In early December I tested for my 1st degree brown belt (also called 3rd kyu or sankyu) in the Japanese martial art of Aikido. This test was one of my big goals during my 6-month break from cycling. You can watch the test below (it picks up after the first 3 minutes). Below the video I copied an email I sent to my friends who were coming to watch the test that explained what was going on.
So what's this test?
I've been practicing aikido for 2.5 years now. This test will be for a 1st degree brown belt (my first non-white belt rank). It is the 4th test out of the 7 needed to get a black belt.
What's on the test?
The test will consist of demonstrating techniques chosen from a predetermined list against a variety of attacks. However, each test will always contain some "surprise" techniques from higher level test to push the student. These can include ground techniques, knife and weapon techniques or multiple attackers.
How do you know when you are ready test?
Testing is really just the culmination of a process a couple of months long involving training time requirements, a formal mentorship by a senior student, a practice test and the approval of the senior dojo members. Because of all these requirements the "test" you are seeing is really more of a showcase of the training level the student has already demonstrated.
How will we know if you are doing well?
When aikido is done right it is easy to appreciate. It looks very flowing and natural. I should look relaxed and comfortable; even if I fumble a technique and need to recover I should visibly be in control of both myself and my attacker at all times.
Some of this stuff looks ... weird
The techniques on the test are called kihon-waza, classical techniques. They make up the testing curriculum for historical reasons and some of them look far removed from what you would see in a real fight. Really, Kihon-waza is not all we do in aikido nor is it the ultimate demonstration of aikido. But to paraphrase one my sensei's "these are 'just dumb exercises' but we can still learn a lot from them if we do them right.".
Kihon-waza is better thought of as a set of tools we use to study and develop aikido. To that end it's helpful to think of aikido as less of a set of fighting techniques (3 different kicks, 4 different punches, etc.) and more of a way of fighting (calm, composed, flowing and spontaneous).
"So do you both always know the attack and defense beforehand?"
This is a question Jen asked me at my test last year and I've been thinking about it since then. The short answer I gave her was "yes". Now I don't know what was going through Jen's head but it got me thinking about how I could convince people that this isn't just a dance recital.
Here is my answer a year later:
I've heard a quote that goes "great music shouldn't predictable but it should be inevitable.". I think the same thing is true of great aikido.
Everything should be an inevitable sequence of events you set up. Their attack should come because you've left an opening for them to attack. All the techniques that occur should be the result of your redirecting their attacks into an inevitable result. So while in general they might know what's coming (there are lots of variations within one technique so you can always mix things up) the person executing the technique should still be in control at all times. This control is can not be faked.
It's a hard effect to pull off, it's not an easy way to train, and it can easily degenerate into a dance recital.
But when it's done right it's both real and powerful.