Tempo in Kata
Anyone who has been practicing karate for long enough to have learned two or three kata knows that not all techniques in kata should be performed at the same speed. Some moves are fast, some slow. Some moves are performed quickly, some slowly. Some are executed with an increasing or decreasing speed. Furthermore, some combinations of moves are performed in quick succession, while others are performed with a noticeable pause between moves. This timing between movements is what I would like to focus on in this article.
When first learning a new kata, one should strive to maintain the tempo that the instructor indicates. When in doubt, start out slowly and with less power, gradually adding more speed and power as familiarity is gained. Remember that priority in learning and executing techniques should be (a) form (b) speed (c) power (concentration on muscular contraction). If one rushes into (b) and (c) without focusing sufficiently on (a) first, training may be wasted.
As you become more familiar with a kata, you may want to vary the timing from that which was originally learned. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as the ramifications of the changes are considered and weighed. For example, there is probably reason that some of the slow moves in kata are performed slowly, while others are not.
Some sequence timings in kata are taught in a given dojo or organization and expected to be followed blindly by all. Some judges/examiners will deduct points if the performer does not do as everyone else, without considering that there may be a reasonable explanation for deviation of tempo. While standardization is good for assuring certain minimum requirements are met, flexibility should occasionally be exercised, at least for the higher dan ranks.
This is not to say that all karate practitioners should alter timing in kata as they see fit. On the contrary; I believe that one should strive to perform in the standard fashion when taking an exam for the first time on a new kata. After gaining a certain amount of experience, however, enough depth of understanding may be reached that different timings may be evaluated. In other words, I think that an instructor should continue teaching standardized timing, but be open to variations.
Why would one vary the tempo in kata? There are several possible reasons. One important consideration regarding kata, whether it is your personal emphasis in training or not, is that the kata were originally meant as a collection of self-defense techniques. When performing a sequence of moves in a kata with a given set of applications in mind, a certain tempo may be more condusive for execution of those techniques. Another application set may be more suited to a different tempo.
In addition to application considerations, an older, smaller individual may focus more on dramatizing slow moves during demonstration, to emphasize control and finesse. A larger, younger person doing the same kata may want to show power and speed and not make as much of a distinction between fast and slow moves.
Ultimately, kata is what you make of it. That means that you have choices regarding not only the tempo of the movements, but the reasons why you do it the way you do. Karate has very much to offer, and kata is one way of really making your karate your karate. This is true whether you do it as an athletic endeavor, for discipline, for artistic expression, in an attempt to perform well in a test or tournament, or to practice self-defense techniques. Learn how others do the kata. Then, make it your kata, whatever that means to you.
Copyright © 2022, Jon Keeling (originally published March 2001)