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Kyungmin Collegiate Tae Kwon Do Team Dazzles at MIT Exhibition

By Brian Chase

MIT’s no slouch when it comes to Tae Kwon Do. The olympic Sport Tae Kwon Do Club here has captured the Ivy-Northeast Collegiate Taekwondo League title each of the past three years, while having only existed as a competitive group for four. But on Monday, July 18, MIT students and community members were able to observe Tae Kwon Do at a still higher level: a demonstration team of college students who effectively major in Tae Kwon Do at Kyungmin College in Korea gave an hour-long performance in the Johnson Athletic Center as part of their U.S. tour.

In Korea, students can make their primary study the art of Tae Kwon Do at martial arts colleges such as Kyungmin. Students choose between training to compete in Tae Kwon Do, similar to the MIT Sport team though on a quite different scale, or to demonstrate Tae Kwon Do, working on forms and acrobatic feats unlikely to be useful in actual competition. The “Flying Tigers,” as the touring team is called, comprises students studying the latter. They displayed the fruit of their efforts at MIT, showing off amazing acrobatics and impressive martial arts routines.

The Flying Tigers performed three types of demonstrations. The first, forms, or poomse in Korean, were choreographed punches and kicks, sometimes to music, which groups of the students performed in unison. For their U.S. tour, the Tigers combined most of their punch and kick combos with modern dance steps, while American music played in the background. This tactic, designed to appeal to American audiences, was hit or miss.

The final form was a strong, entertaining series to “We Will Rock You” and “The Eye of the Tiger,” rock songs where the heavy back beats helped emphasize the strong kicks and punches the students delivered. Other combinations, such as a sequence to Britney Spears’s song “Hit Me Baby One More Time” were less enjoyable because the Tae Kwon Do was slightly de-emphasized and was intermixed with the grinding dance moves Spears performs, which, to me, only cheapened and westernized a strong martial art.

It also seemed creepy that all the students were moving their hips without a trace of emotion on their faces. Still, the choreography was cool to watch, especially in the silent forms, which impressed viewers with the power of the art when the students broke out an array of backflips, 360’s and aerial half-twists. Watching those, one imagines a really good dance troupe and gymnastics team, which could also kick your butt.

The second type of demonstrations was choreographed fights among elder members of the team, which showed off a dizzying series of punch/kick combos and throws, without any pretense of being real. It was vaguely like professional wrestling, except the performers weren’t the size of Mack trucks, and were far more acrobatic and professional.

The common plotline to these “fights”: men approach a woman (or women) and proceed to hit on her. When she brushes them off, they become mad, try to force her, and then she kicks their butts, with whatever item happens to be at hand. In one fight, it was a fan, in another a purse, in a third, a loop of cord. All ended with the guys writhing theatrically on the ground, courtesy of a devastating throw or sweep kick.

The grappling was impressive; in one sequence, a female leapt sideways at an attacker’s head and wrapped around it as she flew until she was on his back and facing the other direction; then, she let her body weight and momentum slam him down. Seeing the guys writhing on the ground in fake pain, waving their arms and legs like jellyfish while “recovering” from some combo caused unintentional comedy; in reality, they were waiting for the girls to set them up for an impressive acrobatic throw.

But the actual punch-kick interchanges were cheapened by the large amounts of air visible between the attack thrown and the body it was supposed to hit. I would actually suggest that before further similar demonstrations, the squad should watch a little professional wrestling to learn how to make it more believable.

The Kyungmin team’s final, most unique, and most impressive type of demonstration was board breaking. Several students held out balsa boards, which seemed a quarter to a half-inch thick, in a formation, and another student run into them, kicking as he or she went, breaking the boards in quick fashion. Often four or more boards were broken in one jump, as the student kicked two on the way up, and then half-twisted in the air to reach two far apart, or flew through two more boards with one leg extended. The sound of the boards breaking added to the experience, as if four small guns were firing in quick succession as the student flew through the air.

As the demonstration continued, the challenges became increasingly difficult. Students built small human pyramids and held the boards near the top, forcing breakers to lay out a full backflip, or leap off another student, who served as a foothold, to reach them. One fun challenge had four students make themselves into two steps leading to four boards in the air. The board breaker ran the human stairs, then kicked the boards as he flew by in a standing position. The move looked like something straight out of a martial arts movie (and who’s to say it wasn’t?).

Not all the students successfully broke their boards, but even failed attempts impressed — they helped the audience understand the difficulty of the routines.

Grand Master Won-Sub Kim, one of the instructors of the Kyungmin squad traveling with them, said it took half a year of training three to four hours a day for the students to learn the demonstrations they performed. The students’ U.S. tour was their summer vacation, and while it was voluntary, the skills on display were the same ones they have to master to graduate. The team will return to Boston later this summer as their U.S. tour winds down, and I highly recommend attending. There are few places or times you can see live the kind of martial arts skill that the Kyungmin Flying Tigers put on, especially from college students.