It sure didn’t have much martial application. It bugged me for a couple of days, because his weird movements looked vaguely familiar, but I just couldn’t place them. Then one day, it hit me. I have an extensive library—about 2,500 books or so—about half are martial arts books. Some are written in Chinese. I went to one bookshelf, pulled down a book on a seven-star praying mantis broadsword set, looked at the drawings, and there it was. The exact sequence of movements the contestant had tried to imitate.

His instructor couldn’t read Chinese, so he just followed the sequence shown in the drawings, but it wasn’t intended to be performed as a series of static 1-2-3 type postures. It was a block followed by a running sequence! The swordsman was supposed to block his enemy’s weapon and then run several steps to entice the enemy to pursue him. He’d then surprise his assailant as he quickly switched directions and cut him down. The local kung-fooey teacher had tried to learn the form from a book which he couldn’t read! And he’d just followed the step-by-step drawings, thinking that that was how the form was to be done.

Each form has its own spirit and feeling; the flavor of each segment of that form is very distinct. If it isn’t—if it all just tastes like chicken—then it’s wrong. You’re not doing a real form; you’re just imitating empty, flavorless, lifeless movements.

Once a form is memorized, it’s just memorized. You haven’t really learned it yet, you’ve just memorized it. Like learning to waltz, you can memorize the step alright, but until you feel it and taste it, you’re not dancing at all. You have to look beyond the surface and into the spirit of the form.

Don’t try to change the form’s spirit. For instance, you don’t do a Taiji form with the same spirit as you would a Shotokan form. A Bagua sequence or form has a wholly different spirit than a form from Hung-Ga or Ryukyu kempo. Each system and each form of that system has its own flavor, its own life and spirit.

This is really a great secret to learning real martial arts as opposed to what may appear to be martial arts. So many contemporary Karate and kung-fu practitioners try to “fluff up” their forms (which are often homemade just for competition) by making really bizarre scowling masks and all kinds of wild noises. If I got into some of those yogic positions, I’d scream too. But it’s all just a show. There’s no real spirit there.

Look beyond the surface of your form(s), beyond the memorized wooden movements. Touch its spirit and let the form do you.

A martial arts practitioner for nearly 50 years, Pete Starr is a black belt in Kyokushin karate, trained in traditional shao-lin, xingyiquan, and baguazhang, and the author of The Making of a Butterfly. He lives and teaches in Omaha, NE. His upcoming book Martial Mechanics comes out next week—on March 25th. Pre-order Martial Mechanics on Amazon, here.

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