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The Arts Scene

A Five Star Experience

Kathryn Franke
MSM Class of 2013

(7/2011) Art is a subjective thing. We call pretty much anything art these days, but what about the type of art that never even crosses our minds? The martial arts are a unique way to unite history and progress, dedication and training, and culture and heritage. Throughout the passage of time, those who study martial arts have built upon each other’s achievements to create many distinct, culturally rich forms of martial arts. One style has a surprisingly large presence in our own little town of Emmitsburg.

I started out taking karate at Mount Saint Mary’s University as a timid, confused white belt, unsure as to what I was getting myself into. I really had no idea what to expect, and for the first few days I had to try not to laugh as we counted aloud in Japanese while we trained throughout the class, kicking and punching to improve the technique that I had no idea I would end up having one day.

To this day, my instructor’s goal is to see my mean side. My weak little arms had never done so much as punch the air before, but as with anything, you start with the basics, master them, and then build upon them to improve. As I progressed in the class throughout the semester, it was obvious that karate was having a positive effect on not only my physical fitness in the dojo (the place where we practice/train), but also my attitude and outlook on life. All of the lessons that I have learned from karate are contained within the word "OSU," the philosophy behind our karate. It tells us to push ourselves to the limit of our ability and endure. OSU is the commitment that we must have to karate, ensuring that our practice is never-ending.

When I had my first "kumite" session, which is sparring, I got a bruise on my shin that was the size of an apple. As painful and intimidating as that was, I was so proud of that bruise. It was my battle wound, something that really made me feel like I was a true karateka (a practitioner of karate). From there on out, I had decided that I was not the weakling that I thought I was. I may have started karate somewhat late in my life, but I was ready for the challenge. I have taken the class every semester since, and I plan on taking it the remainder of my time at the Mount.

The Phoenix Legend, which is worn on the left sleeve of the dogi (uniform), is a representation of the philosophies of Phoenix karate. A Phoenix is in the middle of the legend, representing the need to rise up despite obstacles and setbacks and challenge the struggles one may encounter in life. Around the Phoenix are five stars, symbolizing the ultimate goal of perfection. One should always train, for that is the only way to reach perfection. These parts of the legend are contained within a circle that represents the yin and the yang, and a triangle surrounds it all, acting as a symbol of the strength the legend conveys.

Something that differs between many styles of karate is the belt system. The belts are promotions that show one’s achievements and improvements throughout their journey in karate. Our belt system goes white, yellow, blue, green, purple, brown, and black. The white belt symbolizes innocence. As it is used more frequently, the belt becomes "soiled," causing the belt to turn to brown and eventually black. With more use, the black belt frays and becomes almost white, showing the wearer’s return to innocence.

The yellow belt shows the awakening of the wearer, contrasting the innocence of the white and the journey to black (Yudansha) that is ahead. They are now on the path toward Yudansha and are a part of the art of karate. Blue and green represent the growth of the karateka. These are not as bright as the yellow because their awakening has already occurred. The purple is bright but not as bright as yellow; it represents the commitment of the karateka.

My instructor, Dan Soller, is the Executive Vice President of Mount Saint Mary’s and has been studying karate for forty years, yet he still considers himself an "old student," recognizing the fact that despite how much he has learned from karate, there is still so much more that he can learn in the future. Soller founded the Phoenix Karate-do Association Kyokushinkai International in 1981. Soller mentioned that his goal through doing this was to bring "an organized educational view to karate in general and to provide an umbrella organization for my students, regardless of where they lived."

When I began the class, I had no idea that my instructor was actually the chairman of the Phoenix Karatedo Association around the world, otherwise known as "Kancho." He makes sure that everyone realizes their potential and goes above and beyond it, working hard each day to do their best. Describing the impact that karate has had on his life, Soller said, "My experiences have taken me to places all over the world through many cultures, kept me centered as a person, pushed me to develop complex motor skills and maintain a challenging level of fitness, forced me to continuously learn, challenged me philosophically, and taught me many lessons in managing a small international organization as the Kancho."

Soller’s dedication is honorable and inspirational. He mentioned, "I continue to train pretty much every day and I use karate every day…it is part of who I am and gives me a wonderful perspective of this complex life that we all live in!" For Soller, "adding to the generations and passing down what came before us" is a vital part of karate. According to him, when karate is properly taught, it can "help give a greater purpose in life."

But training does not end when the school year ends. It is a continuous process in which one should partake daily. Camp Phoenix, a summer karate camp held at the Mount, is a way for us to continue training even during the lazy and sometimes distracting time otherwise known as summer vacation. Entering its 28th year, the camp helps us reflect on ourselves and strive to improve. It is a time for training and working to help you take the next step and become better than you were. The organization is able to come together and train as a group, supporting and encouraging each other along the way.

I went to my first summer camp last year, and it is certainly an experience I will never forget. Aside from the amazing people I met, the camp gave me a whole new outlook on karate. Everyone at the camp came from different backgrounds and different regions across the globe, yet we all had one thing in common: karate. To see the passion and skill of all of the people in attendance made me realize that, as cliché as it may sound, you really can achieve anything you set your mind to as long as you stick to your goals and work toward them every day. If you put in the training and have the desire to succeed, then you will.

A proud moment for me at camp last year was when I hesitantly attempted to break boards, and to my surprise and delight, succeeded! I broke boards with punches, kicks, my knee, my elbow, and the most shocking….my head! Another one of my favorite memories of camp was when we all trained in a lake (yes, you read correctly…IN a lake!) As we all punched and kicked in the water, crowds of people who had come for a day trip to the lake snapped photographs of us, watching in awe as we shouted with each strike. It looked like something one would see in a movie, and it was entertaining for not only those of us participating but also our audience. The summer camp was one of the highlights of my summer, and I can’t wait until I get to go again this summer from July 15th-17th.

What started as a way for me to step out of my comfort zone and broaden my horizons led to me becoming the new president of the Mount Karate Club. Now I get to help teach the new white belts the things that I have learned so far and help show them the benefits of taking karate! I’ve always been a lover of the arts, but never did I picture myself studying martial arts. It is a decision I made that surprised even myself, but I am so happy that I made it. Karate improved my outlook and determination in all aspects of my life. I feel safer, stronger, and more independent because of it. And hey, maybe it’s a lesson in trying something new and stepping out of the box. I did, and I’d say it worked out well for me!

And remember, always have OSU.

Read other articles on the local arts scene by Kathryn Franke