Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Sept. 7, 2007

"The way of kicking and punching"

When we entered the south entrance to K-State's Ahearn Field House, a volleyball practice was in progress. But we weren't there to watch volleyball. We proceeded to the north side of the building, where daughter Mariya was among 25 or 30 people in white uniforms. The group was getting ready to demonstrate various tae kwon do moves for those who might be considering taking the martial arts class and for friends and family. Daughter Katie, brother Dave, sister-in-law Linda and I were in this latter category.

Doing my research, I had learned that tae kwon do, while rooted in a form of martial art practiced in Korea as early as the 12th century, didn't take its present form until after the Korean War. Japanese control of the country prior to the end of World War II also influenced its development, perhaps the most obvious being that of adding different colored belts and black belt degrees to indicate the level of the practitioner's skill. Different groups have slightly different standards, including not agreeing on whether it is tae kwon do or taekwondo. With either spelling, the words mean "the way of kicking and punching."

Mariya began training in earnest last year. Since then, she's attended classes twice a week and periodically travels to Topeka to take tests. At the start, I questioned how committed she was, but, after seeing her perform, I can see that it's something she wants to stick with. Perseverance is one of the tenets of tae kwon do, along with courtesy, humility, integrity, self-control and indomitable spirit.

The instructor began by explaining the different forms and some of the Korean commands that are used. He also stressed the value of the sport for self-defense and maintaining physical fitness. But it's not a sport for sissies. There is a lot of sweat, hard work and, once in awhile, some bruises and scraped toes.

Those demonstrating the forms ranged in age from 7 to 50+ and represented both genders and many ethnic groups. Their sizes varied from four feet tall to well over six feet tall and from slender to not-so-slender. One woman has a black belt and is a captain in the Army. Mariya told me the woman has sometimes substituted for the regular instructor and is quite a task master.

As the students in each belt level demonstrated their forms, we admired the precision, grace and power of their movements.

"It's like choreography," I whispered to Dave.

"I couldn't do this," he responded. "I'd never remember all the moves!"

I laughed. "I'd probably fall on my face if I tried to kick like that."

But I suppose it is like most things, where the key to success is dedication and interest because there were people my age and older who seemed to be doing just fine.

And, while I was a bit surprised when Mariya indicated her interest last year, I probably shouldn't have for she's been interested in martial arts since she was a little girl and watched the Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on television. She often played the part of Raphael, one of the Turtles, and made her own costume, complete with hand drawn turtle shell, green construction-paper mask and red bands for her head, arms, wrists and legs. And, when she was 8, I enrolled her in a several-week-long tae kwon do course geared for youngsters. A couple of friends also took the class, and the three of them often practiced their moves at our house. Just two years ago, she also took a boxing course.

My wandering mind came back to the present as the final part of the demonstration began - breaking pine boards with hands or feet.

"The only reason we break boards is to show off," the instructor said.

If Art would have been there, he would have agreed, pointing out as he has in the past that pine is a soft wood that, when held at the edges and hit parallel to the grain, breaks easily.

"Well, that's one reason anyway," added the instructor. "The other is to show control and power."

Two people steadied the one-square foot by 3/4-inch thick pine boards by holding them along the edges and bracing their bodies for the blow. Students broke the boards, either with their hands or by jumping in the air and hitting them with a foot. We all held our collective breaths during this part of the performance.

After the demonstration was over and we were leaving, I thought about how I've never been particularly interested in martial arts or any sport, for that matter. But I have come to appreciate tae kwon do, both for the respect for others it teaches and the effect I've noticed in Mariya. "The way of kicking and punching" is much more than its name implies.

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