The Reluctant Novice : KARATE : Hard Knocks : Take your shoes off and bow with great dignity. Then kick, choke and punch your partner.


You pride yourself on being well-rounded--in terms of experience, not appearance.

Unfortunately, in recent months you have tended more toward the latter. So in an effort to tilt the scale a bit you decide to try a form of exercise you've never attempted before. Karate.

The first thing you do is check the dictionary. What exactly is karate?

Your dictionary tells you it's "a Japanese art of self-defense characterized chiefly by sharp, quick blows delivered by the hands and feet."

"OK," you think to yourself. "Maybe I'll learn to protect myself in the process."

Then you realize that you've never delivered sharp, quick blows with anything, let alone with your feet, the possibility of which, you imagine, would take some sort of balance and flexibility.

And balance and flexibility are two things you lack.

But you decide to go ahead with it anyway. You admit you're no Chuck Norris, but hey, you're not exactly Chuck E. Cheese either.

You call around and get hold of the instructor at the West Valley Karate studio in Simi Valley. His name is Lance Court--a name, you think, better befitting a jouster than a martial arts instructor. But it's tough, even manly, in a medieval sort of way. And Court is willing to let you give his 50-minute novice class a try.

Your reluctance is obvious, even over the phone, so he offers some encouragement.

"I think you'll enjoy it. We'll show you how a simple motion is really difficult," he says. "Couldn't you just show me how a difficult motion is actually simple?" you think.

Quickly, too quickly, class day arrives.

You get to the studio early enough to watch the latter half of a preteen advanced class. Each of them could pound you senseless if they so desired.

As you sit and marvel at their agility, you take in the atmosphere. The room is humid. It looks like a dance studio, with several full-length mirrors, but smells like a gym. There's a punching bag, a barbell setup and exercise mats near the far wall and martial arts weapons along the left wall.

You listen to Court instruct his class. "It's a real flip of the wing. That's why they call it a crane block."

A girl in the class has to be told several times not to talk out of turn.

Apparently it's one too many times, because Court makes her do some sort of deep knee bends around the border of the room. It must be embarrassing. You begin to wonder if he does that to disobedient adults, too.

Suddenly it's time to get started. Court is very cordial and comes over to greet you.

He tells you to go to the restroom and change into your sweats and leave your shoes behind. It suddenly hits you that karate is done barefoot. And your bare feet are nothing to brag about. Oh well. You just hope the other students have been checked for athlete's foot.

Before the class officially begins everyone is supposed to do some warm-up stretching exercises. A very nice guy named Jesse, a green belt, is assigned to help you.

You stretch your arms. You stretch your back. You tuck your leg under you--and hear three pops coming from your right knee that you've never heard before.

Finally, it's class time. You look at the clock. Only 49 more minutes until you're out of here.

First you learn how to bow ceremoniously before the start of instruction.

Then the fun begins. You and the dozen or so other students run through punching and kicking drills. Actually, the rest of the class runs through them. You, more or less, plod.

After that it's on to confrontational situations with a partner. The green belts match up with the green belts, the yellow belts with the yellow belts.

You tighten the white draw string on your sweat pants and position yourself opposite the only other unbelted student.

You proceed to kick, punch and choke each other for the remainder of the class. You take turns assaulting and defending, working primarily on self-defense techniques.

It's kind of fun. At one point Court tells you to shove him. That's fun too. You haven't really given anyone a good shove in a long time.

By the end of class you realize that what you learned made some sense. And perhaps you could get yourself out of a chokehold if necessary.

Maybe you could also duck a punch and then counterpunch, but you would have to be attacked from your right side. You've discovered that you tend to fall over if a punch is thrown from your left.

An advanced class begins shortly after your class ends, and you decide to watch some of the action. It's serious.

Real sweat is being worked up here. Men and women fling each other to the ground.

The students talk to each other. "He mangled you," says Jesse, a student himself. "He threw you like a wet rag."

Then you hear Court say, "It would be a shame if he ripped out your heart before he broke your arm."

You take that as your cue to leave.


There are plenty of things you have never tried. Fun things, dangerous things, character-building things. The Reluctant Novice tries them for you and reports the results. After all, the Novice gets paid to do them--and has no choice in the matter. If you want to tell the Novice where to go, please call us at 658-5547. If we use your idea, we'll send you a present.

This week's Reluctant Novice is staff writer Leo Smith.

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