Martial art translates into awkwardness

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Martial art translates into awkwardness

My fumbling relationship with kuntao, the native martial art of the Philippines, occurred during a seminar for Filipino performing arts in Manila. How had I landed myself in such a singular situation? Actually, the conference was part of an annual theater festival called APAC Drama, which is attended by delegates from six international schools in Asia.
My school, Seoul Foreign School, began participating in the tournament last year, with the International School of Beijing hosting. There we learned the basics of wu shu from a Mexican M.D. named Dr. Flores and his actual weapon-wielding fourth-graders.
Since then, almost inevitably, the martial arts component has become a highlight of APAC Drama.
When it came time to proverbially wax on and wax off, I found myself standing in a circle of students from Beijing, Shanghai, Kobe and Manila. In the middle was a diminutive man dressed in loose, flowing sweats, who, without introduction or much ado, told us to release ourselves.
After leading us through motions that made the whole debacle resemble a ballet performed by elephants, he re-emphasized the concept of freedom. Every movement in kuntao is created impromptu to get in touch with your soul; a blend of taebo, tai-chi, and a self-assertion seminar. Unfortunately, the only thing I was getting in touch with was the blank spot in my brain that seems to rapidly expand when I feel increasingly out of place.
Earlier in my life, I had taken taekwondo, which is, like many other aspects of East Asian culture, rather discipline-based. Taekwondo, as I remember it, called for focus and adherence to form in order to gain oneness. Conversely, kuntao practitioners can apparently attain that same balance by mimicking monkeys swimming in Red Bull.
Kuntao masters are the first to admit that their practice is long-obsolete in terms of practicality. While many martial arts are still taught with self-defense in mind, followers of kuntao readily appreciate that stopping bullets is only something Keanu Reeves and a talented special effects team can accomplish. However, after surpassing the absurd awkwardness of introducing yourself to the martial art, kuntao does provide its practitioners with personal benefits.
The freedom of expression it allows helps clear the mind and focus the body. Of course, once you get good enough you can improvise routines that look as flashy as scenes from a Jet Li film. That alone compensates for the pirouetting elephant routine.


by Phil Chang
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