If you practice the martial arts, the color of the belt around your waist is used to signify your grade, level or “ranking” within the style. Colored belts, however, were never part of the ancient martial arts tradition. According to martial art folklore, a student was given a white belt to match his uniform and hold up his pants. After many years of training, the belt became stained with dirt, blood and sweat to the point where it turned black. See, while you were encouraged to wash your uniform, your belt was off limits. Belt washing meant that you washed away all the “qi” or energy accumulated over the years and this was strictly prohibited.
In the 1880’s, Judo founder Jigoro Kano created the first belt ranking system. Subsequently, other arts followed by creating a hierarchy of colors earned by students. The belt ranking system has been successful with Western cultures because of the emphasis we place on degrees, certifications, awards, licenses and other indicia of proficiency. The belt ranking system sets up goals for students to achieve along their training, with the belt as the reward.
Originally, there were only three colored belts…white, for the beginner, green for intermediate, and black for advanced. Eventually different styles, schools and martial arts organizations adopted their own color ranking system that included numerous levels. Many styles have also added the concept of the “stripe,” which is a form of advancement between color ranks.
It’s important to know that if you have a green belt in a Japanese style for instance, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can go to the Tae Kwon Do school across town and be recognized as a green belt there. What the belts signify is that you have learned the basic principles and techniques for that particular rank, in that particular system. Depending on the instructor at the new school, some will allow students transferring from another style to either wear the belt they earned or the equivalent in their system. Others may require you to start from white belt and work your way up.
Please understand that in the modern American dojo each level of advancement, whether it’s a colored belt or stripe comes with a price tag. To obtain the next a belt or stripe, the student will have to take a test. The more testing a school does, the more it collects in test fees. Some schools even have separate charges for the belt or stripe, and the test fee.
I’m not opposed to the ranking system because it gives students goals to focus on and offers a sense of achievement for hard work. I do believe that a consumer looking for a martial arts school should inquire about the amount of promotions since they are a revenue generating machine and do not necessarily guarantee proficiency in martial arts training. Buyer beware!
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