American Kenpo Karate Forms

By Professor Gary Ellis

Short Form 1 AnimationThe ongoing debate as to whether katas have any value in a modern Martial Art is just as alive and kicking today as it was back in the sixties and seventies when Ed Parker, Senior Grandmaster and Founder of American Kenpo Karate created and developed his system of Modern Kenpo Karate which is practised throughout the world today.

Short Form 1 - 1Why did this logical, progressive, creative individual (he was known as a rebel within the Martial Arts community of that time, later to be known as the Father of American Karate) choose to include Forms (the term Kenpoists use for Katas) in his highly sophisticated and innovative fighting system, when the trend with modern styles at that time (partly due in the early seventies to Bruce Lee) was to place great emphasis on partner drills and freestyle while paying little or no attention to Forms or Katas? This question becomes even more interesting by the possible fact that Professor Chow, Ed Parker's Professor my never have taught him any Forms at all.

The answers to this question plus many more lie within the Forms themselves. They are a product of many years of Ed Parker questioning traditional teachings and experimenting with new progressive theories, principles and concepts.

Short Form 1 - 2He created Kenpo Forms as a means of indexing basic movements as workable prearranged self-defence combinations. They are case studies of motion, which contain all the principles, concepts and theories as taught in Ed Parker's Kenpo Karate. His use of stories and analogies to reinforce the material being taught is legendary. One of the more fundamental sayings that he came to use in his seminars and classes was:

"To every move, principle, theory and concept, there is an opposite and a reverse."

When this is applied to the study of Kenpo Forms it very quickly becomes apparent that this is a MASTER KEY PRINCIPLE. To illustrate this principle:

Short Form 1 - 3If you stand in a horse stance and execute a right straight horizontal thrust punch, what would be the opposite of that motion and what would be it's reverse counterpart?

If, in the study of motion as used for self defence, Martial Artists strive to maximise the effect for as little effort possible (this principle in Kenpo is called Economy of Motion), they must have a full understanding of motion and it's counterparts of opposite and reverse motion as they all have a value and can be utilised. Therefore, a left straight punch is the opposite motion of a right straight punch, while a right back elbow is the reverse of its application.

Kenpo Forms contain the ALPHABET OF MOTION. All Kenpo self defence and freestyle techniques are the LANGUAGE OF MOTION that stem from the Forms and Sets. (Sets are used within Kenpo as well as Forms. Sets are sequential exercises which isolate on specifics such as co-ordination, striking, kicking, stances, blocking, the use of fingers for poking, clawing etc.)

Short Form 1 - 4While many systems employ deep strong stances for strength and stability in their Katas or Forms and then use higher more mobile stances for freestyle, Kenpo stances remain constant throughout the Forms, Basics, Self Defence Techniques and Freestyle.

The key to Kenpo stances and footwork lies in another MASTER KEY PRINCIPLE, which is referred to as TAILORING. It would not be practical for a shoe shop to only stock one size of shoe when clearly feet come in many different shapes and sizes!

TAILORING dictates that in Kenpo the individual is not made to fit the system but the system is TAILORED to the individual. This becomes very apparent when observing two students of different height practising or performing the same Kenpo Form.

Short Form 1 - 5American Kenpo is based on sophisticated simplicity. Its forms progress in a logical systematic order, with the use of simple sequences of motion and rhythms in what are regarded as the Dictionary Forms, (Short Form 1, Long Form 1, Short Form 2, Long Form 2) to sequences and rhythms of motion (in what are termed the Encyclopaedia Forms, forms 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8) which to the untrained eye seem complicated, but which are in reality sophisticated simplicity.

The Training Sets, of which there are 17 in total, are regarded as the Appendices of Motion. Forms Short and Long One and Short and Long Two are regarded as the basic Forms of the system while Forms Short and Long Three are intermediate. Forms 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 are advanced and contain sophisticated sequences of motion, rhythms and the principles, concepts and theories of Modern Kenpo.

As the Forms become more advanced each form takes off where the last left off, building on the movements and principles of motion contained within the previous Form, eventually evolving literally into the Alphabet of Motion.

To briefly illustrate this concept; Short Form 1 teaches to step away from an attack, to gain distance and time to deal with the attack with the use of one of the four basic blocks. (Inward, outward, upward and downward.) Long Form 1 which is the next Form that the student learns builds on the ideas contained in Short Form 1 by adding a counter punch with the rear hand (reverse punch) combined with a stance change from a neutral bow into a forward bow showing how to generate power through the dimensional zone of width.

Short Form 1 - 9Short Form 2 uses blocks and punches of Long Form 1 but goes further by introducing the idea of "with" instead of "and". Long Form 1 teaches block "and" punch while Short Form 2 teaches block "with" a punch. The reverse of stepping back is to step forward. It would be detrimental to only train to step away from an attack when one day you may need to step in. Kenpoists are taught that the one thing that will defeat you before your opponent is the ENVIRONMENT. The environment consists of everything around you, on you, or, in you. If you only train to defend yourself with high kicking techniques, would you be able to employ them if confronted in a telephone box, knee deep in water or on an icy surface? If you only train to step away from an attack how would you deal with an attack from the front when there is a wall or cliff directly behind you? Clearly the only course of action open to you to prevent ending up meditating in a horizontal position on the floor would be to step into the attack and effectively deal with it. Short Form 2 introduces the idea of stepping forward into the eye of the storm.

These simple ideas plus many more are all contained within the Kenpo system and its forms.

The Dictionary Forms primarily develop power, strength and basic timing, while the Encyclopaedia Forms develop sophisticated timing, co-ordination, and continuity of motion, flow and speed. As the primary elements of Kenpo self-defence techniques are contained within the forms, learning the form is the preliminary stage to learning self-defence techniques.

Another of Ed Parker's sayings was:

"Motion without meaning serves no purpose".

To practice forms or kata without knowing the application of the moves would be like learning how to speak in a foreign language, but not knowing what you are actually saying.

In Kenpo when a student is taught a form they are taught an application for the moves that they are learning. They are encouraged to practice with a partner and to find other applications for the moves contained within the form. In knowing what each move is for the student can then apply the correct focus and timing at the correct time during the form.

Hidden within each form are movements which are simplistic by nature, but are designed to blind, emasculate, maim, break, tear, dislocate, sweep, throw, buckle, strike, lock, choke, strangle, block, parry, evade, etc. Often the correct moves and angles necessary for effectiveness are disguised or hidden (such as groundwork techniques practised standing up but which are just as effective laying down) for the student to question and discover their true applications.

Short Form 1 - 10Usually practised without a partner, Kenpo forms and sets like traditional Katas and sets are a method of shadow boxing for practice at home. The kenpoist visualises a universal pattern or several universal patterns on the ground and imaginary opponents attacking from the eight angles of attack either singularly or in multiple attack situations.

The ultimate aim of the Kenpoist is to elongate circles and to round off the corners of their motion. Full use is made of both linear and circular motion, hard and soft motion, all of which is blended together within the forms.

The system's forms and sets account for one quarter of Ed Parker's system; the others being self defence techniques, basics and freestyle. They are a rich legacy, a storehouse of knowledge left to us by the genius that was Ed Parker and they contain all the master keys to unlocking the sophisticated simplicity that is Kenpo Karate.