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Monday, May 20, 2024


Author: ELizabeth Logue

In this week's column, I humbly acknowledge my discovery of a new art form. Had you asked me weeks ago my definition of acceptable arts discourse in The Middlebury Campus, martial arts would not have been among them. To steal a sentiment from Harry in "When Harry Met Sally" when he realizes that he finally has a female friend with whom he does not want have sex, I feel like I'm growing.

Last Saturday I attended a kung fu tournament at New York Kung Fu and Kickboxing. You had to be buzzed in twice to get to the place, a security measure which struck me as odd since being trained in kung fu designates one's hands as deadly weapons. I was told, going into the tournament, that it could last anywhere from two hours to all day — depending on the outcome of certain fights and on other factors that escape me now as they did then.

I admittedly have difficulty picking up the basic rules of any game. A kung fu fight, I imagined, would be over when one opponent was on the ground and incapacitated. What can I say: I have brothers, I grew up watching the World Wrestling Foundation. So it was confusing to me when the bell signaling the end of the fight would ring, and the two fighters would embrace and walk to their respective corners. ("Wait, how do they" — please don't ask who "they" is — "determine the winner of a fight?" I asked about two hours into the tournament. "The three judges decide.") I swear to you I saw no judges, but I didn't press the question.

The tournament was much like I would envision a boxing match. The fighters wore extensive padding and protective headgear to block punches and kicks from the opponent.What I saw on Saturday was nothing like the martial arts of the movie "The Karate Kid," which admittedly was the only preconceived image I had about martial arts. ("The Karate Kid" and Jackie Chan, I guess, though Chan's execution of martial arts is no doubt complemented by risky stunts and special effects.)

Most remarkable about what little I've learned about kung fu and martial arts in general is the considerable aesthetic differences between all of them. The influences are astounding too; the art of kung fu is thought to have originated in China over 2,000 years ago with influences from an even earlier combat method practiced in India. Karate was directly influenced by earlier methods of Chinese kung fu. Still, to someone as naïve about the martial arts as myself, there does seem to be an overwhelming force through all of the forms — the promotion of discipline, loyalty and respect.

Prior to Saturday's fights, of which there were 20, competitors from schools throughout the Northeast warmed up for the tourney. Some kept their warm- ups more internalized by stretching or exchanging whispers with their coach. Other competitors were more visible prior to the fights, and could be heard kicking and punching some poor soul with arm pads; it seemed they were using energy that could have aptly been used during the actual fight. But like any pre-performance or game ritual, to each his own.

To my knowledge, there were three minor catastrophes during the tournament. One of the competitors in the first fight injured his thumb during round one of the 19th match, but continued for two more rounds after that. Despite this, the fights truly were pleasurable to watch, and even for someone as squeamish as myself, rarely was I shocked or appalled at the fighting; everyone involved in the tourney — from the referees, to the judges, to the fighters — was highly trained. It was far from an out of control brawl and instead appeared almost choreographed, with the same precise kicks and punches seen time and time again.

The tourney, as it turned out, was only about three hours in duration. It had been the first fight for some of the competitors. To one coach about a first-time fighter — a rather petite female — my friend remarked that it appeared her inexperience was the only thing that prevented her from winning her match. She had put up an excellent fight, he said, to which the coach replied, "It's not about winning or losing. It's about getting good competition under your belt and gaining experience."

In addition to being a form of exercise and self-defense, it is this sentiment that really does constitute kung fu, and, for that matter, martial arts in general, an art form worth talking about. Unlike other competitive sports, in which victory is the most important part of the game, martial arts, even if at a competitive level, holds etiquette and experience in the highest regard. The same can be said for dancers, actors, cinematographers — all of whom view each performance as a means to gain further insight into their respective arts.