“Why do Native Americans like to eat horse’s hooves?”

The answer to this riddle, as the Chumash spiritual leader once told me, is  “Because we get a kick out of them.”

kick5I have met some gifted kickers in my martial career. I’ve also become convinced that being a great kicker does not require superb limberness, high flying leg attacks and acrobatic flips. Of course, people who acquire these abilities have already gone halfway up the path to the kicking elite. But there are other routes up the mountain.

What are some of the attributes I admire most in what I would call “seasoned kicking?” Well, first, it centers around that initial moment where foot leaves earth; whether its destination is an inch of height or three yards. This lift-off can actually define a kicker before he has even kicked. Those of a more limber persuasion may start like Bill Wallace with a seemingly instantaneous lift of the knee to about jaw height. Stretch and strength blend in this rapid elevation. It certainly can scares the dickens out of your opponent when he suddenly finds himself  facing a leg cocked so high so fast that it looks like you have two heads. As some great kickers in Kang Do Kwan used to say, “Kicks should come out of the mouth.”

kick1On the other hand the pure lift of a kick directly right off the floor without passing through some form of cocking action is also a sign of highly efficient foot play. Xing Yi and Bagua people, in particular, concentrate a great deal on foot action that breaks instantly from the floor, often so fast that the foot doesn’t even have its typically lazy chance of rolling up the ankle before advancing. These people go so fast that their feet seem cased in an iron boot, unable to flex or straighten. This is not a sign of inability, but a speed so fast the ankle doesn’t even have time to open then flex.

Kickers like this are what I call the floor-to-air type. They almost never cock their legs, preferring to shoot directly from the ground to their targets with no intermediate positions. This method can limit your potential targets unless you understand the angles involved. Like a good old vertical drop punch, the fist falling forward from the cheek must straighten out and move forward on its plane parallel to the ground at some point. Kicks that just grow out of the floor like an overnight weed, have to be guided by precise timing.

And from that part we go to the next…the hips.

kick3bSome people have or acquire very limber hips. Certainly, if we are honest about our definitions, we have to see that simple limberness does not make a great kicker, otherwise every thirteen year old girl would be a master. I remember a young woman coming to me who hade been en pointe since about four. She was so limber that kicking herself in the head would have posed no problem. Giving her a private lesson and asking her to move a few times, I had to tell her that she was just too limber for our traditional approach, unless she was willing to stop stretching for a while and build strength instead. She went to a partner of mine and took lessons there, but was gone in less than six months.

Other people have rather limited range of hip motion but are still good kickers. The important point is be able to control the hips, to time them, angle them; in other words it’s like the definition of good design, “It doesn’t matter what you do, paint everything purple and orange, but it should LOOK like you made a decision.” High flying or low hanging, the action of a good kicker shows us that he or she decided when to launch and when to slam.

kick2Which brings me to the third entry on my list: kicking should look like it’s so spontaneous that its almost fun. The low power kicker might not look like he’s having fun exactly, but watch the relationship between his conservative kicking and his hands and you’ll get the point. He punches and kicks with the ease of someone strolling and waving. Power never disappears, steps pop up in the middle of the flay like second sax threading through the tune. It may not be symphony, but it is jazz. On the other hand, I have always been impressed by kickers like George Chung (of America’s Best) who was so skilled that he would literally hang his leg in midair, playing around with the foot, feinting and looping until he would drop the boom on the by-now frustrated opponent, almost contented to be kicked after all those false starts. With people like George and Rick Wing, you almost feel like saying, “Just kick the guy and be done with it.”

kick4bWhich brings us to that one interesting distinction between fine kickers and sometimes-floundering ones: good kickers launch without destinations. They like to be in the air and feel comfortable with it. They realize that, even at high speed, the act of lifting your foot off the floor, shifting your weight and delivering a one-legged blow to another person—one of ill-intent—is not a simple proposition. This is made even more evident when opponents don’t act like movie mugs who get clipped with spinning heel kicks and just stand there, open-mouthed, waiting for the next high-heeled boot-twirl to put them out of their misery. Good kickers often launch and then look. After all, there is always a foot fake, a step forward, a sweep, a change step and all that’s without even lifting your foot higher than your own knee!

So, given this ability to ad-lib, it’s easy to see that one last attribute of the good kicker is that she has good hands. Not only can she mix it up among all four limbs—not to mention elbows, knees and head—but she also knows and fluidly changes the ways and means to extricate her from her own kick, however unlucky it might seem. She can take to the ground, neutralize with her hands, disentangle her leg or turn it back on her opponent like the bear who’s suddenly decided to chase you. Even a blocked kick can turn nasty with the right kicker.

Kicking, like a strong spice, can be overdone, but it can also bring great flavor to the dish.

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