This post is part of a series inspired by John Danaher. You can read Part 1 here.
As a student of jiujitsu, one of the most common things you’ll hear from professors is something like: “Posture!” or “You need better posture!” or “Posture up!”
As a beginner coming to jiujitsu from a dance background, I found this terribly confusing. You see, I was used to being reminded to maintain “good posture” by my dance teachers. But “good posture” means something entirely different in the context of dance.
And so, for my first few months of jiujitsu, whenever one of my coaches would say, “Steve, posture!,” I would straighten my spine, roll back my shoulders, and––promptly and predictably––be swept.*
It took time for me to grok what my jiujitsu instructors meant. But I suppose I could have just studied Connor McGregor, who is a master posturer––in oh so many ways.
Connor nails the dancer’s posture during his weigh-in:
But he would never actually fight in that ridiculous stance. His fighting stance looks more like this:
Or instead of studying Connor, I could have studied the peacock, which possesses nature’s best dance posture.
And an impressive fighting posture, too:
This essay isn’t about posture. But posture is a neat illustration of the often inverted relationship between dance and jiujitsu.
Ukes and Leads
Before moving on, a quick vocabulary lesson for the uninitiated: Uke. Uke is a romanization of a Japanese word for a specific training partner. In particular, if one student is practicing a triangle choke, his uke is the unfortunate red-faced soul being triangled over and over again.
I’ve been trying to write about my experiences dancing and fighting since I began training jiujitsu nearly four years ago. (My dance career started in high school musicals and I have been a diligent student of Latin dance for close to a decade). But I’ve never been able to put my finger on just what it is I had to say about the relationship between dance and jiujitsu––at least until I heard Lex Fridman’s interview with John Danaher.
Danaher, whom I hope has taken up salsa dancing during his stay in Puerto Rico, explains that jiujitsu drilling––as opposed to jiujitsu sparring––is like dancing: In sparring, your goal is to make your partner look bad; in drilling (and dancing), your goal is to make your partner look good.
Now is a good time to remind readers that I am not very good at jiujitsu. After just over three and a half years of training, I have a reasonable handle on a single position––and that position is, frankly, not very important to the art. But something I think I am pretty good at is being a uke. I attribute this to dance.
Being an effective uke in Brazilian Jiujitsu is like being a good partner dance lead. This might seem counterintuitive. You might think that the person executing the technique is the lead and the uke is the follow. But for effective drilling, it’s the opposite.
If you’d like to effectively drill a technique, your uke must first create the circumstances in which the drilled technique is appropriate. Here’s a simple illustration using attacks from the half guard position, which is where John Danaher likes to start new students.
The very first attack a student learns from the half guard is a “back take” using an underhook. This means that the student starts underneath his uke, but ends up with control of his uke’s back. To execute it, a student first attains an underhook. His head and body follow his underhooking arm to his uke’s back. The beginning of the technique looks something like this:
Stupid and simple as it seems, in my experience knowing to attain this underhook will allow a new jiujitsu practitioner to dominate an untrained sparring partner most of the time.
Things get more interesting with a knowledgeable uke. The in-the-know uke will not simply let his opponent sneak out to the back. Instead, he may insert an overhook, known in this context for who-knows-what-reason as “a whizzer.”
Should your uke “lead” with a whizzer, you must then adapt! That often means executing a “Plan B” sweep, which involves rolling under your uke, taking advantage of the fact that he cannot stop the roll with his hand, which is too busy whizzering.
You may be thinking, “Wow, the uke has to know a lot of stuff.” And this is exactly my point. But first…
Dancers have their own strange vocabulary. In particular, I’ve always found it awkward that dancers will say something like, “I went social dancing on Friday night.” What this means is that they went to a club or event and danced with strangers. I think we could just say, “I went dancing,” but I digress.
Odd as it is, leading dances with strangers is kind of like being a uke over and over again––but to a fun dance beat!** With each new song, a lead must gauge a new follow’s ability. If his follow is a beginner, he will perhaps lead only right turns––the salsa equivalent of a sequence of half guard underhook sequences. Or maybe she’s that special someone, and he gets to break out the dance equivalent of a berimbolo.
This is to say that by learning to lead a partner dance, one gets very good at assessing and adapting to the physical capabilities of follows. I believe this translates to being a good jiujitsu uke. I’ve heard that jiujitsu black belts can tell how long someone has been training just by the initial grips they take. Dance is the same way.
Bored Black Belts
If you read my post The Dao of Danaher – Part 1, you’ll remember that Danaher recommends spending most of your sparring time training with partners who are worse than you are. I offer the dancer’s corollary: Most of your drilling time should ideally be spent with ukes who are better than you. A uke who is worse than you will not be able to create appropriate circumstances for practicing an advanced technique.
With that, I must qualify my above statement that I am a “pretty good uke.” I do not mean that I am a good uke for a black belt who is looking to improve his skills. I am a good uke for people my skill level and below.
For advanced jiujitsu students, it can be a frustrating or boring experience to drill with an untrained uke. Untrained or lesser-trained people are simply unable to provide an interesting learning environment for a more advanced training partner. They do not know how to create the proper physical circumstances and resistance.
And this, by the way, is part of why learning to dance salsa is such a challenge for men. In salsa dancing, men lead––always. Or: men only get to be uke. This means that a man who learns to lead salsa will inevitably have the experience of boring a woman follow. I write from abundant experience: There are few more painful experiences for a man than doing your best to lead a brilliant dance and seeing a visibly bored woman across from you.
I would go so far as to say that I would rather spend five minutes on the bottom of Marcus Almeida’s north-south control than dance a five minute song with a visibly bored woman.
Actually, maybe not. But it’s close.
-Learning to lead a partner dance is an excellent way to improve your skills as a uke.
-As much as possible, spend time drilling with people who are better than you.
-If you’re a woman, feigning interest in a man who is doing his best really goes a long way. But you already knew that, didn’t you.
*As you progress in jiujitsu, you come to understand that “good posture” is completely dependent on circumstances. “Good posture” means one thing while in someone’s closed guard, another when shooting a single leg takedown, and still another when “deadlifting” to combat a collar grip.
**Actually, I’ve daydreamed about a jiujitsu class instructed in-sync with a beat. I think this is a bad idea, but it could be interesting? Maybe?