As these things go, Kenpo is a pretty simple system. Some martial arts are so in-depth they can take decades to learn and even longer to master. Most people can get a black belt in Kenpo in about five years or so. Mastery, of course, can take much longer depending on the student. I started in 1999 and am only now starting to truly understand the nuances of the techniques. Things like position relative to an opponent and how to create and utilize distance required much more in-depth analysis.
Such is the nature of fighting, I guess.
Of course, this leads to an interesting problem. I firmly believe everyone should be able to take care of themselves. After all, when seconds count, the police are mere minutes away and they’ll be there to helpfully clean up the aftermath. The problem lies in the fact that not everyone has 15 years to get a point of understanding how to defend themselves.
The other problem, as I see it, is traditional martial artists tend to get themselves wrapped around the axle about memorizing the techniques and kata without actually understanding what the technique or the kata is trying to teach. I see this all the time in classes. People memorize the movement but lack a complete understanding of the movement.
Some of this is due to the fact that the only yardstick schools have for testing progress is whether or not a student can do x techniques and y katas. Some of it’s due to students wanting the belt, but not wanting to invest the time in understanding the material that makes up the belt. Unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of viable alternatives to this mechanism. There’s a story in Kenpo about an instructor here in Albuquerque that used to do belt tests by having his students go to a bar and start a fight. He’d watch the fight and, based on the student’s performance, decide if the student moved up a rank.
I seriously hope it’s an urban myth, but knowing how the martial arts were taught in the 70s and 80s, it’s probably not.
So, take together the fact that most people don’t have a decade to invest in learning to defend themselves and the fact that schools tend to be focused on teaching the technique instead of teaching an understanding of the technique, the traditional martial arts would seem to have a problem brewing. They’re churning out black belts who don’t understand what they’ve learned and they’re seeing a drop off in enrollment.
What I’d like to see, and what I’m thinking about offering as a class, is a simple personal defense class. Rather than focusing on techniques and katas and belt promotion, I’d like to take a set of movements and teach casual students how to recombine a small handful of basic kicks and punches into something they don’t have to think to use. Most people will never need the vast amount of knowledge that comes with a black belt; an understanding of basic movements is sufficient to keep most people safe and alive.
Years ago Jeet Kun Do was born out of a similar philosophy. Bruce Lee looked at the traditional Wushu (he was Wing Chun student) he’d learned and decided it was too rigid to be effective, so he simplified it. He took the things he felt worked, tore out the things that didn’t, and created a simple but effective system. Note: this is not to say Wing Chun has any inherent problems; it’s a terribly effective system.
I’m no Bruce Lee, but, at least for myself, I’d like to do the same thing with Kenpo.