Tales From The Dojang
by Greg Roensch
“Charyut means attention.” Master Lee stands at the head of the class, his back to the long wall of mirrors. “And kyungnet means bow.” The Taekwondo instructor bows to the roomful of new students.
Ranging from nine to twelve years old, the students stand wide-eyed, unsure of what to do. Two boys in the back row look at each other and giggle.
“Let’s try it together,” the instructor calls out. “Charyut!” he commands, bringing his feet together and slapping his hands against the sides of his thighs to show how to stand at attention. “Again,” he says. “Charyut!”
When the students slap their hands to their legs, it sounds like a pack of firecrackers.
“Not bad,” Master Lee says. “Now let’s move together, like one big boom instead of a bunch of little pops.”
The students laugh.
“Charyut!” the instructor commands in a firm voice.
The students snap to attention, nearly together this time.
“Much better.” Master Lee surveys the class. “Make sure your feet are together.”
A girl in the front row scooches her feet into position.
The instructor repeats charyut five times until the group is in sync.
“Very good,” he says. “Now we sound like one big boom.”
“Not a bunch of little pops,” blurts one of the students.
“Exactly right,” the instructor replies. “Not a bunch of little pops.”
The students laugh.
“Charyut!” Master Lee brings the class to order. “Kyungnet,” he adds. “Bow.’”
The students make small bowing motions.
“Not bad,” the instructor says. “But bow together and from the waist. And keep your eyes down to show respect.”
A boy in the third row stops staring at the instructor, looking instead at the hardwood floor.
“That’s how we start class every day,” Master Lee says when the students finish bowing. “First, we come to attention. And then we bow. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” they say quietly.
“Yes, what?” the instructor asks.
“Yes, sir!” the students reply, louder this time.
The students come to attention, standing as one.
Master Lee walks through the class, waiting to see how long the new group can stay in this position. Most new students don’t last more than 30 seconds without fidgeting. But this is a good group, thinks the instructor, glancing in the mirror to see if anyone’s moving.
“Great job,” he says when he returns to his position at the head of the class. “You can relax now.” Master Lee shakes out his arms and legs to show the class what he means by “relax.”
As the students mimic his moves, Master Lee scans the room. This is a good group, he thinks again as he prepares to teach the next lesson.
“Have a seat,” Master Lee says to the students. “And relax.”
After a vigorous workout, the students are ready for a break. Most of them sit properly with their legs crossed and their backs up straight, but three boys in the rear of the room lie on their backs like it’s a day at the beach.
“Sit properly,” Master Lee reminds the class. At his command, the offending trio joins the rest of the group sitting in proper position.
“Good job, everyone,” the instructor says before changing to a new subject. “Does anyone know what we call our school?” he asks.
A student named Lana raises her hand. Though she’s only been coming to Taekwondo for a week, Master Lee already knows she’s a quick learner.
“Yes, Lana?” Master Lee nods at the girl.
“Our school is called a Dojo,” the girl answers confidently.
“Hmmm.” The instructor strokes his beard with his thumb and forefinger, something he does whenever an answer isn’t quite right. “Not bad,” he says. “But does anyone have an even better answer?”
A boy waves from the back of the room.
“It’s called a studio,” the student says. “That’s what my dad calls it.”
The instructor again rubs his beard. “That’s also not a bad answer.”
Master Lee walks along the mirrors at the front of the room, like he often does when sharing an important lesson with the class. He pauses for a moment before continuing, then looks towards Gabriel.
“It’s true that some people call our school a studio,” Master Lee says.
“I knew it!” the boy exclaims.
Lana shoots him a dirty look.
“But dojo is also a good choice.” Master Lee looks at Lana. “Because dojo is the Japanese word for studio.”
The girl smiles.
Master Lee pauses again before continuing. “So, the English word for our school is studio,” Master Lee explains. “And the Japanese word for our school is dojo. He takes a few steps along the mirrors. “But,” he says, “who knows where Taekwondo comes from?”
Master Lee raises both hands as a signal for anyone to answer.
“Korea!” Everyone shouts as one.
“That’s right,” the instructor replies. “Taekwondo is a Korean martial art. And the Korean word for our school is dojang. So, studio and dojo are both good answers, but the best answer is dojang. Is that clear?”
Master Lee slaps two kicking paddles together, the sound echoing off the walls. “Okay,” the instructor says. “That’s enough talking for now. Let’s get back to work.”
With that, the instructor holds the paddles for the students to practice their newly learned basic kicks.
Master Lee kneels so he’s eye level with the teary-eyed girl with a long, braided ponytail.
“You’ll be okay,” the instructor says. “It’s hard to keup at first, but soon it’ll be as easy as breathing or walking.” He wipes away the tears from the girl’s cheek with the sleeve of his Taekwondo uniform.
The girl, her name is Rickie, keeps her head down, fighting back further tears.
“Let’s see if someone else will help.” Master Lee turns towards the other students, who are sitting in two straight lines at the back of the room. “Jason,” he calls.
“Yes, sir!” Jason, a newly promoted yellow belt, springs to his feet and runs forward. When he reaches the center of the room, Jason bows and stands at attention.
“How long have you been coming to Taekwondo?” Master Lee asks.
“Almost four months, sir.”
“You’ve learned a lot in four months,” the instructor replies.
The boy remains at attention, a small smile forming on his face as he waits for Master Lee’s next words. Rickie has stopped crying and watches to see what Master Lee says next.
The instructor reaches behind his back and pulls out a kicking paddle. “There are many reasons for the keup,” he explains. “It helps us breathe. It helps us concentrate. And it helps us have more power.”
Still on his knees, Master Lee holds the target paddle at Jason’s waist level.
“Many students don’t want to keup at first,” the instructor continues. “But everyone learns to do it eventually.”
Master Lee backs up to create some space between himself and Jason.
“Palchagi jasay!” the instructor commands. “Fighting stance.” Master Lee punctuates his words with a keup that sounds like a seal at the pier.
At the sound of the keup, Jason hops into his fighting stance, right foot forward, and bounces lightly on the balls of his feet. He also answers with a keup of his own.
“Dollyo-chagi,” Master Lee calls out. “Roundhouse kick. Keup!”
Jason’s foot strikes the vinyl target pad, the sound echoing off the studio walls, as does the boy’s keup. Master Lee keups again. And he continues to keup until Jason kicks the paddle ten times, five times with his left leg and five times with his right. Each time they keup back and forth it sounds like the instructor and student are speaking to each other in a foreign language – a very loud foreign language.
“Charyut!” Master Lee says after Jason throws his last kick.
Jason stands at attention.
Master Lee looks towards the rest of the class. “Let’s have a round of applause for Jason.”
A broad smile lights up the boy’s face.
“Alright,” Master Lee says to Jason. “You can return to your seat.”
“Yes, sir!” Jason bows to Master Lee and jogs backwards to his place with the rest of the students, careful not to turn his back on his instructor.
Master Lee returns his attention to Rickie. “Do you think you can do it now?”
“Yes, sir,” the girl says in a quiet voice.
“Fighting stance,” Master Lee commands. “Keup!”
Rickie hops into her stance and bounces like Jason had done.
“Good stance,” the instructor tells the girl. “But don’t bounce too high,” he says. “And don’t forget to breathe.”
Rickie inhales a deep breath and releases it.
“Roundhouse kick,” Master Lee commands. “Keup!”
Rickie strikes the target and emits a small keup, more of a chirp really.
“Keup!” Master Lee says again, his voice a bit louder.
Rickie kicks again, her keup also a little louder. By the time she finishes ten kicks, Rickie’s voice is almost as loud as the instructor’s.
“Very good,” Master Lee says to the girl. He looks back at the other students. “What does everyone think? Did Rickie do a great job?”
“Yes, sir!” The students shout as one before bursting out in a big cheer for the girl with the long, braided ponytail. Still bouncing in her fighting stance, Rickie is ready to throw another kick and keup with all her heart.
“Look at you!” Master Lee says when a group of new students lines up for the first time in their uniforms – their doboks. “You all look like real Taekwondo students now! Give yourselves a round of applause.”
The students clap along with the instructor. Even the parents sitting in the bleachers near the front door clap.
“Charyut!” Master Lee commands to bring the students to attention. “Kyungnet!”
They bow together as a class.
“Have a seat.”
All the students sit on their knees, except one boy in the back of the room.
“Sit properly,” Master Lee reminds the class without calling out the lone offender.
The boy gets the message quickly and shifts to his knees.
“That’s better,” Master Lee says. “Sit and relax.”
The students move into a cross-legged sitting position.
“You all look great in your doboks,” the instructor says. “Who knows what a dobok is?”
A few students raise their hands.
“Yes, Marcus.” Master Lee points to a boy in the middle of the room.
“It’s our uniform.”
“Correct,” the instructor replies. “And I want to tell you a few things about the dobok before we start class.” Master Lee pauses before continuing. “First of all, you’re going to sweat a lot in Taekwondo, so it’s important to wash your dobok after every class.” The instructor holds his thumb and index finger to his nose and makes a face like something smells rotten.
The students laugh.
“So, make sure that you (or your parents),” Master Lee shoots a glance towards the bleachers, “keep your dobok clean. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir!” the students say as one.
“Also, always treat your dobok with respect. Does everyone know what that means?”
A girl on the left side of the room is the first to raise her hand.
“Respect means not talking back to my parents.”
“That’s right,” Master Lee replies. “What else does it mean?”
A boy on the other side of the room speaks up. “It means not using swear words like…”
“Okay, Michael,” Master Lee cuts him off. “You’re right. No swearing in your dobok.” The instructor looks out at the class. “Everyone understand?”
Master Lee paces a few steps along the front of the room. “Another important way to respect your dobok,” the instructor continues, “is wearing it only when you come to Taekwondo.” Master Lee turns towards the class. “So, should you wear your dobok to the park?”
“To the grocery store?”
“To your best friend’s birthday party?”
“How about to bed? Should you wear your dobok to bed?”
“That’s right.” Master Lee motions at his dobok.“Does this look like my pajamas?”
The class laughs.
With that, the instructor tells the students to stand.
The class comes to attention, each student’s hands slapping against their crisp, new doboks.
Master Lee and the students bow towards each other before the instructor calls out jumping jacks to begin the day’s warm-up routine.
Jo Choom Seogi
“Jo choom seogi!” Master Lee calls out to the class. “Horse stance. Keup!”
The students move together into horse stance, knees bent, feet facing forward, and fists pulled back to their waist.
“It’s been a good workout,” the instructor says. “Let’s finish today’s class with horse stance. Sound good?”
Master Lee notices a few students inching up in their stances.
“It takes a lot of discipline to stay low in horse stance,” the instructor says, “especially when your legs are tired.” Master Lee walks through the room. “Are your legs tired?” he asks.
“No, sir!” they respond.
“Joon bi!” Master Lee brings the class to ready position – with their feet shoulder width apart and their fists in front of their belts. “Shake out your legs,” the instructor says, “and relax.”
The students do as they’re told.
“Joon bi!” Master Lee calls again.
The students return to ready position.
“Your horse stances look good.” Master Lee begins. “But I think you can do even better. What do you think?”
“Yes, sir!” The class responds as one.
“Here’s what we’ll do next.” Master Lee tugs at the bottom of his dobok to make sure it’s straight. “I’m going to join you in horse stance.”
Some of the students bounce on their feet and others clap.
“Joon bi!” Master Lee reminds the class to stay in ready position. “Here’s what we’ll do,” he says again. “We’ll stay in horse stance for three minutes – even me.”
One student in the middle of the class whispers “three minutes” as if it’s an impossible task.
“Yes, three minutes,” the instructor replies. “We’ll all stay in horse stance like statues. And if anyone moves, we’ll start over. Understand?”
“Okay, shake out your legs one more time and get ready.”
The students do as they’re told before returning to ready position.
“Jo choom Seogi!” Master Lee commands. “Horse stance. Keup!”
The class moves together into horse stance and sounds off with a booming keup. Master Lee moves with them, facing the students, his fists pulled back to his waist.
“Everyone’s legs feel good?” the instructor asks.
“Three minutes,” Master Lee announces, “starting now.”
When they get to the halfway point, Master Lee feels a sense of pride as the entire class sits low in their stances. No one inches up. No one groans.
“We’re almost there,” the instructor announces after two minutes have ticked off the large clock hanging over the front door. “Only one more minute to go.”
His thighs beginning to feel the burn, Master Lee takes a deep breath and fights the urge to rise from his horse stance. If they can do it, the instructor says to himself, then so can I.
“Dollyo-chagi – or roundhouse kick – is one of the four basic kicks in Taekwondo,” Master Lee explains to a group of new students. “Lift and bend your kicking leg,” he says. “And pivot on the ball of your foot on the ground.”
The students hop on one leg, fighting to keep their balance as the instructor has them practice the kick slowly at first.
“Point the toes on your kicking foot,” Master Lee continues, “so you’ll hit the target with the top of your foot – not with your toes.”
Master Lee counts out ten kicks with the right leg and ten with the left, then commands the students to sit while he puts on a hogu, the chest protector that Taekwondo fighters use when sparring.
“This is a hogu,” says Master Lee. “Can you say hogu?”
“Hogu,” the class responds.
“Good.” Master Lee strikes the chest protector with both palms to make a loud slapping noise. “Now,” the instructor says, “you’re all going to have a chance to kick me.”
A wave of excitement ripples through the dojang.
“Okay, quiet down,” Master Lee tells the class. He hits the chest protector again. “Who wants to take the first shot?”
All the students raise a hand immediately.
“Wow,” the instructor says and laughs. “Are you all so eager to kick me?”
“Alright, Stephanie. You’re up first.”
Stephanie stands and turns her back to the teacher as a sign of respect while straightening her dobok. When she’s ready, she turns back to face Master Lee and bows.
“Palchagi jasay!” the instructor calls out. “Fighting stance! Keup!”
Stephanie springs into her stance with a keup.
“Are you sure you want to kick me?” Master Lee asks.
“Very good,” the instructor replies, “but before we begin, be sure to kick me in the body and not the head. Right here,” he says and slaps the hogu.
“Yes, sir!” Stephanie smiles and the rest of the class laughs.
When Master Lee keups, Stephanie keups back and kicks the instructor’s hogu with all her strength.
“Ouch!” The student bends to rub her foot.
“Ouch?” Master Lee says. “How can you say ‘ouch’ when you just kicked me?”
Stephanie continues to rub her foot after returning to her seat at the back of the class.
“Who’s next?” One by one Master Lee calls up all the students, so everyone has a chance to kick him.
When it’s Stephanie’s turn again, she plants a solid roundhouse in the middle of the instructor’s chest protector. She doesn’t flinch or say “ouch” this time. Instead, her keup is loud, determined, and brave. Answering with a keup of his own, Master Lee is impressed by the student’s ability to adjust her technique to deliver a perfect kick with just the right amount of power.
Two young Taekwondo students face off in the middle of the dojang – the Taekwondo studio. The competitors bounce in their fighting stances, circling one another while looking for a chance to strike. Without warning, the shorter, quicker girl with the thick, braided ponytail pops a double roundhouse that catches her opponent off-guard. A loud keup from the kicker echoes throughout the room.
“Two points,” Master Lee calls out when both body shots slap hard against the taller girl’s chest protector.
The students sitting cross-legged along the sides of the room cheer the impressive kyorugi – or sparring – move. Before the applause dies down, the taller girl flicks a perfect axe kick onto the top of her opponent’s padded headgear. The attacker keups loudly to let everyone know she scored with the kick.
Without missing a beat, the girl with the ponytail throws a roundhouse that taps her opponent’s nose.
Both students keup.
“Kalyeo!” Master Lee stops the match to remind both girls that headshots aren’t allowed for junior competitors at tomorrow’s tournament. “Stick to body for now, understand?”
The girls spar for thirty more seconds before Master Lee brings them back to joon bi, ready position. It’s been an even competition, with both competitors throwing and landing an equal number of kicks. After the students bow to each other, Master Lee calls the match a tie. The girls bump fists before joining their classmates sitting around the edge of the room.
“We have a big day tomorrow,” Master Lee says to the class. He’s taking a dozen students, including the pair who just sparred, to their first tournament.
“When we arrive at the gym,” the instructor explains, “we’ll spar hard and stay together as one big Taekwondo family.”
“And we’ll win the biggest trophies!” blurts a boy sitting next to the fighter with the ponytail.
The class erupts in a mix of laughter and applause.
Master Lee smiles at the outburst. “Trophies are nice,” he says, “but what’s the most important thing about tournaments?”
The instructor paces along the front of the room.
“First of all,” Master Lee explains when no one responds, “we go to tournaments to see if our techniques work against students from other schools. It’s a big challenge to spar against competitors from other schools. Understand?”
“We also go to tournaments to see how we handle the pressure.” The instructor pauses to let the words sink in. “Sparring with our friends in our own dojang is easy compared to sparring against fighters who really want to beat you. And don’t forget all the people shouting from the stands – that adds to the pressure.”
The class is quiet now.
“You’ll also learn at tournaments that all schools aren’t the same,” Master Lee explains. “Some instructors don’t treat their opponents with respect.”
Master Lee looks around at the students. “No matter what happens,” he continues, “remember that you’ll be representing yourself at the tournament and also your dojang. Understand?”
“Oh, I just remembered one more reason for going to tournaments.” The instructor pauses to let the anticipation build before breaking into a big smile. “We go to bring home the biggest trophies!”
The class cheers.
After dismissing the students, Master Lee puts away the target paddles and thinks ahead to the tournament. Based on today’s sparring class, he knows his team is ready. That said, he’s been around Taekwondo long enough to expect the unexpected, especially for competitors at their first tournament. Yawning as he locks the front door, Master Lee reminds himself to get to bed early. Tomorrow’s going to be a big day, the instructor thinks, not just for the competitors – but for me, too.
Greg Roensch writes flash fiction and poetry, makes poetry-films, and writes and records original songs. His stories have appeared in Dream Noir, Defiant Scribe, Bright Flash Literary Review, and elsewhere. His poetry-films have been official selections at many film festivals, including the Montreal International Black Film Festival, the Midwest Video Poetry Film Festival, and the Socially Relevant Film Festival. Greg taught and coached Taekwondo for more than 25 years.