A Milestone for My Martial Arts Club and Personal Development

Community, Judo and Martial Arts / Friday, December 11th, 2015
 This is Melanie Cuesta. She’s the first student I’ve ever promoted to black belt.

I’ve taught judo for many years, of course–but in judo, I never really promoted past brown belt because it is a competition-driven art. Most judo promotions happen on the mat. Not much to it–you win a lot of matches, you get promoted. Sure, you take a kata test, but for most young judoka, the focus is competition. This, however requires tournaments, which requires two things in turn. First, that you are a competitor. Second, that you can be accepted and judged reasonably fairly by whomever is holding the tournaments.

Many of my current students are not competitive that way.  What do you do when a student cries when you ask hir to make a fist? Or gets a panic attack when held to the mat? What if a student simply wants to learn self defense and has other priorities besides trophies and medals? In a judo dojo, they’d merely be directed somewhere else, or perhaps to another art. But I don’t have that luxury when I teach queer youth at the center. My mission is to nurture students, whatever their disposition.  Many of my students are homeless, queer, cast out by their families. So many simply don’t have options.

Also, the wise, queer-accepting, identity-affirming, gender-compassionate martial arts organization is a still rare thing. Especially for trans or gender nonconforming people, to exist in a mainstream martial arts organization can be rough. Some will fight it. Others will choose to avoid it. Either can be a correct decision.

Because of this, I decided to create a martial arts school, Tomoe Ryu, that acknowledges and responds to the needs of my students. I have spent the last five years honing the curriculum, talking to my students at our Supernova Dojo at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, reviewing incidents they face. I have modified some techniques, added others, and codified our foundational concepts. In doing so, I’ve mapped out, for the first time, promotion requirements all the way to black belt and even beyond that. I have used every bit of my 40 years of martial arts to create this Tomoe Ryu, and I am so grateful to the students who have entrusted me with their development–even as I was developing our school around them.

And now, we have our first black belt. I am thrilled, and a little exhausted. And relieved. And proud–to see the martial artist that Mel has become. As I am with all of my students. In each of them, I see just a little of my own work. My own strength. My own heart. And I suppose, that means I have grown as a martial artist, as well.