Stillwell ensuring proper form during sit-ups for these beginning students. Photo by Katherine Walz
By Katherine Walz
A row of kids stands at the ready, their white gis impeccable, their obis tied smartly around their waists. They are taking an introductory karate class from black belt Steve Stillwell, owner of Blue Valley Karate, a dojo that teaches Bushidokan karate.
“This is a new person’s class,” he informs them. “That’s why we address all these things, so you don’t make mistakes of etiquette.” Stillwell asks a small blond girl to demonstrate the proper way to bow upon entering and exiting the dojo. She walks to the edge, turns to face the group, bows, and steps out. He calls her back, and she repeats the process, bowing as she enters.
While they stretch and practice their stances, Stillwell firmly critiques their form, while doling out compliments as easily as corrections. “Hey, everyone makes mistakes,” he tells them, “the smart guys fix their mistakes.” While fixing a young student’s obi, he tells him, “Don’t have your babysitter do this for you. You be doing this for yourself.”
“You want to be the best you can be. Not the best against other people, [but] the best against yourself and what you could do yesterday.”
Bushidokan, a practice developed by Jim Harrison, focuses less on the flashy moves that made kung fu a cinematic thrill, and more on rigor, dedication, and earning belts. It blends Judo, Okinawan Karate, and JuJitsu while focusing on physical conditioning.
According to the website of J. Mike Reed, a local yellow belt, it can take over ten years to earn a black belt in Bushidokan karate. The first five belts (white, yellow, orange, green, and purple) are earned by mastering etiquette, standing and moving routines, defensive moves, conditioning routines, and board breaking.
The final two belts, brown and the coveted black, are earned through combat and demonstrating knowledge by teaching younger students. Fewer than 100 black belts have been awarded within the Bushidokan system.
The first Bushidokan dojo was opened in 1964 in Kansas City by Harrison. Harrison was called “one of the most dangerous men in the world” by Bruce Lee and inducted into the International Karate & Kickboxing Hall of Fame. Harrison, who currently operates a dojo in Montana, earned top ranks in at least six different styles of martial arts and was renowned for his combat skills.
Before leaving Kansas City in the 1970s, Harrison trained Steve Mackey, who took over as the Kansas City Bushidokan leader. Mackey, a fighting legend in his own right, awarded Steve Stillwell his black belt in 1980.
Stillwell maintains Jim Harrison’s Bushidokan tradition today. His dojo is one of only seven in the country Harrison acknowledges as being led by “Harrison black belts” (four of which are in the Kansas City area).
Interest in martial arts has declined in the last few years. Martial arts movies are not as successful as they once were, meaning there is less exposure to create new fans. The time period Stillwell, “kind of thought martial arts was cool, was the era of Bruce Lee and the Green Hornet and David Carradine kung fu.” However, he points out, this generation has less exposure to those legends.
A large contributor to the decline of martial arts study is the “McDojo,” according to Stillwell. A martial arts school can guarantee a black belt within two years, and students can walk out with the title, having never sparred with anyone. Stillwell has no respect for such practices. “I am a little bit more firm with the rank,” he said. “I’d rather be the best orange belt in town. And I got that from my leaders.”
Due to the lack of regulation within the martial arts community, anyone can open a dojo and teach their brand of martial arts. A student can leave their instructor without completing their practice and open a dojo of their own, which dilutes the quality of instruction and knowledge available.
But, if you’re interested in martial arts, and want to experience the discipline, hardship, and glory that goes into a well-earned belt, there are still experts willing to teach. Steve Stillwell is one of them, sternly encouraging a young generation to do their best.
“You want to be the best you can be,” he says. “Not the best against other people, [but] the best against yourself and what you could do yesterday.”
Blue Valley Karate is located at 13005 State Line Rd on the Missouri side. For more information, call 816-943-0866 or check out www.bluevalleykarate.com.