I was at a really, really good dojo for awhile, one of those places where everyone takes things seriously, and black belts only get awarded to people who've put years of hard work in. Best of all, we had this small-town-community atmosphere; everyone knew each other and we didn't really give two shits about the business end of things, we just came down to see our friends, work out, and learn how to kick ass. My favorite part was our belt tests; for junior grades, we could expect about an hour and a half of running through katas and sparring with the sensei and showing off our high kicks and getting screamed at in Japanese. It was part karate class, part military smoke session. And for black belts, their tests lasted five, six hours at a time, longer if you were going for a higher dan. You couldn't even go to the bathroom once it started, or they'd fail you and you'd have to wait a month. It was real, grueling military shit, but it was fun, and we knew that all of our black belts got that belt because they wanted it, and they deserved it.
The owners were really open to different martial arts (they had an early sort of MMA philosophy), rather than just sticking to rigid forms and old Japanese ideals of correctness. We'd do a lot of sparring, and we'd have guest teachers come in for "enrichment", like a prison guard who was an expert in Muay Thai, or this little old Japanese man who was a Jujitsu beast and threw my ass into a wall. Not that we didn't have rigid forms to do too, oooohhhh noooo, we had rigid forms alright, rigid forms in spades. Our dojo was big on katas, formal combat routines codified by hundreds of years of Japanese tradition. Our kata lessons were especially brutal; we'd have to do them under boards to make sure our stances stayed low and powerful, and we would be hit by a foam bat for something as simple as not snapping your gi hard enough when you performed a side kick (sensei said the SNAP was how he could tell we were putting enough force and momentum into our movements). The first day we joined the dojo, our sensei would teach us a kata known as Taikyoku Shodan. That fucker was like our bread and water - we'd have to do it ten times a day, at least until we hit our senior belts, at which point we'd be doing it *twenty* times a day. And this was in addition to three or four dozen other katas, all of which, whether they were considered beginner or expert level, we were expected to take completely seriously at all times, lest we get whipped upside the head with a foam bat.
We cycled through a sensei pretty much every year - they were all pretty good, including one guy who was on the US Olympic team, but there were some big money issues behind the scenes and a rash of bad luck. We got to the point where the dojo was in danger of closing down, and one day, our last sensei just up and skipped town, leaving us with nobody in charge, and even worse, nobody responsible for the bills. Now, two of our senior black belts were actually a pair of kids, teenage brothers and karate prodigies, the kind who trained ten hours a day, competed in national tournaments, and beat up bullies in school (the eldest tried his hand at being the bully once, and got hit with some real Mr Miyagi guilt trips). Their dad - a real nice guy, one of the best people I ever knew, he helped *me* out of more personal jams than my own deadbeat father did - he really didn't want to see his kids lose that dojo. They were Puerto Rican and came from a bad neighbourhood, so it's like, dojo or the Latin Kings, take your pick. So HE bought the dojo. This guy was dirt poor, a divorced UPS driver raising two kids all by himself, but he took on the entire dojo's debt himself, just so we could keep going.
We didn't have a sensei anymore, but our black belts decided to take over the school. Like an informal martial arts commune, or something. You'd show up whenever, and these two teenage ninjas, the biker lady, or whoever, they'd teach a class. They'd get really creative with it sometimes, too - like doing twenty minutes of Japanese sand punching exercises, having an hour of kendo, or setting up a free running course in the parking lot. It was really cool how everyone came together as a community, how we all just loved the dojo and did it for everything BUT the business.
But there was a LOT of debt, and six months later, the father came down with a degenerative spinal disease. It hit him hard, and fast. All of his money was put into the dojo, and he didn't have very good medical insurance, so... yeah, you see where this is going. One of the saddest times in my life, and I won't get into the details. He didn't quit, though! He kept right on paying the dojo bills and coming down to cheer us on, even when he was in a wheelchair, even when it'd got so bad he could barely talk. We tried to do some fundraising, but there was absolutely nothing we could do, either for the building or for his medical situation. We lasted maybe another two months.
After that, I really couldn't take it anymore, so I dropped out of martial arts for a year or so. Then I found out one of my buddies was going to this chain dojo, I forget the name of it, but he wanted me to come along and I was like, OK, I'll come down and do some shit with you.
I'd been a purple belt back in my old place (hardly a bouncer), but the McDojo didn't honor our belting system, so it was back to white for me. The first thing that struck me was how big the place was - thirty, forty plus kids, when I'd been used to maybe a half dozen at a time. The second thing that struck me was how few shits anyone seemed to give. I remember doing some blocking exercises with a resident black belt, and the kid was flopping his arms around with this expression on his face, like his mom had just asked him to take out the trash. Looked rather like the jokers in this video, come to think of it. Don't get me wrong, I was no bouncer, and I got my ass routinely handed to me at my old place. But the fuck was a black belt acting like that for?
Within two weeks the McDojo gave me my first belt test. All the belts were lumped together, from white belts clear up to brown belts taking their final exams. We did some basic exercises, "Show us a high punch! Show us a Middle Block!" and then the sensei said, OK, whatever, good enough. Good enough?! Yep, good enough, you can sit down now if you want.
Ten minutes later, the instructor wrapped up the test. The last thing he'd grade us on was katas. KATAS! Yes! Something I knew really, really well. We'd do my good friend, Taikyoku Shodan. So I put my hand up and said, hey, I'll do it! This'll be fun!
ONE OTHER PERSON knew it. ONE person. Now, I guess, different schools, different ways of teaching, whatever, shouldn't judge the McDojo too harshly for not teaching Taikyoku Shodan, right? My partner in crime was a brown belt, the most senior belt grade in the class, and two years younger than me. So we both get up, and we start going through it. Only it's immediately clear that the brown belt's stance is shit. He's standing too high and his center of gravity is all off. He starts to fall over. I shit you not, the poor kid's legs start to wobble and he lurches over to one side, boom, flat on his ass. So our instructor jumps up and grabs his protege, puts him back on his feet, and we start the count again. This happens three more times by the end of it.
Guess who got his black belt that day?
So that's my McDojo story. I never went back after that.