Dacayana UK


Many people in the Martial Arts are critical of the belt grading system. Years ago, I remember reading an article calling for the abolition of the belt system. It got me thinking about what the M.A. world would look like if we had no belts. 

Of course, in the good old days, there were no belts (except for keeping up your trousers). The belt system only really became popular with the introduction of Judo in 1882. The founder, Dr. Kano, was a university professor and thought that having a standard syllabus with assessments and grades was the way to go. It worked so well that when Funakoshi started spreading Karate in Japan 40 years later, he adopted the same idea. The success of the belt system has had a huge effect on M.A.s, far beyond Japan. Before that time, apart from some teachers issuing teaching licences or passing on the leadership of their system to a successor, the main way to determine your "level" was that if you were alive, you were good and if you were dead, then you should have practiced more. I guess that the main difference was that people didn't want to learn, they had to. Nobody cared about the colour of their belts or how many stripes they had. They cared about learning what they needed to survive. Then, as M.A.s became more about your development, learning, interest, culture, confidence and the thousands of features and benefits that M.A. training brings, the grading system became more relevant and valuable.

So, ideally, what is the belt grading system? It is an assessment of your standard in a Martial Art system, conducted by an authority in that system. Basically, it is someone else vouching for your standard. I deliberately used the word "ideally", because we are all aware that the assessment, standard, Martial Art and/or authority could be farcical. In Dacayana Eskrima, Marcie Harding is ultimately responsible for all Black belt testing standards in Europe and does so with the authority of our founder, GM Alberto "Jun" Dacayana. We have a pure lineage! For most MA's, the system works quite well. If it didn't, people wouldn't bother trying to "fake it". 

One of the best things about being assessed according to someone else's standards, is that you have to step out of your comfort zone. You have to expand your repertoire beyond what is familiar and easy for you. You have to learn things you might never have considered. It's why I took up Dacayana Eskrima. I have seen too many highly graded experts who won't even consider training under someone else. Surely they can't believe they know it all. If you want a good laugh, next time you are at a seminar where there are multiple systems being taught, see which teachers train along with everyone and which ones stay on the sidelines nattering until it is their turn to teach.

Let's look at branches of M.A.s that are less affected by belts. Firstly, combat sports would probably not be affected too much in a world without gradings. Belts are sometimes used to determine divisions, but weight is generally a better and fairer way of matching opponents. There is a simple way of determining who is better; just compete. Now, I hear some of you say, a combat sport is not really a Martial Art. This may be a controversial opinion, but I'm inclined to agree. Because, no matter what you call it, once you start competing with rules, you are moving further away from actual Martial Arts. Look at how different Sport Arnis is from traditional styles of Eskrima, like ours. I have the utmost respect for people who put themselves on the line to compete (I used to compete a lot in my teens and twenties), but it's not why I took up Martial Arts. When Funakoshi started promoting Karate through the Japanese education system, the leader of one of the University clubs came up with the idea of having Karate competitions. Funakoshi fired him immediately. Now, of course, he must be turning in his grave! And don't get me started on what the original Taekwondo masters, hardened by the Korean and Vietnam wars, must be thinking when they watch Taekwondo in the Olympics. 

There are of course, some traditional M.A.s that have never really used belts. But, realistically, those arts are never going to be as successful as those that have a proper belt grading system. They are not going to have any significant impact on the world of Martial Arts. This may be a controversial opinion, but I'm willing to stand by it. Perhaps, the most notable exception is Tai Chi. I can't explain that, so any suggestions are welcome. 

Another branch of M.A.s that doesn't seem to be affected by belts is Reality Based Self Defence. RBSD is a term used to cover self defence, self protection, military hand to hand combat and street fighting systems. I think of it as Martial Arts applied to modern western world problems. In that sense, it is a true Martial Art because traditional M.A.s were originally designed to deal with the problems of their time and culture. However, the vast majority of RBSD systems use a very narrow syllabus of techniques that are quick and easy to learn. So how can you tell if someone's technique is any good? It's quite difficult to be bad at palming someone under the chin and kneeing them in the groin. Unfortunately, because it's so hard to tell how good someone is, a lot of the "proof" has been replaced by propaganda, boasting and macho bravado on the internet. Leaders of RBSD systems seem to spend a great deal of time reassuring themselves and others about the effectiveness of their system. Boasting that you are a millionth Dan Black belt gets replaced by reciting lengthy Resumes that include Martial Arts, shooting, security and/or armed forces experience and stories about their tough upbringing. This is not self defence. In fact, what realistically does qualify you as an experienced expert on self defence? If you have successfully had to defend yourself numerous times in your life, you are either really unlucky or you have no idea of what constitutes self defence. Either way, you probably shouldn't be teaching anyone anything. 

So, to answer the original question. What would the Martial Arts world look like if we had no belts? Would we be back to death matches that we hear about in the Philippines? Perhaps. They would have to be held in private, for legal reasons, but I think they might be more prevalent. I don't think traditional Martial Arts would be anywhere as popular as they are now and I think that Instructors would struggle to keep a club open, never mind a full time academy. We would get a whole lot more boasting (if that's even possible), because the only legitimate way to know if someone was any good would be by what they say, not by another's assessment. There would be very little incentive for people to step out of their comfort zone and therefore I believe that overall skill levels would drop dramatically. Without a decent syllabus, class plans would go out the window, making lessons seem very unprofessional. Once someone learned what they wanted, they would just move on. To counteract this, I think that without a belt hierarchy, retention techniques in clubs would become far more sinister and "cult like". Combat sports would retain their popularity, as would RBSD systems. 

So, as imperfect as any system may be, when the belt system works, it really works well. In my opinion, we have an excellent, logical and progressive curriculum and belt system in Dacayana Eskrima. Most reasonable people aren't going to try to convince you of their expertise if they can't even earn a Black belt. Fakes get found out eventually. I don't know about you, but I have met many people who tried to convince me that they were Black belts. I could instantly tell were lying before they even finished the sentence. I think most of us could. 

As always, everything in this article is my based on my knowledge and experience. Please feel free to let me know if you disagree. D