This advice is for all you Kung Fu/Karate/Tae Kwon Do/Kenpo stylists. Of course it was inspired by one my little protégés, Mani “Bean” (because she’s a minor, I am going to use her nickname), who is a very serious 12 year old. Mani has probably racked more fights—point style and with contact—than most grown men reading this blog. No exaggeration, Mani fights at least twice a month, from as far away as Buffalo , NY (my old stomping grounds) to Los Angeles , CA. But even with this vast amount of experience, she is still a work in progress and still attends classes religiously week after week. If you search Youtube for “Typhoon Martial Arts”, you can see some of her fights, and will be able to follow her progression from point fighter to technical brawler (lol).
Lately, Mani and another student—Bry-Bry—had asked to focus on Kung Fu forms (which is really not my forte, but I’ve spent close to 30 years learning and practicing them). So, to accommodate this request, I started a forms-only program at my school, and opened my curriculum to those who wish to be a part of it. In this class, students don’t have to follow the forms list the way I prescribed it in my curriculum. I am teaching whatever comes to mind, but students must follow my directions, and take what I offer—I am not taking suggestions. It’s something very similar to what my teacher offered certain students; that he taught what came to mind, and much of it was not on the curriculum posted on the wall of the classroom. In the last 6 months, I have taught the following Jow Ga forms:
- Faa Chune (Flower Fist)
- Siu Hung Chune (Small Hero’s Fist)
- Siu Fu Darn Do (Small Tiger Broadsword)
- Mui Faa Cheung ( Plum Blossom Spear)
- Sern Tao Gwun (Double Headed Staff)
- Teet Sid Chune (Iron Wire Fist)
- Fu Hok Sern Ying Chune (Tiger – Crane Combination Fist)
- Gung Lik Chune (Building Power Fist)
- Je Ma Dao (Horse Cutting Lance)
- Ng Long Gwun (Fifth Son Staff)
Some of these forms are over 100 years old. Some are unique to Jow Ga ; some are self-contained systems-in-one. But the lessons that I am imparting at this time is not the deep lessons contained within the forms because that would take more time than I have allotted for my students. We are studying the “ma pi” (hair and skin)… that is, the performance, of the forms. So, today, while working with Mani, I was giving her some easy-to-remember tips for the performance of forms (not that I’m an expert at it, but I have learned a thing or two over the years) that I would like to share with you, while documenting what she and I discussed. If you perform forms, I think you will find this article very helpful and informative.
Rule #1: You are practicing a FIGHTING skill
And don’t you forget it! It is not dancing. It is fighting. Forget the guys who question the validity of Kung Fu (or Karate, blah blah blah) forms. Train as if it were. Too many people get so much into the performance of the form, it becomes a dance. But when these forms were created, they were to document the techniques of a system. So rather than hand down a book (as many teachers did) that listed the names of techniques (Twin Serpents Searching for Pearls>>Grabbing the Opponent’s Collar>>Breaking the Collar>>Tiger Recoils to Strike Again>>Lifting the Sky… names of the opening of our first form, Small Tiger) that read like a poem—they could pass down a routine (called a Chuan Tao) with coded sequences that contained all the techniques. You would still need a teacher to decipher the movements, but at least the system could be passed to the next generation pretty quickly.
Lately, forms under many teachers have become diluted with meaningless technique that looked good in performance or in theory, but had no deeper levels of wisdom buried in them. I have seen famous systems take on a mysterious aura, but the teachers truly had no wisdom or ability. And the main problem is that they have forgotten that these techniques are for fighting, not performance. Much of what is contained in my own Jow Ga system was not meant to be demonstrated in public. But recently, I have seen much of it on Youtube. Youtube! A FREE outlet! Anyway, another topic for discussion….
Just remember that what you are doing is for fighting, and your performance will have to reflect that fact. If you are performing for judges, they will recognize (if they know what they’re doing) the fighting spirit of a form, and will respect it as such. Forget trying to do it faster. Forget wanting to add tumbling and jump kicks. Forget points for difficulty—this ain’t gymnastics or performance aerobics, Fancy Boy—you are practicing an art which was created to enable you to cripple opponents, crush their windpipes, dislocate a hip, hyperextend an elbow. A fight. Visualize your enemy while performing, and then do the darn thing as if he were right in front of you.
Rule #2: Practice until you no longer have to think about your next move
This holds true for any art or skill in the art. We must train until the strikes, hits, blocks and parries, kicks, and Chin Na attacks happen thoughtlessly. There is a saying, that mastery is the level where you have forgotten what you learned. It is in line with the saying that one knows a skill so well he can do it in his sleep or do it with his eyes closed. There is no way around this requirement. You must know the form like you know the back of your own hand. This can only be accomplished with an infinite number of practices. When you have achieved this level of ability, only then will your form be considered “good”. Other than that, you are merely dancing, and have an equal chance as the next competitor of winning. Back-flip means nothing if you can’t keep your chambered hand stuck to your rib cage. Practice alone won’t help you. We need perfection.
Now, this isn’t to say that simply practicing will make one perfect.
Come on, kids, say it with me:
Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.
You must learn and commit to habit all the small details and finer points of your form. Doing your form 500 times is ineffective practice if each of those times is performed with high stances and the back hand flopping around. It is the reason many of the so-called “champions” must add acrobatics to their routines: they are not skilled enough to impress with solely the strength of their martial arts ability, so they must wow audiences with breath-taking jumps and displays of athleticism. Sorry, but only cheerleader wannabes and soccer moms believe that XMA performers can fight (along with 9 year olds). But display strong technical skill, with flawless footwork, stances, crisp and sharp strikes and blocks, and good speed and power—and you will win over the champions. That is, of course, unless you have judges who don’t know what good martial arts looks like. And that is what turned me off of open competition. We have former 12 year old black belts who are now 30 year old shopping center dojo owners trying to judge a form of a 100 year old system he’s never heard of, and awards “difficulty points”, as if this was some type of cheerleading competition. Ridiculous. But if you have solid Black Belt judges, even if he is unfamiliar with your system, he should recognize flawless technique. This is how you win with skill. It is the reason I prefer Chinese-only style tournaments over shopping center dojo competitions that actually think Polynesian is a martial arts genre, and all Chinese martial arts, like Wu Shu and Hung Gar belong in the same division.
But stick to your guns and master this skill and it will take you a long way, even if you have to leave the open circuit and do specialized ones. Even if the only thing you do with your skill is to share them with the few Masters you may meet later in life. But every martial artist who learns forms must have mastered the basics in their lifetime.
Rule #3: Stance and footwork must always look like practice
When you first learned your stances, you strived to get them perfect. What happened to that? You have good stances when you were standing still, maybe even when practicing some movement. But chances are that eventually you would learn more complex (so you thought) and “advanced” skills, so those “basic” skills were relegated to things you only did when you showed another beginner how to do them. Wrong answer.
Stances should always be apparent, visible, and present. Every move while performing a form, must look like a different pose. If we took a picture of you at any point while you performed a form, you should look as if you posed for it. We should never catch you out of position, and you should transition smoothly from stance to stance. Smoothly and quickly. That camera should be exhausted trying to catch you between moves. If I can watch a picture at any point, and I don’t know what stance you are in, your form is not a good one. There should be a clear difference between horse and forward (or bow). A cross/hook stance, and a forward stance. A crouch and a horse stance. Every single movement has a corresponding stance. Make sure that happens, kiddo.
We achieve this by practicing most of the time, one movement at a time. For me and mine, I call cadence. For other teachers, they will choose 4 – 6 techniques in sequence, and have you do just those techniques for 20 minutes. Either way, however you do it, make sure that you have mastered the stance, as it is integrated into your form’s footwork.
Does any of this sound familiar, folks? FMA people? Heard me say this before?
Yes, it is because this is one of those universal truths of martial arts that transcends style. Learn it, commit it to memory. Tattoo it to your forehead…
Rule #4: Every strike must be thrown hard enough to injure; every block executed with enough power to stop a real punch
Every punch, strike, hit, kick, grab, pull, push, block and parry MUST be executed in a way that it would injure a real person if they were hit by the one you just did in the form. Every block must be thrown with enough intent that it would stop a real attack.
If that sounded redundant, it was meant to. I won’t insult your intelligence by explaining it any further than that. If you need clarity, print this article and take it to a teacher, and ask him to elaborate. This rule is so self-explanatory; it is amazing that almost every forms competitor I’ve ever seen on the open circuit violates it. I would have to say that most of the teachers and sifu I have witness violate this rule as well. But it needs no clarification if you guys have half a brain.
So, there you have it. thekuntawman has just given his 2 cents worth on the subject of forms. Mark your calendars, people! This won’t happen for a long, long time. If you follow and implement these four rules, I guarantee your success on the circuit for forms competition.
And none of it involves screaming at the top of your lungs, wearing sequin, or landing in a split. And before I go, let me introduce her to you:
Thanks for visiting my blog.