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  • Spencer Bennington

My Martial Arts Journey Pt. 1

Welcome back to the Rhetorical Roundhouse blog, your home for martial arts studies, rhetoric, and Tae Kwon Do. Last week I shared lots of photos and videos from my week of visiting home in Danville, VA. If you haven't checked that out, you owe it to yourself to do so because it was a pretty fun and enlightening time. This week I'm finally making good on a promise, the one that this section of the Rhetorical Roundhouse blog was built on--I'm going to tell you about the beginning of my journey as a martial artist!. There will be plenty more of these throughout the rest of 2019 and I hope to be all caught up to where I am today before we ring in 2020.


But I'm getting ahead of myself.


It all started when I was about 14. That's probably not entirely true...You know, I've started writing about this in some of my preliminary dissertation drafting so I'm going to excerpt that here where it's relevant. So, today will be sort of the origin of my Tae Kwon Do training as well as my Tae Kwon Do research.


Technically, I started practicing Tae Kwon Do when I was about seven years old, but, in truth, I don’t remember much about my training from that time. What I do recall is this: the dojang (Tae Kwon Do gym) existed above a Subway sandwich shop so it always smelled like fresh-baked pizza. We had to wear uniforms with tops that wrapped around your body like a towel, ones that were only held together by a belt that was really hard to tie. I remember not liking how easily the top came undone because I was fatter than most of the other kids and ashamed of my body--I only took my shirt off in the stalls of the locker room. Instructors barked commands and all the other children seemed to move in unison whereas I was unaware of when to punch, what to say in response, and why everyone seemed to yell at random intervals. As one might expect, I lost interest quickly and didn’t train there for very long.


Unfortunately for my own health, I never took interest in other sports or physical activities. By the time I was thirteen, a doctor told me that my triglyceride level was somewhere in the 230’s, an extremely high number for an otherwise healthy kid. The overabundance of this particular lipid can signify the early onset of diabetes as well as indicate a higher likelihood of arterial hardening resulting in heart disease or stroke--all of which run in my family. My Dad, someone who has first-hand knowledge of these kinds of medical consequences, became determined to find some kind of activity that would help me lose weight and develop a healthier lifestyle. After nearly a year of trying various sports and exercises, he finally asked me one day, on the drive home from horseback riding, or canoeing, or archery practice…”what’s something that you think you’d like to do?” And even though I was a little embarrassed to say it, I could sum up my desires in one word: “fight.”


As a surprise to no one, the overweight teenager had some emotional insecurities that often manifested as anger. The thing was, I rarely exhibited aggression towards others, especially not physically. Instead, I was always much more comfortable taking out my frustrations in more self-destructive ways. But all that changed when Dad brought me back, full-circle, seven years later, to a different Tae Kwon Do school. This one wasn’t located in a strip mall on Riverside Drive, it was Downtown in an area my Mom didn’t feel safe driving in alone. This school wasn’t filled with rows of neatly organized students moving in unison, it was packed with the chaos of full-contact sparring and the clamor of feet crashing into chest-guards. This was the dojang that fourteen-year-old me needed more than anything else, this was the Olympic Tae Kwon Do Academy.



Waaaayyyy back in 2004 earning my first belt :)

Looking back, I see that Master Kelvin Miller’s school was an important beginning not just for my physical/mental health or my journey to become a black belt, but in my development as a man, a socially responsible community member, and a rhetorical citizen--and I wasn’t the only one. Adorning the walls of the studio were T-shirts with the slogan “I’m not street, I’m Drug Free and Education is the Key!” ones that many of the students and instructors owned and wore. In many ways, this was the personal mission for Master Miller when he first started teaching at no charge in the basement of a local church. Despite my being young, white, and not fully a member of the same Danville communities Master Miller and many of his students were, I could still comprehend, at least on some level, the fate his training was attempting to protect us from. Given that the dojang stood adjacent to Section 8 housing and across the street from a plasma donation center, material markers and physical reminders of what happens when you walk a “bad path” were never hard to find. As a rhetorical response to these kinds of pervasive arguments in the lower-income pockets of our city, Master Miller cultivated young men and women to act as counterpoints, embodiments of alternative ways of performing identity in multiple contexts. In other words, he taught his students to adopt and adapt to the kinds of commonplace arguments various stakeholders would engage in about their bodies (where they should reside, how they should move or become restrained, the limitations or affordances of their political and civil rights, etc.)


This next section gets a little bit more academic so bear with me. Before reading, I'd like to offer a definition of two key terms for those of you who may not be classically trained rhetoricians. First, and central to my research, is the Greek word topos or topoi plural. This word has been defined and applied in many ways but, simply put, it means theme, topic, or commonplace and refers to the kinds of argument structures cultures employ regularly without much thought. An example in the United States might be the commonplace argument of "it's good/bad for you" when discussing food, chemicals, medicine, substances, activities, or anything else you do with your body. As you can see, a topos can be invoked from multiple sides and utilized to both attack and defend a particular subject. The second term is enthymeme. Again, given to us by Aristotle, an enthymeme is any argument with an unclear or suggested premise. We see and use these all the time. Consider in advertising a slogan like "make your best impression" in a commercial. This could be a commercial for anything from a dress shirt to a sports car--the unstated premise is that buying whatever that product is will help you make that good impression on whomever you're trying to impress.


Make sense? Good. Back to our regularly scheduled dissertation.



The Olympic Tae Kwon Do Academy would be my first experience learning how to use my body as a means of altering my mind or emotional state--it was my first exposure to the process of embodying topoi. In this way, training with Master Miller starkly contrasted with my martial arts experience as a seven year old. The clarity with which I could see a larger rhetorical context to Master Miller’s Tae Kwon Do provided me (and other students) with a clear purpose, audience, and exigency for training.


Despite it not always being rooted in a regimented habit-practice like the taegeuk pumsae, Master Miller’s maxim certainly exemplifies the definition of embodied topois as a “cultural argument incorporated into a material, carnal, or performed identity” by engaging with a stereotype as enthymeme. “I’m not street” as a message on a t-shirt plainly refers to the body of the wearer, a body that may be visibly associated with any number of elitist or racist assumptions. Because of this, the term “street” as an adjective, needs not be defined. The slogan engages with a commonplace argument present in much of America, but especially pertinent in my southern-fried hometown: the classification of black bodies. “I’m not street” disputes geographical, epistemological, and constitutional classifications of such bodies:


Spatially, by rejecting “the streets” as place of dwelling, activity, or employment, suggesting alternatives to ideas about where black bodies belong or originate


Philosophically, by rejecting “street smarts” as the exclusive way of knowing and suggesting “education” as an alternative method


Ontologically, by rejecting a “street body” as weak, chemically dependent, or damaged by narcotic abuse and, therefore, challenging the assumption that black bodies/minds are especially prone to such addiction


While my own path was not one walked by a black body, I felt the importance of this slogan and its application in my own life outside of Tae Kwon Do. Master Miller always told me to “fight smart” when sparring, a phrase that meant to wait for opportune timing, conserve energy, and to strategize more effectively than my opponent. In this way, he pushed all of his students to pursue that kind of “education” present in his slogan, particularly when in stressful or potentially violent situations. For me specifically, this process let me become a different kind of “drug free” by slowly ridding myself of the rage I harbored, and by teaching me to use my intelligence and develop self-control for the purpose of transforming destructive anger into a productive intensity.


The true work of my dissertation, therefore, is to further investigate the process by which slogans like Master Miller’s and their refutation of specific, localized, cultural arguments make their way from the t-shirt or the words shouted during a sparring match to the bodies of students themselves. How can a physical body enact, reflect, and perform the same kind of message and engage in the same rhetorical situations as discourse or text? Furthermore, how can the actions, positions, and performances of such bodies function to facilitate a “recursive relationship” between the individual, group, and community members all connected by the same commonplace argument?

For the exciting answers to all those very riveting scholarly questions, tune in next spring as I defend my dissertation! You're not asleep are you?


Seriously though, I owe a lot to Master Miller, his school, and the many assistant instructors that helped me along the way. They planted the seeds for me to keep training, to be curious about the martial arts in a way that's led me to research them today, and for me to never become too comfortable with my current level--in anything that I'm truly passionate about.


If I had to boil down the fundamental Tae Kwon Do precepts that I took away from my four years of training with Master Miller, I'd focus on the three P's...


Power: Nobody kicks like Master Miller. Sure, I've seen high ranking black belts kick hard like he does and with incredible speed...but those masters usually have about a foot and fifty pounds on him at least. So, naturally, fourteen-year-old me...and just about every other student that walked through the doors at OTKDA wanted to kick that hard, to be that strong. This was the first school that showed me that to be a powerful striker, you had to know how to move your hips. Consequently, Master Miller never taught us a traditional roundhouse kick where you chamber your knee and extend your leg. Instead, he taught us what he called a "whip kick," a technique designed to throw your whole leg at a person by focusing exclusively on hip torque and shoulder rotation. And while it's never going to help you win a pumsae competition, the whip kick is devastating in sparring. Because we trained like this, I get to take this power that I can generate from the hip to any martial arts setting I find myself in--other Tae Kwon Do schools, boxing classes, MMA training, etc. And usually, I'm the guy that ends up surprising people. After recently checking in with Master Miller over a decade later though, I still can't hit as hard as he can!


Practicality: When training with Master Miller, you might find that you do a lot of the same drills and techniques routinely. As a kid, this could sometimes be frustrating. But now, as an adult and a teacher, I see that this was one of the only "traditional" aspects of OTKDA. We practiced what worked and ONLY what worked, particularly in a full-contact sparring session or a street fighting scenario. So that whip kick I just mentioned? There would be some classes where that's all we did. Sparring drills? They were always very simple in terms of number of steps and relied on very similar footwork. One of Master Miller's favorite sayings is "make him miss then make him pay." In other words, use the fundamental footwork to set up the fundamental kick to deliver that power. Sometimes we'd mix it up a bit and change the rules--sometimes we'd find ourselves trying to use our Tae Kwon Do knowledge in self-defense situations. Now let me pause here for a second: one thing that grinds my gears like no other is seeing any martial arts instructor teach self-defense techniques that are overly complicated, ineffective, and likely to endanger a student in a real combat situation. Unfortunately, I've seen it a lot. That was never the case at Master Miller's however, partly because of his training in the Combat Hapkido system as well as the International Police Defensive Tactics Institute. Anything he taught us had an immediate, practical, application that we could see was effective.


Proof: Finally, the third important takeaway from my time with Master Miller is the belief that it's OK to ask a martial artist to prove something to you. Many people say many outlandish things and Tae Kwon Do instructors are no different. So, to show us this first hand, Master Miller would frequently take some of his black belts on field trips to visit other martial arts schools. He taught us how to be respectful, how to listen first and ask questions, how to never boast our own talents in someone else's space. Ultimately, we traveled around the region to learn things, to find people who could help us make our techniques more powerful or practical. But, more often than not, what we found was a lot of bad schools in small towns with student populations who didn't really know any better or have other options for training. But, what I learned from these trips is how to maintain a respectful attitude and to be gracious for the fact that someone has invited me to train with them. I learned how to maintain that respect even when asking them to "prove it" whatever "it" was...usually I'd say something more polite like "could you please show me?" And, to this day, this experience has colored how I approach any new school. I always show up on the first day and observe multiple classes, taking notes, asking questions of different parents, students, and instructors to get a sense for how that school's community views the martial arts. This skill has helped me always find a quality place to continue my training no matter where I go.


Now, this is all to say that I am extremely grateful to Master Miller and the place where my Tae Kwon Do training all started, but, I've been practicing Tae Kwon Do for nearly fifteen years now and the OTKDA chapter is just the beginning. I certainly had a LOT more to learn about the art after leaving, and I still do. It is a life-long process after all.


But, for your viewing pleasure, I thought I'd conclude with some old home movies of my original black belt test from 2007. The film quality isn't great...we had digital cameras back then as the hot new technology! And, frankly, my performance isn't very good either. But, it's good that I see that now because it means that I've continued to grow in my training since I was a teenager.


Anyway, without further ado, here's "iron man" (the nickname I gave myself as a teen) performing four taegeuk forms, sparring two black belts, and breaking a cinder block!







And that day, a black belt was born!

That's it for this part of the story. Tune in next week for (hopefully!) some exciting new videos to help you (and me!) improve our splits and side kicks.


As always, thank you for reading.


Kamsahamnida!


This post is dedicated to the memory of one of my favorite assitant instructors who I had the pleasure of knowing at Olympic Tae Kwon Do Academy, Mr. Carl Bethea. Not only did he teach me so much about martial arts, but he was always the kindest most welcoming person at the gym. Odds are, I may not have kept coming back in those early months if it weren't for his love and support. He will be sorely missed. Thank you Mr. Bethea for being my Tae Kwon Do grandpa.