Three Steps to Build a Creative Form
There are inevitably some traditionalist readers who saw the words “creative form” in the title and immediately scoffed at how ridiculous the whole concept is. Of course, I am biased from my background as a professional competitive martial artist who specialized in creative bo forms. Although this article is rooted in advice that will help build a form for competition, I would argue that building forms with the techniques at your disposal is a valuable practice to challenge any martial artist regardless of style. It should also be noted that “creative” in the sense used in this article refers to ANY form that is made up by the practitioner, not bound by the definition from any sport karate league. That means the information to follow applies to extreme and musical performances as well.
For the competitors in the audience, the sport karate community is dealing with an epidemic in which countless of forms look very similar. Whether it is forms or weapons, the typical layout features an opening section that drifts to one side of the ring, a trick combo of sorts that travels across the ring, a middle section that fades to a front corner, another trick or kick combo that travels from that front corner to the back corner, then the form ends as the competitor approaches the front for the grand finale. With so many forms being choreographed in this format, a fantastic way to stand out from your competition, or to simply challenge yourself more as a choreographer, is to break this mold.
There are good things about this format. Most of the credit for building this choreography belongs to Carmichael Simon, who debuted his “super combo” at the 1995 Bluegrass Nationals as he dominated the men’s forms division that season. He is an all-time great competitor and one of the essential innovators in our sport’s history. There are concepts that are still important today such as using as much of the ring as possible and ending your form while approaching the judges at the front of the ring. However, if the majority of competitors are still using a format that was developed almost thirty years ago, an alteration of the classic format may be beneficial.
I understand that it isn’t very helpful to say, “just go be different!” That is an impossible task because creativity does not happen by demand, it happens organically. You need to spend time in an empty dojo with your favorite music playing in the background, just messing around with your skills for hours on end in order for the creative juices to flow. What I aim to do with these three steps is to give you a template that helps you transform those aimless creativity sessions into form building that can give you a finished product.
Step One: Pick your Tricks
Most of the time, if you are creating a form from scratch you are probably at a level as a martial artist in which you have figured out your favorite moves. Those moves where if you have to demonstrate in front of the class, you know you are going to do a tornado kick, or whatever that favorite move of yours may be. It doesn’t matter if you are a novice creative martial artist who just wants to make a form for fun, or if you are planning to use this form to compete for world championships, you must start by deciding which of these favorite moves you want to show off. If you are in that latter group, wanting to win world championships, it is important to balance out the list of moves you come up with. They should all be some of your favorites, no one wants to do a form full of moves that they hate, but it is important to have variety. If you are a high-level tricker and your top three favorite tricks are all corkscrew variations, you probably want to just pick one or two of them to prevent your new form from become repetitive. Additionally, you want to be sure you have the appropriate amount of difficulty to be competitive in your division. Finally, and this is worthy of an entirely separate article, you should also seek to come up with brand new moves of your own. Even if you put together moves that others have done before in a brand-new way (which is encouraged and impressive), that won’t compare to creating something that is truly yours, a signature move. My best one-sentence advice to create a signature move is to always give yourself that aforementioned time in an empty dojo, and actively think about how you could do something different during those sessions. The power of time and an active brain is immeasurable.
Step Two: Arrange the Tricks Uniquely
This step is where the actual layout of the form comes into play, a vital part of this discussion. I’ll use tricking terms in this example as that seems to be a common denominator among the competitors of today. Let’s say that you decided the three tricks that you want to do in this form are a double cork because it is your most difficult skill, a jackknife because you know you execute that technique really well, and you really want to do a combo featuring an illusion twist because that’s your favorite move in your arsenal.
Now let’s ask ourselves, “how would most competitors arrange these tricks?” I would say that many competitors would start with that double cork straight out of the gate. They will probably say their introduction, turn away from the judges, maybe walk to the corner to get more space, and throw that dub. Then they’ll throw their opening hand combination, and get set on one side of the ring to start their tricking pass across the ring with an illusion twist. Lastly, they would throw the jackknife right in front of the judges near the end of the form as a final exclamation point. Let me be clear, this is a good format, but it is not a unique format.
If you wanted to rearrange these tricks in an unorthodox way to help you stand out, you could consider changing the way your form starts. Instead of starting in the stereotypical low block before a chop-punch combination, how about you bust into the form with a huge jackknife and turn out of the hook kick immediately into that opening hand combo? Then, let’s not trick across the center of the ring. Let’s use that hand combo to back us up into one of the corners away from the judges, and set up that big double cork going to one of the front corners and stomp it right in front of the judges. Well, if you do that double cork to the front corner, now you are off-center and don’t want to end the form off to the side, right? Exactly! You still have that illusion twist in your bag. Use that illusion twist to carry you from one corner to the center of the ring.
The two keys here are identifying how competitors normally use those moves, then asking yourself “what if” questions to arrive at new solutions. The other great thing about this method of thinking is that you can customize it to the skill level and number of tricks you want. The same principles apply to a form with one trick because you are new to this, or to a world champion form that have 4-5 big tricks instead of three.
Step Three: Use Basics as the Glue
Remember those traditionalists that I said would scoff at this entire article in the first paragraph? If you are one of them and you’ve made it this far, congratulations! We have made it to the most important part of this entire article, in which I will stress the importance of basics. Despite the fact that the choreography method I am proposing begins with figuring out the tricks and where to put them, that DOES NOT imply that the tricks are more important. The foundational martial arts techniques should make up the majority of your form and are the most important scoring criteria in the eyes of most judges. If you do not put enough basics in the form, and if they aren’t clean enough, it won’t matter how revolutionary your format is.
The tricks are what help you execute most of the movement in the form, but once you get to those spaces you must have content through basics. Otherwise, your form will only wind up being about 15 seconds long. The remaining 30-45 seconds of the form are where you can get as creative as possible with your basic punches, chops, blocks, and stances. To help you stand out, it is alright to take inspiration from others but avoid copy and pasting hand combinations directly into your new form. Watch a video of great creative hand combo artists like Marcel Jones, Matt Emig, Brendon Huor, Micah Karns, and more to get ideas, then search for alterations you can make to create a similar combo of your own. Taking inspiration from multiple sources and actively trying to add your own flair is almost assured to result in a unique-looking combo.
The final thing to keep in mind as you work through this process, is that it won’t always work. It is impossible to make creativity a flawless process because you must make mistakes to learn what actually works. You could build the form three different ways or put together a new hand combination a dozen different ways and not like any of them. That’s okay. One of the most rewarding parts of making your own form is the satisfaction of finally getting something you are happy with after so many frustrating attempts. If you aren’t happy with it, always try another way. You never know when the next attempt will be the discovery that sets you apart from your competition.
Special thanks to Lindsey Little Photography for the cover image, featuring Judah Sagawa of Team Freestyle.