When we go through a black belt promotion, we have to write an essay. I posted my essays for when I went up for first- and second-degree here, and now I give you my third-degree essay:
The Place to Find the Way is Also the Place to Find the People
sandan promotion essay
by Keith R.A. DeCandido
One of the things I love most about my career as a fiction writer is that it connects me to people. I do upwards of two dozen events a year—convention appearances, talks at schools and bookstores and libraries, writing conferences, and so on—and I love the opportunity that gives me to interact with other people.
When I first came to Riverdale Kenshikai Karate thirteen years ago, my primary motive was for me: making myself stronger, getting into a shape that wasn’t an oval, increasing my stamina. What I got, besides all that, was a wonderful community of people, probably best exemplified by the six fellow Riverdale karateka by whose side I’m standing at this promotion.
Senpai Charles was a brown belt when I became a blue belt, and I remember being impressed with his intensity, the fluidity and grace of his movements, and his spirit—not to mention his generosity and friendliness. The U.S. Army kept taking him away from the dojo to serve, and as a result, he and I got to go for our nidan promotion together four years ago, and we do so again now. It has been an honor and a privilege to go through both these promotions with someone as dedicated, as talented, and as humble as Senpai Charles, who is one of the most accomplished people in our dojo.
For the last five years or so, I’ve been teaching the Friday night kids fighting class. Back when he was a brown belt, Senpai Dylan was a regular attendee of that class. He was already an excellent fighter, but what stood out to me then, and still stands out to me today, is how generous he is with his advice and assistance. He’s always working with his opponents, pushing them, yes, but also taking the time to help them learn and get better. The maturity and generosity Senpai Dylan has always shown in the dojo is rare in adults, much less the pre-teen he was when he was taking the Friday classes. I said then that he would make a great black belt, and his time as a junior shodan has proven me right, and I have every confidence that he will continue to be so as a junior nidan.
One of the reasons why a black belt promotion is so special is that it shows a level of dedication and consistency that’s hard to come by. We all have lives, we all have other forces pulling at us. When I was a white belt in 2004, I started at the same time as three other people. Three others joined shortly before me, and three others joined shortly after me. Of those ten people, the only ones still affiliated with our dojo in any way are myself and Senpai Lio. People move away, they grow older and shift their priorities in a different direction, they join other dojos, they get injured, they get new jobs that don’t fit with the dojo schedule, or they just don’t get the same fulfillment from karate that they used to.
Which is why seeing our four advanced brown belts going up together is so impressive. Vivian, Helene, and Alicia all started at roughly the same time, and they have gone through the color-belt ranks together. They are three very strong karateka, and that’s at least in part due to the fact that they have taken this particular journey together, pushing each other and encouraging each other.
As for Libby, she’s one of those people you could easily have never seen again. She had to leave the dojo for a bit due to pregnancy, and it’s a testament to her dedication that she came back after so much time away and picked up right where she left off, joining these three who had been her juniors on the climb to this promotion.
Libby also has an intensity that I have always admired. Even when she was a white belt the first time, she had a laser focus that stood out. She’s also a fellow freelance writer, and it’ll nice to have another word-slinger in the black belt ranks.
Vivian has an inquisitiveness that I love. She always wants to learn, not just how to do the techniques, but why we do them, what our theoretical opponent is doing, the history of a particular tradition, and so on. She’s always asking questions, which is the best way to learn things.
Alicia is an absolute joy to watch in the dojo. Her movements are so fluid and impressive, as is her dedication to punching hard, standing low, and kicking high. (Kicking very very high, as I have been reminded every time I’ve gone against her in fighting class.) The clarity of her movements is something I constantly aspire to.
Vivian and Alicia also both have two children in the dojo—Vivian has two young boys, Alicia a girl and a boy. They’re all excellent karateka, as is Vivian’s husband. I must admit to always loving seeing families join the dojo as a group. Senpai Charles’s two children have also trained at Riverdale, at least until college whisked them away, and so many other adults have family joining them to train. And Alicia’s daughter in particular is one I’ve enjoyed seeing mature, as she regularly attends the Friday fighting class, and she is turning into a world-class fighter—she is utterly fearless. The spirit her mother shows has obviously been passed on to the next generation.
Finally, there’s Helene, whom I saved for last of the half-dozen fellow candidates, because she reminds me so much of me. Like me, Helene had never truly done the fitness thing before walking into Riverdale Kenshikai. Like me, she has spent her adult life in a profession that is relatively sedentary. And like me, she struggled mightily in her earliest days, as she asked her body to do things it had never ever even considered doing before. But she came through that crucible to become as strong a student as we have, and I’m beyond thrilled to see her going for her black belt this week, and honored that I get to go through this promotion by her side.
The seven of us have been preparing for several months now, doing quite a bit together, from regular classes to review classes to fighting classes to assorted perambulations through Van Cortlandt Park. At the last of the latter this past Sunday, Shihan Paul said he wanted us to hike a long trail together as a team-building exercise. It actually worked quite well in that regard, although the manufacture was already pretty much in place. However, the lengthy hike through the back forests of the park did reinforce our team spirit very nicely, and we came out of it feeling strong and ready for this week’s trials.
Our little group of promotion applicants is just part of it, though. One of the things that makes our dojo a place worth coming back to is the fact that we’re not just people who show up, sweat for an hour, and then go home. Shihan Paul has fostered a community here, from the many events he does with the kids to the adult outings and so much more. We’ve all become friends in addition to colleagues in karate, and while I wouldn’t presume to speak for anyone else, I do know that my own life has been enriched by the people I’ve been training with all these years.
There’s Sensei Gustavo, who is Shihan’s right hand, and whose love of karate is as infectious as his smile. Our wonderful sandan quadrivium of Senpais Stephen, Karen, Dorian, and Liza, who are the engines that make dojo events happen, and who also inspire all of us every time they come to class with their strength, spirit, and generosity. Senpai Cliff, who assisted Shihan with the white belt classes when I started thirteen years ago, and from whom I learned so much about etiquette and discipline and staying within myself. The many black belts who also teach, or have taught in the past, from Senpais Michael and Joel, who would fill in for Shihan when I was a lower belt and from whom I learned a great deal, to Senpais Dago and Jorge, who also teach in the dojo, and who provide a superlative example. Senpai Lio, with whom I came up as a white belt, and whose friendliness is always a welcome sight. And so many more, from our growing and impressive collection of junior black belts to all the other black belts and color belts, to the ever-rotating white belts, who are all starting the journey.
And finally, there are the students I’ve taught, both here at the dojo and at the afterschool programs in upper Manhattan that I’ve been responsible for the past three years. Teaching has been a superlative experience, one I did not expect when I first started training. I have come to love teaching as much as I love writing, which is no small accomplishment. Seeing the students I’ve taught learn things and advance in rank has been the most magnificent experience, giving me a particular sense of accomplishment unparalleled in any other aspect of my life. In addition, teaching has made me a better student, I believe. I certainly think I’m a better fighter after teaching sparring to kids for several years.
I look forward to continuing my time in this community with my fellow karateka, with my students, with my friends, as I venture forth.