Belt testing gives Sun Soo students a chance 'to be awesome'
Around lunch, a steady stream of cars began filing into the Kmart shopping plaza off Patton Avenue. They were filled with generations of people: some older, some barely into their childhood years and many in between. They were all heading to Sun Soo Martial Arts for belt testing, a process hosted every nine weeks or so.
"Students learn a formal curriculum as a structure, a housing, for the body of knowledge they will accrue and become proficient at over the term of their practice," explained Tony Morris, known as Master Morris inside the walls of the 'dojang.'
He's also the founder and director of the program.
"One of the ways we mark progress is we have belts, similar to grades in school."
Every student starts out as a white belt in traditional Tae Kwon Do under Morris. Each school has a different system, but, at Sun Soo, there are 10 ranks between white and black.
"The early color belt ranks, they [the students] can move fairly quickly," said Morris. "The higher we go in the color belt ranks, the more time and the more hours of practice I require between those color belt ranks."
Morris is a seventh-degree black belt. In the latest round of testing Saturday, there was a special treat for the hundreds in attendance: three students testing for their fourth-degree black belts.
"There's a phrase that says, 'A black belt is a white belt that just never quit,'" smiled Amy Dexter, one of those testing for her fourth-degree.
Dexter is also an instructor at Sun Soo and holds the distinction of being the first person Morris promoted multiple belts in one testing.
"So, we're always having that white belt pureness, that eagerness to learn. But then, in the master ranks, you want to give it back."
Dexter, a 48-year old school teacher by trade, was joined in the big moment by Ian Dowling, an 18-year old freshly graduated high school senior, and Randy Langley, a 76-year old retiree. Each has been practicing at Sun Soo for at least a decade.
"It does give you the confidence that if you ever got into trouble, you probably could get yourself out," mused Langley. "You may not hurt the other guy at my age, but you can get yourself out of trouble."
During testing, students perform in front of a panel of experienced practitioners of Tae Kwon Do in four main categories: forms, one-step sparring, traditional sparring and board breaking. Black belt candidates are also required to write and read an essay.
"Forms is a set of movements in a very specific sequence meant to simulate a self-defense scenario," said Morris.
One-step sparring is a highly regulated situation where one participant acts as the attacker and the other plays the self-defender. The intent is to simulate real-world encounters without the risk of injury. Sparring is where Dexter really opens eyes. The diminutive blonde regularly flips men twice her size to the ground.
"I am right in the perfect center of gravity for others. The bigger they are, the easier they fall," she laughed. "It's fantastic!"
Board breaking is probably the most widely known aspect of the ritual to the outside world. Each student lays out a course with different maneuvers intended to break one or several boards at each station.
"The thickness and size of the boards we break represent approximately the amount of force it would take for that student to break the rib of a grown adult man," Morris explained.
The essay portion is where black belt candidates are given a chance to reflect on their progress and think about what the discipline has given them outside the dojang. They then read it aloud to inspire other students and spectators.
"Life is a journey, and I know that's kind of trite," Langley contemplated. "I've learned that, probably over the last 10 years, and I don't know what it has in store for me yet."
At the end of the ceremony, all three fourth-degree candidates earned their new belts. Following the announcement, each was swallowed up in a sea of congratulatory shoulder pats, hugs and words.
"It's really been guiding me along this journey, and it's just a dream that I've had," Dowling said of the testing. "It's absolutely surreal to be here today."
The vast differences between Dexter, Dowling and Langley did not matter Saturday. Each had earned the right to stand as masters of their craft, a distinction that comes with the fourth-degree. They did not perform the same tasks to get to that destination, because none of them have walked the same journey to this point. However, Morris hopes that everyone else in the room saw one fact shine brighter than his star pupils.
"Each person's version of being excellent is going to look a little different, because everybody's different," he stated. "But, everybody has a birthright to be awesome."