Three of my good friends just tested for their respected levels of black belt (dan) rank and I was fortunate enough to be able to see the test as well as partake in some of it. My next test will be for 2nd degree black-belt (nidan), so this post is mainly about that particular test (no offense, Austin, you crushed it). Although I haven’t been able to train, that hasn’t stopped me from stressing about taking my next test, even though I have no idea when that will be. It’s been about four years since I’ve been able to attend a nidan test, and since a lot of my stresses are from the unknown about what the test is like, it really helped seeing the test. What was really great, though, was seeing two people that I came up through the ranks with take that next step forward. I’ll explain.
The shodan (first degree black belt) test is performed in a very static, step-by-step fashion. We perform and demonstrate the techniques in this way to show we understand the very basics of the movement. In the nidan test, we’re expected to take those techniques into fluid, continuous motion (ki-no-nagare, as we call it). As easy as it sounds, this is not an easy step to make. The shodan test is such a big milestone, and we work for years on stop-start power positions and grounding after each step that, transitioning to fluid movement can be a challenge. It’s easier to break the techniques down into steps because our brain has a second to think about the next part of the technique when we do. With the nidan test, the whole movement needs to be fully together and integrated into a fluid motion.
Not seeing my friends train in six months, I haven’t seen the progression they’ve taken through the work they’ve put in to their test preparation to get to this point. What I saw was incredible and inspiring to say the least. There was a huge transformation from what I saw before. The movements were so incredibly effortless and smooth, yet still technically sound. The expressions on their faces were those of calm and control, as opposed to the ones seen on a shodan test which are more straining, naturally. Seeing them go up there and test made me very excited to be at this place in my training.
I see the shodan test as being the test where the steel is forged through variance of heat and cold, hammering your spirit through the technique constantly to get to a place of optimum strength and balance. Taken in comparison, the nidan test is one of smoothing out and sharpening the edges, filing and refining to make the sword accustomed to your use and aesthetic taste. You’re still fashioning the sword, but it’s a softer, more skillful touch. That was demonstrated masterfully on the tests and it was inspiring to be there and see it.