Not talking about gender today.
Had a fun class last Saturday. We are into our Mobility phase of exercise, where we work on assimilating a lot of the new muscle that has built up in the last few months. We reconnect with our bodies, find out what works, what new bad habits have crept in, and try to compare where we are now to various baselines of posture. It’s a good feeling to get back in touch with yourself. I usually end such workouts with a fun drill that gets some good gross-body movement going on.
In this class it was working through various stick-fighting drills from different cultures.
At one point I asked everyone if they thought what they were doing was the same thing they would do if they had a club in hand and were trying to fend off a bear or wild dog attack. No, no one thought so.
I’ve seen a lot of different stick fighting arts from around the world, practiced many different ways…but not a lot of them really fit into the “this is what I would do to try and keep a bear off of me” category.
When you think about it a little, killing things with clubs is part of our common genetic heritage. Grasp the heavy thing and smash. That’s right down in the backbone. We don’t need to know how to do it, and it’s one of those things we implicitly trust that we will do, and do well, if it’s ever needed.
But stick fighting? Don’t we just club the other person in the brain-pan as hard as possible and as quickly as possible? That will for sure work. And if you are in the mood to kill someone, I can almost absolutely guarantee that any given person will have no defense against you, even if they have a stick of their own.
So what the hell is stick fighting? If it’s not fighting to kill another human with a weapon?
What is stick fighting in most cultures that still practice it, outside of the more urban hobbyist martial artists? Most often it’s a dominance display. It’s a way of showing that you are a sexually mature adult. It’s a show-off skill. It’s human peacock feathers, and it’s available to both sexes.
So I asked the students (I should be clear here that I know my students pretty well, and when I ask such things of my students they know it’s because I want them to fire up their intellectual curiosity. I wouldn’t necessarily do this with another group of students) to look at their stick fighting in that light. I told them to add in their own dominance display to the movement, to advertise their animal sexual maturity through fighting display.
You bet that caused some questions, and some confusion. I pointed out examples of how some of more accomplished fighters in the school constantly did so when fighting. It was part and parcel of their fighting style, and often part of their tactics. In that context, it made more sense to the students. They could recall many instances of dance, pose or what I will call body flamboyance in other fighters.
Here’s the thing, though. This was mostly a group of people who were on the junior or up and coming fighter list. So when I asked them to demonstrate the same behavior in their own way, they got super uncomfortable.
Because they didn’t feel entitled to dominance display. Didn’t say so, but it was the unspoken answer. We laughed and talked and mimicked and wound up having a great class and a great time, but that moment of lack stuck with me.
Dominance display and sexual maturity display is the right of every adult human being, and it’s a right that is given to us from every cell in our bodies.
You can see a distinction in students when you look. Irregardless of any social standing, some students are privileged to be comfortable with their sexuality at the most basic level. They may have issues layered on top related to their subculture choices and other issues…I lack the education to even begin to speak about such issues, but I acknowledge that there are layers and nuance. I would say that my point is that some students have levels of privilege, and some students have the opposite. They have learned to shutter and hide their display, even in a safe place.
I don’t particularly care about what a student brings to class when they start training with me. I care where they go, how far they make themselves into a better version of themselves.
Wrestling with how you treat yourself as a sexually mature animal is really core to any weapon art, because much of what we do will be flavoured by that human dominance display. This is implicit in the very act of pointing your weapon at your foe, and telling them that they risk death if they approach. Every action that follows is dictated by how the opponent reacts to your display…whether they respect it or not.
I always learned that martial arts is about the weak overcoming the strong. Part of this is making the weak stronger. If we don’t feel like we own the ability, or are allowed to display dominance due us by our status as adult animals, then we are putting ourselves in a position of constantly being bullied by those who have the privilege we lack.
There is a subtle element to our culture these days that seems to imply that only “winners” get to display. Only those with the fancy clothes or cars or social ease or the right body or whatever else are allowed to advertise ownership of their most basic animal state. In nature this is not true. Come mating season, all animals display, win or lose. Losers of one display just keep on trying. Humans are being taught give up.
At the start of this post I said I wasn’t going to talk about gender, and I think that’s important. Trying to meet an ideal standard is the opposite of understanding yourself. To look at an idealized version of whatever gender you choose to display and then try to meet that? It’s not the same as understanding for yourself what makes you yourself, and what your natural method of display is going to be.
And this is critical for swordplay, because we each need to move firstly in a way that is natural to us as individuals. Sexual expression is one of those things we tend to bury a bit, but it’s absolutely an element of any art. I can see the result in students when their shoulders rise, their backs straighten, their steps lighten and their teeth shine behind their masks. It’s those moments when I see them become fighters.