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The dan (step) ranking system was invented by Honinbo Dosaku, a professional 'go' player in the Edo period. Although it is Japanese, dan ranking serves as a useful way to differentiate higher-level skill and has been adopted by many martial arts.
Black belt does not mean 'expert'.
5 black belts
The 3 lower black belts are still aimed at students. The next 2 are for instructors.
Wearing a black belt and passing a black belt are two different things entirely. Students who grade successfully will receive a black belt certificate for each dan they pass.
There are 3 black belts to pass prior to teacher training.
A student is awarded their 1st dan black belt when they have completed the fundamentals, the basics. The student is not an expert. Nor are they ready to open a school or teach a class.
The general public seem to regard the black belt as being some sort of martial arts graduation. This is a misconception.
Some people stop training when they pass one black belt. This is crazy. Taijiquan is about to get really exciting and they quit.
We do not awards belts for merit. Driving people to classes, being a judge or long-term attendance do not warrant a new belt.
6 higher belts
Gaining a black belt signifies the beginning of a much more serious journey. The student has climbed up out of the valley but is a very long distance from the peak.
Not many people have the wherewithal to go all the way. There are 6 higher belts to work through: 5 black and 1 red. The training is more extensive and rigorous than earlier in the syllabus.
A better standard of practice is expected.
A 1st dan black belt student is not an expert. A taijiquan expert has at least 10,000 hours of experience, and no 1st dan possesses that. 10,000 hours of continued improvement, insight and development.
You need to put in the work. Pass 5 black belts and you are closer to becoming an expert.
Hours of practice
By the time they pass 1st dan, a student should have approximately 3000 hours of experience. Passing the 3rd dan syllabus: at least 10,000 hours.
How can I become an instructor?
We welcome anyone who wants to become a taijiquan instructor. Prospective instructors start in the beginners class and work their way through the syllabus.
With patience, commitment and practice, they pass 3rd dan. At that point, the student is taught how to teach. Reaching black belt is undoubtedly an accomplishment, but it is not the end.
If you really want to take the art further you must learn how to teach.
An instructor must have a greater sense of the permutations. They need to be able to guide a student through a step-by-step discovery of the art.
'Knowing' the material is quite a different matter to simply going through it a few times in class. The instructor plants seeds, cultivates nuances, themes, connections and associations.
Their role is to nurture the growth of the student.
Instructor training course
An instructor knows how to teach. They also understand the syllabus. It is necessary to present the material in a way that enables other people to learn the art.
Revision and refinement
The dan grades offer the most formidable challenge in terms of revision and refinement. It is one thing to possess a basic understanding.
Mastery is another thing entirely. The gap between a basic grasp and expert skill is wide indeed. Much of the black belt is spent studying existing material.
If you really want to understand taijiquan, the level of subtlety and intricacy must be very acute. A considerable amount of time is spent on every aspect of the curriculum.
Even the most insignificant-seeming exercise contains vast layers of detail. The study of taijiquan is like peeling an onion. There is always another layer.
The black belt means training new material in addition to the fundamental exercises.
All of the skills you have learned will continue to be relevant, and your understanding of them should change as your taijiquan matures.
The Japanese word for black belt is shodan which means 'first step' or 'certified beginner'.
18 April 1995
Last updated 20 February 2020