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Ranking in the Martial Arts


What belt are you? It is probably the first question that someone with little or no experience with the martial arts will ask you when they learn that you are a practitioner. And they understand White Belt and Black Belt and most of them realize that Brown Belt is pretty far up there. But if the answer is Green with brown tips, or Purple with two stripes or Blue even a veteran martial artist's eyes will glaze over.

A better way of asking the question is, "What rank are you?" Whether the answer is in Kyu (Japanese and Okinawan) or in Gup (Korean) the lower the number, the higher the rank. Unless your are talking about Blackbelts or Dans, in which the higher number is the higher rank.

But belts are a relatively modern invention. They provide a way of quickly understanding how people in a school relate to each other in their journey down the path of martial arts. Most styles are pretty consistent in their ranking colors which allows you to figure out where you fit in the hierarchy when training with other schools. A ranking system helps an instructor gauge what forms or katas to concentrate on in class, or how to divide the class up in relationship to the number of assistants there are available. Schools work it differently. Some have students purchase belts at every advancement, stripes running the length of the belt. Other schools use a permanent marker to add rings around the ends of the belt and others use a band of tape. We dye or paint five inches at each end to indicate the steps between the solid colors. Less expensive then buying belts all the time!

And, let's face it, it also helps feed our egos! We can see progress through the slowly changing colors around our waist.

Tradition says that originally the belt started off white. Through the process of time and age it slowly changes colors on its own. First to yellow and then to green and then into the browns until it is black with dirt and age. And then the belt slowly starts to turn white again.

But be careful! Just because someone is a white belt does not mean that they are untrained, or without knowledge. Each individual should be treated with respect. I know one individual that I met and worked out with in regional seminars for several years. He always wore a white belt. It was obvious to anyone that spent any time working with him that he had a great deal of experience. He had decided to switch styles and that he wouldn't try to work his way up the ranks, he would study until ready to be accepted at his original highest rank. His black belt looks pretty sharp!

And one will often encounter individuals that have studied more than one style or art. Many of the members of my dojo have studied other styles, myself included. There is the Shodan who arrived wearing a white belt, having just moved to the area and not able to find a school in his style. He decided that we were the closest to his previous learning and he liked the people. There is the white belt who, with permission of course, demonstrated a beautifully executed Judo throw on the 5th Dan leading class. The same 5th Dan also holds a 3rd Dan ranking in Aikido, sharing joint locks and other techniques to increase our knowledge.

And to the uninitiated, seeing someone wearing a white and red belt, or even a red belt means nothing. In some styles a red belt is a step on the way to black. In many, it is the ultimate goal, red belts are worn by the 9th and 10th dan holders.

In many styles, in addition to the knowledge levels of katas and forms, kumite and sparring, there are age requirements. My current style limits the Black Belt to 14 or over. Nidan is as high as one can go until after graduating high school.

The traditional Chinese arts use a much simpler ranking system. White is a beginning student, Yellow is more advanced student, and red is an student who is also an instructor.

In today's society, immediate gratification is more common. We need the rewards as encouragement and the belts give us goals that we can see and feel. The study of a martial art is a life long endeavor. The goal is supposed to be self improvement rather than a specific rank.

Start your journey!


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