On Kicking

I posted this on academia.edu, here: https://www.academia.edu/13068718/On_Kicking – but I thought I’d also post it here. The version on academia.edu has pictures, but is otherwise the same:

A kick, a high kick, a well formed kick, signifies martial arts – or what a young Roland Barthes might once have called ‘martial art-ness’. It certainly used to – particularly back in the days when most Westerners had only ever even heard of a small handful of martial arts: karate, judo, kung fu, and maybe (for readers of Sherlock Holmes novels or people connected with the military) jujitsu.

The kick is or was once the pinnacle, the very symbol of martial arts prowess, related to but different from its more esoteric relatives, the ‘karate chop’ and the ‘judo throw’. The chop and the throw became clichés that were easily sent up, as in the 1990s nostalgia comedy Austin Powers. However, the difference between the world of kicks and the world of throws and chops is that the latter suggest a truly other, mysterious and alien world, whose workings are obscure to the point of being occult. Popular culture registers this alterity. In Star Trek, Spock could nip the neck or trapezius muscles of a victim who would fall to the floor unconscious. This was (crypto)oriental(ist) ‘inscrutability’ par excellence.

But the kick – the kick was different. The chops and throws of orientalist fantasies of judo, karate and kung fu all implied atechnical precision. These techniques tend towards what would come to be known in the west as ‘dim mak’ or pressure point fighting. Visually, semiotically, they reduce fighting to the technical pushing of buttons. The kick, however, demonstrates a physical prowess. Anyone can fashion their hand into the shape of a knife and chop. It fast became a cliché of the order of hitting someone on the back of the head with a handgun: the movies made it look simple, although I don’t know anyone who tried it. When I was a child everyone tried nipping necks to induce unconsciousness, but it never really seemed to work – at least not for anyone I met in the playground, in the street, whether I nipped at them or they nipped at me. Those mystical Vulcan secrets seem to remain beyond our ken.

But the kick is something different. It fashions the whole body into a bouncing and flexing weapon, from the well rooted standing or stepping thrust kick, to the whole body flying through the air. It is obvious to any viewer that total body coordination is essential – and total body training. So it not only signifies but exemplifies a very different kind of ideal of martial arts prowess to chopping, locking, throwing, punching or rolling.

With the kick you can fly in and you can lash out. The side kick is perhaps the exemplary kick. It is the neatest, the tidiest. It can be posed, and held. The hands, arms, torso, head and face, can all be posed to suit the situation. Bruce Lee shows us this best, when O’Hara intrudes upon his private training in Enter the Dragon. Standing on his left foot when he perceives O’Hara at the door, Lee pivots on his foot and points his right side kick directly at O’Hara. The camera shows us Lee’s gaze. Looking down the leg and across the outside of his foot, O’Hara stands as if in gun sites. And that’s precisely what a good sidekick does: it shoots out, and blasts into anything in its way.

The sidekick can be turbocharged too. With a step in, it covers more ground, closes more distance. And from a little skip it can be jumped. Indeed, the jumping sidekick covers all the ground from effectiveness to spectacularity in one fell leap.

A jumping sidekick can be devastating. It also exemplifies spectacular, flashy, celluloid, cinematic, staged, animated or simulated martial arts. And these are in fact two of the main reasons why kicking has long been reviled in a range of ‘western’ discourses. As many commentators have noted, before Chinese and Japanese martial arts exploded onto cinema screens, more and more especially since the 1960s, kicking was principally regarded as ‘dirty’ fighting. I recall that, in my childhood in Newcastle in the 1970s, people would often denounce anyone who kicked in a fight as ‘dirty’, and when kicks were thrown in fights, I remember people gasping ‘ooh, dirty!’, in shock and disdain. Davis Miller (in the US) and other English language biographers of Bruce Lee have also noted that before Bruce Lee popularised kicking, they were roundly frowned upon as dirty, cheating, sly and excessive.

After Bruce Lee, another discourse frowned upon kicking as excessive in a different sense. Kicking became regarded as excessive because of it being regarded as dangerous for the person who is trying to kick. It is dangerous because it is high risk. You might lose your balance. Your leg might be caught. You might miss and find yourself facing the wrong direction, or off balance, or having been closed down upon by your opponent.

Scoring a good hard high kick, ideally to the head, is possible, yes, but is it probable? This is the question that many martial artists ask. The stakes are high, at least when fighting is serious. So is the kick serious? This is a good question. In my experience, landing a good, crisp, clean head kick is a moment of joy and jubilation. And kicking is fun in a way that other techniques cannot measure up to.

The kick that contacts with the opponent’s head will probably not be a sidekick, however, unless you are really tall or really flexible. But even so, it will always be easier to land a turning kick or a hook kick. To land, the kick will have flicked up and out before being arced into the face or head. There will be no loud thwack, snap or crack. There will be a pleasing thud, and the other person will be rattled, at least, or stunned, or even floored or knocked out. Yet it will feel like the sound should be a snap or a whack or a thwack. This is surely the main reason why in taekwondo training, the type of focus pad that they hold up for each other to kick is designed to emit a pleasing cracking sound when a kick lands crisply.

There is a delight in landing such kicks. It is not matched, in my experience, by any other achievement in martial arts. A choke submission or tap-out is a world away. A good punch, while satisfying in its own way, is a lot closer to the normal day to day world than landing a head kick. There is something about using the feet like hands… Surely everyone who ever started studying a kicking style has gone through periods of time opening doors and turning lights on and off with their feet. It’s a delight, because it is so novel. Even a throw or sweep, while beautiful, does not feel as beautiful.

A good kick is perfectly beautiful. There are a few archetypes, a few paradigms. The side kick of Bruce Lee, the jumping reverse turning kick of Van Damme, the devastating power of the turning kicks of Muay Thai fighters, Daniel Laruso’s Crane Kick in The Karate Kid – these are all models to be emulated. What makes them so beautiful? The physical frame in the fully locked out sidekick is at once stretched out – thrust – and contracted – held back. Bruce Lee’s six-pack abdomen, the complete control of where his arms and hands are – all make the kick desirable, because the perfection is multiple. Compare Bruce Lee’s sidekick with that of Olympic taekwondo. In Lee we see perfectly grounded full body control. A kind of tension. In sport taekwondo we see bouncing, arms by the sides, almost like a puppet, with baggy white pyjamas, flapping belts and padding that rounds and softens the body aesthetics. These kicks are not desirable. In the 2012 Olympics, when women’s boxing was first featured, and the UK won a gold medal in both the women’s taekwondo and the women’s boxing, even one lifelong taekwondo practitioner complained to me (about the taekwondo) ‘how can you win a medal by touching someone else’s head with your toe?’

Many in my circles compared the women’s boxing to the women’s taekwondo that year, and the floppy flailing tip-tapping of the taekwondo fared badly in the face of Nicola Adams’s fantastically tight, precise, technically brilliant boxing. The visual semiotics are familiar. We don’t prefer flopping and flapping when there is tight precision, sharpness and control on offer elsewhere.

All good fighters on film have this sharpness. The body opens, flows, then snaps into a pose, the pose that can become the poster, the pose that can be held in front of the mirror. The culmination of the kick is the freeze frame moment, the screen grab, the moment of one’s internal mental selfie.

However, as every kicker knows, the success or failure of this culmination is dependent on a first, considerably less photogenic moment: the moment of preparation, the moment you initiate, the moment only you know about. Again, the sidekick is my favourite. I can feel it now. The thought of that feel excites me. It’s the last vestiges of the taekwondo I once loved, and lived and breathed. I’m sure I will still be able to feel it on my deathbed. Even now, I miss it. I don’t kick much anymore, and when I do, it’s low (shins, thighs, groin). But, even now, as I sit here typing, I can feel my weight move to my right foot. I’m side on. My left knee rises. My foot sharpens into a sword-foot. I’m half way there. And there, that moment, not kicking yet, but primed, loaded, as I once said into a camera, and I can and do laugh about it, but it is no word of a lie, Iam Bruce Lee. And then it’s gone. And I’m not. I’m just me. But I want to do it again.

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