01 April 2015

First Taekwon-Do Book to Be Made Available for Download

The very first book about Taekwon-Do was written and published by Gen. Choi Hong-Hi in 1959. This "lost" book will soon be made available to the general public.

Most people don't know about this book and very few have seen it. For most, the oldest resource on Taekwon-Do has been the 1965 book (also written by Gen. Choi), of which one can still buy reprints. The difference between the 1959 book and the 1965 book is not small, and it is not merely a difference in language, keeping in mind that the 1959 book was written in Hanja (Chinese characters) and Korean.

I have been privileged to have received an initial digital version of the first Taekwon-Do textbook and find it fascinating to notice that although Taekwon-Do was obviously very Karatesque at that time, even at this early stage we can notice some of the germs of what would become Taekwon-Do as a Korean martial arts -- for instance, several photos depicting flying kicks.

Me and Master (Dr) George Vitale
This year, 2015, on April 11th, on the 60th anniversary of the founding of Taekwon-Do, this first Taekwon-Do textbook will be made available for download as a PDF. The book will be provided by Taekwon-Do historian, Dr. George Vitale on his blog: HistoryOfTaekwondo.Org. Dr Vitale is an 8th Dan ITF master, and one of the foremost Taekwon-Do historians in the world. I had the good fortune of recently spending some time with him again. His passion for Taekwon-Do and its history is contagious, and him sharing this invaluable resource is typical of his character. He is on a mission to educate the world of the true history of Taekwon-Do and now you can be a part of that too, by downloading the first ever Taekwon-Do textbook. One particularly grand thing about it is that on one of the very first pages of the book you can also see the very first calligraphy of Taekwon-Do, written in hanja as  by South Korea's first president, Syngman Rhee. This historic work of art acted as the official approval of the new name "Tae Kwon Do", and what would become Korea's national sport and one of the most widely practised martial arts in the world.

Download Taekwon-Do's first textbook on 11 April 2015 in celebration of Taekwon-Do's 60th anniversary from HistoryOfTaekwondo.Org 

Congratulations to the Potchefstroom Dojang

Instructor Philip de Vos, with
Riana Serfontein and Adele Wolmarans

The Soo Shim Kwan is happy to congratulate the Potchefstroom Dojang with its recent victories at the 2015 Gauteng North & Northern Provinces Provincial Tournament that was held on Saturday 21 March 2015 in Pretoria, South Africa.

Instructor Philip de Vos again won gold in patterns. His students Riana Serfontein and Adele Wolmarans also won medals, gold and silver respectively, in their patterns division. Congratulations!

30 March 2015

Congratulations to Horangi Students

Back: Instructor Gerhard Louw and Stephani
Front: Hussain, Tlotlo, Katlego, Sena, and Andreas
The Soo Shim Kwan is proud of Instructor Gerhard Louw and the students from the Horangi Dojang in Groblerdal, who recently participated at the Northern Gauteng and Northern Provinces regional tournament in Pretoria, South Africa. The six Horangi participants won 10 medals in total. Well done to you all!

06 March 2015

Vacancies at Korean University for BJ/Muay Thai Instructors

Kyongbuk Science College < http://golfma.kbsc.ac.kr/ > is the first university in South Korea to offer a major in Mixed Martial Arts. Kyongbuk Science College has produced many famous athletes such as the Korean Zombie, Jeong Chan-Seong, Im Hyon Seong, and others. In 2015, for a more systematic education, the university is interested in recruiting two well rounder foreign (non-Korean) instructors with extensive experience in Brazilian Jiujitsu and Muay Thai respectively.


  • The candidate should have a four year university degree or higher qualification. (The field of study is not important, but needed for processing the visa in order to work at a university in Korea. A relevant degree, for example in Sport Science or Physical Education, may result in better pay and benefits.)
  • The candidate must be able to communicate and teach martial arts concepts in a clear, well structured way to young athletes that use English as a second language. 
BJJ Position Requirements:

  • A black belt in Brazilian Jiujitsu from a reputable affiliation, 
  • with proof of BJJ teaching experience. 
  • Previous exposure to an MMA environment may be useful. 
Muay Thai Position Requirements:

  • Affiliation with a reputable Muay Thai association such as the IFMA, 
  • and proof of Muay Thai coaching and competing experience. 
  • Previous exposure to an MMA environment may be useful. 
Responsibilities: The teacher will lecture and coach students in the Sports Department.

Remuneration: 2, 000 000 ~ 3, 000 000 Won (Roughly US$2000-US$3000) per month depending on degree and experience.

Housing: Dormitory housing on campus will be provided.

Duration: One year contract, with the possibility of renewal.

The contract is negotiable.

Please send your resume ASAP to itfkimhoon@hotmail.com

02 March 2015

The Value of Patterns (Part 2): Kinaesthetics (Part 3: Controlled Power)

This is the last post for the time being on the kinaesthetic value of the ITF patterns and was published in Issue #72 of Totally Tae Kwon Do Magazine.

In my previous discussion of the value of the ITF patterns I discussed the emphasis put on accelerating as much body mass as possible in order to achieve greater force. There is however a danger in over-zealously forceful techniques, which will be the discussion of this instalment.

ITF Taekwon-Do has an obsession with power generation. Fundamental Movements are often idealized techniques for generating tremendous amounts of force by accelerating as much body mass as possible in the direction of the technique, be it block, punch, strike or kick. Although generating force is the primary goal, it is trumped by keeping proper posture and maintaining balance. The ITF practitioner wants to generate as much force as possible, but without compromising posture and balance. Fundamental Movements, as practised in the patterns, are a way to practise powerful techniques; however, the power is curbed just enough to maintain good posture and balance.

A light-hearted video of a man zealously punching but missing the target,
leaving him in a potentially compromised position. 

Let’s look at some examples. Imagine punching a target, such as a punching bag, as hard as you possibly can. Now imagine doing the same, but just before your fist hits the punching bag, someone suddenly pulls the punching bag away. What is likely to happen? It is likely that the momentum of your punch will swing you off balance. Another example: consider doing a turning kick as hard as possible to kick “through” the target. Let’s say your target is again a punching bag and you kick it with all the force you can muster. And rather than snapping the leg out and back as you hit the target as is the common practise in Taekwon-Do, you instead drive through with all your body mass—in effect doing a Muay Thai style roundhouse kick. And again, just as you are about to land the kick, somebody moves the bag out of range; once more you are likely to be thrown off balance, the momentum of the kick probably pulling you around exposing your back.

A tutorial for the Muay Thai roundhouse kick.

The Fundamental Movements as practised in patterns teach us an important principle, that while power generation is very important, it should never happen at the expense of good posture and balance. The Muay Thai style turning is indeed more powerful than the Taekwon-Do turning kick because it has much more momentum and drive through than the snapped turning kick. However, the snapped turning kick with the reaction force of the arms that are pulled in the opposite direction maintains much better balance and posture, whereas the momentum of the Muay Thai roundhouse kick causes the practitioner to turn and expose his flank and back, resulting in compromised positioning.

Similarly, the over zealous punch also throws the practitioner off balance, whereas the traditional martial art punch that we practise in Taekwon-Do (and similar styles such as Karate) remains full facing, rather than over extend. Certainly doing a punch as a boxer that uses big rotational forces of both the hip and the shoulder would be much more powerful. Why then does Taekwon-Do and other traditional styles often only use hip rotation, rather than also full shoulder rotation, to punch? Why do we emphasize staying mostly full-facing during our punches, when pushing the shoulder forwardwould result in deeper penetration and more force? As I pointed out before, posture and balance trumps power.

Another example we notice in blocking techniques, which are generally in a half-facing posture. A further rotation of the hips into the full-facing position would usually make the block more powerful. Over-zealous blocking are nevertheless avoided, as the benefit of a slanted body angle which reveals less of the body’s surface area and vital points outweighs the possible benefit or more hip rotation that would increase the power of the block. The Fundamental Movements as practised in the patterns teach us that the benefit of more power does not surpass exposing more vital spots.

Instead of increasing the power through over-exaggerated rotational power that may expose vital points, we attempt to increase power through dropping the body weight into the technique in the form of the sine wave motion, where appropriate. (Not all techniques benefit from sine wave motion body-dropping, but a great number of techniques do.)

Why is it that a martial art like ITF Taekwon-Do that is so obsessed with powerful techniques would so often curb its Fundamental Movements in order to maintain good posture, positioning and balance; while other styles like modern western boxing and Muay Thai throw all they have into some of their techniques? The answer is most likely to be found in Taekwon-Do’s original purpose as a system aimed at self-defence, rather than a martial sport. An over-zealous swinging punch in boxing or a big Muay Thai roundhouse kick that spins you around exposing your back to your opponent is a risk worth taking in a sport context. If the technique lands it may knock out your competitor and cause you to be the victor. If the technique misses, you may expose your back to your opponent or lose your balance and fall; however, that is a risk a competitor may be willing to take. Tournament rules prohibit lethal attacks to the back of the head or spine or kicking a fallen opponent, and there is also a centre referee who will look out for your well-being. Even in UFC, known for its brutal and high intensity tournament fighting that is often touted as “no holds barred,” strikes to the spine and back of the head or attacking the head of a downed opponent is illegal. While there is a risk in using over-zealously powerful techniques that may compromise your posture and balance, it is a risk often worth taking by martial sport practitioners because in a sport context it is nearly never a lethal risk and such techniques have the potential to ensure a victory.

However, in a martial art concerned with self-defence such over-zealous techniques that compromise balance and posture are particularly avoided. In a self-defence (i.e. life-or-death) situation, the last thing you want to do is to allow your attacker access to your back, or find yourself on the floor if it could be avoided. Traditional martial arts are therefore often conservative with regards to their Fundamental Movements when it comes to posture and balance.

Taekwon-Do is known for many “flashy” techniques. While such techniques are often encouraged in sport settings, the Fundamental Movements as practised in the patterns are by contrast very conservative. The patterns contain almost no risky, flashy techniques. In the patterns the practitioner is encouraged to practise power generation, but always in a controlled way, so as not to compromise posture and balance.

Further reading:

See also my article "Taekwon-Do Kick versus Muay Thai Roundhouse Kick" and Dan Djurdjevic's article on why traditional martial arts tend to stop their techniques at predetermined points.

24 February 2015

Seoul: Taekwondo Classes for Adults Kicking Off Again in March

Although Korea is the motherland of Taekwondo it is ironically often difficult to find serious Taekwondo classes, as Taekwondo schools usually focus on children and sport rather than the original martial art / self-defence focus. For foreigners it is further challenging because it is very difficult to get instruction in English.

owever, there are places in Korea where adults can train in Taekwondo with focus on martial art and self-defence, and taught in English.

The ITF Taekwondo training at 'The Way' Martial Arts & Fitness Gym in Seoul (close by Ttukseom Resort and Konkuk University) is officially kicking off again, start of March. The class is very “foreign friendly”, as instruction is conducted mostly in English.
The Taekwondo training follows the International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF) syllabus, following the Soo Shim Kwan philosophy. ITF style focuses on martial art, rather than martial sport, and includes practical self-defence techniques. The class is also augmented with techniques from Hapkido. Practitioners learn traditional martial art techniques based on Newtonian scientific principles. The practitioner is then progressively taught how to adapt traditional martial art motions into practical self-defence techniques. The syllabus covers a full arsenal that includes strikes and punches, elbow strikes, various kicks and knee attacks, throws, joint-locks and escapes. The instructors have decades of martial arts teaching experience and have presented seminars internationally. Both Master Kim Hoon (8th Dan) and Instructor Sanko Lewis (5th Dan) have received honorable mentions (“citations”) from the Taekwondo Hall of Fame, and both have written extensively on Taekwondo and the martial arts.
Training is every Tuesday and Thursday evening from 7pm until 8:40pm. The monthly fee is 120,000 Won per person. (At an additional fee, students can also partake of the many other training offered at 'The Way', such as Cross-Fit and Kickboxing.)
This is a unique opportunity for foreigners to learn an established and battle proven Korean martial art. If you always wanted to learn a martial art, now is your chance. See you in March!

27 January 2015

Visit to the ATC Pretoria Dojang

Taking students through warm-up drills at ATC Pretoria
I was in Pretoria last week and got to visit Sabeomnims Karel and Annari Wethmar, and Boosabeomnim Chris van der Merwe. On Thursday night I visited ATC Pretoria Dojang where I presented a workshop similar to the one I did at the Soo Shim Kwan Potchefstroom Dojang the week before, focussing on ground work (break falling and rolling), joint mobility and posture, and some thoughts on the Golden Move. I also spent a little time on the sine wave motion and how to ensure it is practised and applied sensibly. Afterwards there was a nice Q&A session.

The Dan Gun Kwan (ATC) and Soo Shim Kwan friendship has come a long way. Not only do we have our promotional tests together, but we also share seminars. Whenever I visit South Africa I'm always invited to ATC to share some of what I have learned during my stay in Korea. I'm always honoured to do so, and very much enjoy their hospitality and the students' eagerness to try new and somewhat unconventional things.

20 January 2015

Visit to the Potchefstroom Dojang

Last week Thursday I visited the Soo Shim Kwan Dojang in Potchefstroom during my visit to South Africa. Since it is still early in the year and many of the university students have not returned from vacation yet, there were only four in attendance. It was nevertheless nice to meet new members of the Soo Shim Kwan family.

During the session with them I covered some ground work (break falls and rolls), and spent some time on (power) posture work in Taekwon-Do and the importance of balanced musculature, pointing out how some muscles are overly stretched and under-streghtened (such as the hamstrings) while the antagonistic muscles are trained too hard, but not stretched enough (quads). Such musculature imbalances can cause injuries in the long run. I also covered some three step-sparring and explained the importance of angle-and-distance / positioning.

I opened the Potchefstroom Dojang in 1998. Seventeen years later it is still active and while not a particularly large school, it is nonetheless still going strong. The numerous medals won during tournaments last year is just one indicator that the current Potchefstroom Dojang instructor, Mr Philip de Vos, is doing a great job. I was pleased to present Bsbnim Philip with a black belt that I had embroidered in Korea just before I departed for South Africa with his name and "III" in honour of his promotion to 3rd degree black belt recently. I also presented the Potchefstroom Dojang with a new set of focus pads, which I'm sure will come into good use.

14 December 2014

The Golden Move and ITF Taekwon-Do's Pre-Arranged Sparring

The ultimate goal of pre-arranged sparring is to drill two important skills: attaining superior positioning and simultaneous defence-and-attack (SD&A). Acquiring the ability to always attain superior positioning and apply simultaneous defence-and-attack is no easy task, and requires a systematic learning schema, which will be the topic of this post.

Let’s start by discussing the value of superior positioning and of simultaneous defence-and-attack in turn. Although I think it is obvious why we need to practise these skills, it may be worth it to just review these concepts in case you may not be familiar with them since the ITF Encyclopaedia sadly doesn't discuss them in detail. Nevertheless, they are part and parcel of the ITF Taekwon-Do pedagogy and there importance is touched upon in the ITF Encyclopaedia.

The concept of positioning is often discussed under the concepts of “distance and angle” in ITF Taekwon-Do. Good positioning should do two things: take you off of the opponent's line of attack, and position you so that you can perform an easy and effective counter-attack that doesn't require any further set-up (i.e. no additional steps or positioning adjustment required). We call this advantageous positioning, in which you have both avoided the attack—you are not on the line of attack—and you are in a position for economical and effective counter-attack. Although there is much value in advantageous positioning, the ultimate aim of ITF Taekwon-Do is not merely advantageous positioning, but superior positioning (or a “position of superiority” as it is referred to in one instance in the ITF Encyclopaedia). Superior positioning has you in an advantageous position, but also has your opponent in a disadvantageous position. If your appoint is in a disadvantageous position, it means that he cannot easily attack you from that position and is so positioned that he cannot easily defend against attacks towards openings in his defence. If you have superior positioning you have the advantage of being in a relatively safe position with regards to your opponent and you also have easy access to certain of your opponents vital spots, while your opponent is in a disadvantaged position and will find it relatively difficult to protect his openings and perform immediate counter-attacks without repositioning.

Now let’s look at the concept of simultaneous defence-and-attack. A (self-defence) scenario is usually considered to have two participants: the attacker and the defender. From the very start, the attacker has the advantage because he has the element of surprise and has taken the initiative—he is in control of the action as he is the acting agent. In other words, the defender is re-acting and is therefore innately one-step behind the attacker’s action. Consider the following thought experiment: two people engage in a fight, but each are allowed only one “technique” per move. The attacker’s first move is to attack with a punch. The defender’s first move is in reaction to the attacker’s attack, so he defends the attacker’s punch with a forearm block. The attacker is allowed to perform his second move and now he kicks towards the defender, who in turn blocks the kick with his second move, and so on. In this scenario the defender will always be “defending,” and it is highly likely that the defender will eventually fail at appropriately blocking an attack and will get hit. While this hypothetical situation is very stylized (and is quite similar to the basic forms of pre-arranged step-sparring), it retains the essence of what often happens in a fight between an “attacker” and a “defender.” The solution to this problem is to switch the roles from being the re-active defender to becoming a defending-attacker, who no longer acts re-actively, but takes control of the action. The method for switching those roles is simultaneous defence-and-attack (SD&A).

Unfortunately the ITF Encyclopaedia doesn't provide a single term for both superior positioning and SD&A. Thankfully, in a recent blog post Rory Miller, a renowned self-defence instructor, discussed similar concepts that he combined under the term “Golden Move.” According to Mr. Miller, a Golden Move should (1) injure the threat, (2) protect yourself, (3) improve your position, and (4) worsen the threats position. These are all the things I spoke about above, but succinctly summarised. With a bow to Rory Miller I will henceforth apply his “Golden Move” term to refer to ITF Taekwon-Do's goal of superior positioning and SD&A.

As I mentioned earlier, consistently applying the Golden Move takes great skill; therefore, the ITF Taekwon-Do system—when properly taught—uses pre-arranged sparring drills to guide the practitioner along a path towards that goal. [Read my related post: "Prearranged Sparring: Definition, Purpose, and Value".]

At the lowest level is the first pre-arranged sparring drill: three-step sparring. This basic drill is used to make the defender aware of simple martial art concepts such as the attack line and centre line. The attacker attacks the defender with three—usually linear—attacks towards the defender's centre line, while giving three steps along the straight attack line. The defender is expected to defend against each attack towards his centre line with a basic block. This is the basic level where the practitioner starts to learn about simple attacks and choosing appropriate blocking tools to defend against attacks.

The beginner is also introduced to simple distances of attack-and-defence and at this level much focus is placed on keeping an appropriate safe distance between attacker and defender. Only the most elementary consideration is given to positioning at this stage. The defender is instructed to use the normal retreat reflex, to simply step backwards, away from the attacker’s attacks. However, the defender must maintain a close enough distance in order to apply a simple counter-attack towards the opponent's centre line after the three-step attack is completed. These various initial principles become the building blocks from which the Golden Move will later be taught. After several months of three-step sparring, the practitioner moves on to two step sparring which is introduced at the 7th grade level.

In two step sparring there is usually still no SD&A; however, the attack lines become more diverse as a greater variety of attacks are introduced. For instance, the attacker might attack with a straight punch and then follow up with a turning kick, which has a different attack trajectory. Such changes in the attack lines forces the defender to transition away from positioning based solely on the retreating-reflex. The defender should now also make use of side-steps and other foot-shifting techniques to not only get off of the attack line, rather than merely retreating, but also stay within an appropriate distance from the attacker in order to be able to launch an effective counter-attack. Emphasis is on advantageous positioning. Again, after an adequate time of two-step sparring practice, the practitioner moves on to one-step sparring, while still reviewing two-step sparring.

One-step sparring is introduced at 6th grade level. It is in this drill where the practitioner will eventually transition from mere advantageous positioning practice to superior positioning. Initially the attack is still first blocked and then followed up with a counter-attack towards a vital spot immediately afterwards. However, after some training there also occurs a transition from this segmented defence followed by a counter-attack to actual SD&A; for instance doing a block and a counter-attack at the very same time. A typical example my look as follows: the attacker throws a right punch towards the defender. The defender steps at a 45° angle towards the inside of the attacking arm, and performs a simultaneous fore-arm block with his left arm, and strikes with his right elbow towards the attacker's left temple. While such a defence is good, it is not yet a Golden Move because being on the inside of the attacker means that he can relatively easily defend against your attack and can also easily counter-attack. Another response to the attacker's punch may be to step to the outside of the attacker's right punch, and this time blocking his arm with the right forearm and doing a simultaneous counter-attack with a left elbow strike. In this scenario, since you are on the outside of the attacker and it is much more difficult for him to defend and counter-attack, the defender has achieved a Golden Move.

It is in one-step sparring where the Golden Move in various manifestations is most pertinently practised, and it is therefore the reason why it is the most frequently practised step-sparring drill by higher level Taekwon-Do practitioners. There exists many variations on one-step sparring to increase the difficulty of this exercise. For instance, the initial attack may be completely unscripted, and also the attacker need not stand in front of the defender, but start the attack from any position, such as from the defender's flank or even rear.

A quick side-note with regards to the idea of SD&A. There might be an erroneous assumption that SD&A means that the move should always include an actual simultaneous block with a counter-attack, but this is not necessarily the case. The “defence” in SD&A need not be a block, but can simply be some form of foot-shifting, side-step or dodge that clears your body of the attack. “Protect yourself,” to use Rory Miller's term, can of course mean to literally block the attack, but it can also mean to simply move out of the way of the attack. An example of such a SD&A against someone doing a front kick towards you might be a dodging turning kick—the dodge functions as the defence that gets you off of the attack line, while at the same time allowing for a counter-attack (the turning kick). SD&A involving such dodging techniques, or even flying techniques, are often practised by higher level practitioners.

While one-step sparring is a pinnacle drill because it focuses on the Golden Move, it’s limit on the number of attacks (i.e. just one step, and attack) that the attacker can perform is unrealistic.

To move beyond this limitation there are two additional “dynamic context” drills. The one, which is not so common any more, is known as pre-arranged free sparring. An example is one-step free sparring: there is still an initial attack by the attacker against which the defender has to perform SD&A, but if superior positioning is not attained—in other words, if the opponent is not at a disadvantaged position—then the attacker is at liberty to also defend and counter-attack, to which the defender should then re-stablish superior positioning and apply SD&A. The earlier step sparring drills can also be practised as dynamic context drills and instructors often create different dynamic context drills depending on the principle they want their students to practise.

The other more common dynamic context drill in ITF Taekwon-Do is known as semi-free sparring, and is introduced at 5th grade level. Semi-free sparring doesn’t have any pre-arranged number of steps (attacks) that the attacker is confined to. The drill is concluded once the defender has performed a proper counter-attack. Semi-free sparring is most valuable when the defender focuses on the Golden Move. Unfortunately, since many people are not properly taught to progressively work towards striving for the Golden Move, their semi-free sparring becomes simply a form of point sparring, resembling tournament sparring, rather than a self-defence drill. It is the case that semi-free sparring is indeed used as a transition exercise in preparation for tournament sparring. While there is nothing wrong with using semi-free sparring as a stepping-stone for tournament sparring, the original purpose as a self-defence preparation drill must not be neglected.

Finally, of course, is free sparring (aka traditional sparring) that is traditionally introduced at 4th grade level. (Free sparring is not to be confused with tournament sparring.) Free sparring has very little prescriptions, and allow both attacker and defender a full arsenal of techniques for attack and defence. Free sparring is a very important drill, however it is not to be confused as an actual self-defence drill because it assumes that both fighters have “agreed” to the dual. There is therefore no “defender,” defending herself against an assailant. This doesn’t mean that free sparring doesn’t contribute much to the progressive learning curve of the practitioner. Because free sparring has the least amount of restrictions and the most amount of chaos, it does resemble a real combative encounter better than most step sparring drills. It therefore requires the practitioners to constantly improvise over an extended period of time—whereas the step sparring drills hampers such continuous need for improvisation.

Nevertheless, the step sparring drills, and particularly one-step sparring, represent the ideal that the martial arts strive for, namely the Taoist goal of efficacy, often promoted as the idea that a single technique (the Golden Move) should effectively end the conflict; or as the ITF Encyclopaedia puts it: “the ultimate goal of Taekwon-Do in real combat is to win the victory with just a single seasoned blow” (Vol. 5, p. 108).

Related Reading:

09 November 2014

ITF Patterns: Artistic Expression or Self-Defence? -- Neither

Recently there was a poll on a Taekwon-Do Facebook group that I belong to that asked whether or not practitioners view the ITF (Chang Hon) patterns to be more involved with “artistic expression” or more to do with “self-defence skills”. When I responded that it has more to do with combat than creative expression, some members were quite surprised. After all, I have argued both here on my blog and in print that I do not believe that the ITF patterns are combative manuals. I have also claimed that the ITF patterns were indeed composed with certain aesthetic principles in mind, and even that parts of it have symbolic value, not solely combative value. Since people found my answer to the poll surprising, I explained my position there, and decided now to post my explanation with some amendments below:

With regards to the patterns being “artistic expressions,” I do not believe the performance of the ITF patterns is like a dance performance. Firstly, during dancing the purpose of dancing is in fact dancing, while for the patterns, their purpose is not “performance.” Some people may indeed practise the patterns only for performing them at competitions, but the patterns were not composed for the purpose of competition. A sport focus is something that only came in much later and is a secondary or peripheral usage of the patterns.

Rather, the patterns function as one of several aspects in the ITF pedagogy that teach particular skills. In other words, the patterns function as a type of drill—as a training tool to teach particular skills, of which the ultimate aim is self-defence. (Note, I’m not saying the patterns are self-defence skills; instead they add to the skill set that can contribute towards self-defence.)

Secondly, in the case of dance, dancers usually have lots of artistic freedom to creatively express themselves. This is not the case for the ITF patterns. They have a very specific number of motions, and require a specific way of movement. The patterns are artistic expressions, but only in a limited way for the performers. Instead, they are the artistic expression of their author(s)—or to use dance terminology, their choreographer(s), which in this case is General Choi and his helpers that composed the Chang-Hon patterns. When we perform the patterns, we are in a manner of speaking merely repeating the motions prescribed to us by a choreographer. Or to use poetry as an example, we are merely reciting poems of a great poet; we are not the poets ourselves. I don’t think the patterns lend themselves that much to personal artistic expression. Of course, someone reciting a poem can in a limited way creatively express him or herself through, for instance, vocal inflections, dramatic pauses, word stresses, and so on. Similarly, one can have some creative expression in the ITF patterns, but they are limited. Someone reciting a poem is not composing it, but merely repeating it. This is the same for performing the patterns. There are other Taekwondo groups who do what is known as “creative forms” that may indeed cross over into personal composition; however, ITF Taekwon-Do does not have this as part of its pedagogy or competitions. (ITF Taekwon-Do does have a self-defence demonstration category at championships, which may relate to this idea of creative expression, but which I will leave for another discussion.)

Other drills, such as one-step sparring, allow for much more personal artistic expression. There is not much room (i.e. freedom) for creativity while performing the Chang-Hon patterns. I’m much more creative while doing sparring.

The following is a paragraph from a related article of mine that was published in Totally Tae Kwon Do: “Dr. Bruce D. Clayton argues in his book Shotokan's Secret that: “Karate kata are combatives manuals, which contain no poetry” and that the kata are without “symbolism” (p. 197). This is definitely not the case for the ITF patterns. While I am convinced that there is much we can learn about ways of moving (kinaesthetics) and even some fighting strategies and self-defence application, the ITF patterns offer another, albeit less tangible, contribution—in that the patterns do indeed contain poetry and symbolism, and are used as a vehicle for the transmittal of Oriental philosophical principles, and Korean history and culture. They are also to be understood as mediums for artistic expression.”

Unlike Karate’s kata which are “combatives manuals” and wholly without “symbolism,” according to Dr Clayton, it is undeniable that the Chang-Hon Taekwon-Do Tul do indeed have symbolism and that certain aesthetic elements were considered in their composition. The floor plan of a number of the patterns are based on Chinese characters, for instance; and some patterns have symbolic starting or ending positions. In this way, the Chang-Hon patterns are like poetic compositions. They were designed with aesthetic concepts, such as symbolic meaning, in mind.

I’m getting the sense that some people feel uncomfortable with that idea, as if the inclusion of aesthetic concepts such as symbolism somehow distract from the patterns. That is a faulty understanding of what a symbol is. For example, a red rose has the symbolic meaning of romantic love. The fact that the rose symbolizes romantic love doesn’t make it any less a rose. “A rose is a rose is a rose.” The fact that a punch with a left fist at the end of a Chang-Hon pattern symbolizes tragedy doesn’t mean that it does not still function as a punch. Yes, the patterns are poetry that include symbolism, but the “vocabulary” of the patterns remain offensive and defensive techniques. “A punch is a punch is a punch,” to reference Bruce Lee. In other words: a punch may be more than a punch—it may be a punch that symbolise something abstract such as tragedy—but in the end it is still a punch.

Furthermore, understanding the patterns as poetry, rather than combative manuals, allow us interpretive freedom. A manual is specific with usually just one result. When you follow the instruction manual for putting a table together, there is no room for interpretation of the instructions. You have to follow the instructions in only one way, otherwise your table will not be stable. On the other hand, a poem is open to interpretation. Different people can come to different possible “answers” when interpreting a poem. Some answers are more plausible than others, but seldom is there only one ultimate answer. When we look at patterns and deduce self-defence applications from them, we are busy with poetic interpretation. In other words, people like Stuart Anslow that explicate particular self-defence applications from certain parts of the Chang-Hon patterns are busy with interpretation—not unlike one would interpret a line from a poem—rather than simply taking the obvious application from the ITF Encyclopaedia, which would be a following-an-instruction-manual approach. 

To summarise, when I say that the patterns are not combative manuals and therefore not fully developed self-defence “lessons,” and when I mention that the patterns do have creative and symbolic value, I do not by this mean that the patterns have no eventual combative value, nor that they are akin to dance performances. Taekwon-Do defines itself as the “Korean Art of Self-Defence”—and so ultimately all parts of the Taekwon-Do pedagogy contributes towards the goal of self-defence. The patterns are merely one of several tools in the ITF pedagogy that contributes towards self-defence skill. Understanding that they are a tool that contribute to a self-defence skill set, rather than actual self-defence practise, provide us with three important realizations: Firstly, we can acknowledge that the patterns are not realistic representations of a real combative encounter. Secondly, now that we are not under the dangerous illusion that we are somehow engaged in real fighting, we can safely use the patterns as a training tool to practise certain skills for which the patterns are ideally suited, like kinaesthetics. And finally, acknowledging that the patterns are “poetry in motion,” we have the freedom to interpret them for different purposes. For example, some parts of a pattern might be used to practise certain skills as part of a dynamic context drill, or as the catalyst for a self-defence drill, or for practicing specific footwork. In other words, the patterns provide material for training different skills.