Wonder At The Unfamiliar Dance

01 May
by Alexa Castro, Julia Locatelli, and Ada Tabanao


For our last requirement in Sociology and Anthropology, we were tasked to watch and witness a particular event that was unfamiliar to us. Though we were a group of three people, we were at loss on what kind of activity to observe at first. It had to be easy and manageable, since our schedules didn’t always meet up. After pondering for a while, we then settled on watching a session of Judo training, since Julia’s friend was a member of the team.

We had an idea of what the sport entailed, that the moves included throwing people and that one needed to pin down their opponent, but that was the extent of our knowledge. We weren’t able to observe the practice from the start because our key informant Jasmine, was late. No worries though, since the team’s practice was three hours each session! We arrived at the Blue Eagle Gym thirty minutes after it started. The Judo team’s area was hidden from view, and you had to take a number of turns to actually reach it. We passed by the volleyball court, then along stairs in which many cuts of winners from different sports were exposed. It was quite impressive to see various varsity teams training, scattered all over the Blue Eagle Gym. It gave us a feeling of the sports competition spirit and of course, pride for our university. Upon entering the foyer, we were greeted by the faint scent of feet! All of the team members’ shoes were scattered around the floor since there weren’t enough shoe racks to accommodate everyone’s footwear. The entrance was crowded with a lot of things-from portraits, posters and medals on walls, to papers and bags on the floor. Before entering the dojo (the place to practice), we were told by Jasmine to remove our shoes and to bow briefly. Bowing is an integral part in Judo, as it is done before entering and exiting the area, before and after every training session, and before engaging with a sparring partner. This shows the practitioner’s respect towards the martial art’s customs and etiquette.

When we entered, the team members had already started their training. The class was composed mostly of men, and a few women. Everybody was focused on their instructor, Coach Ali, who was demonstrating a throwing move called yoko-otoshi. He demonstrated how to use one’s weight in order to do a side throw. Afterwards, everyone was given a few minutes to practice the move with a partner. They were focused on rehearsing the move and it was as if they were in their own world with their partner. Although they were focused on training, they weren’t as serious as we expected them to be though. Some were laughing when they failed to execute the move and some members were even teasing each other. They were clearly having fun with what they were doing. The area was filled with their chatters, shouts, and giggles. However, according to Jasmine, training sessions aren’t always like that. Since the UAAP season had just finished, training had been less stressful and serious. If we were to observe the team right before the competitions, no one would be laughing and the place would be quiet, with the exception of some grunts here and there.

We stayed near the entrance to observe the session, whilst sitting on a white foam mat.  They didn’t really notice us that much, besides those who were training near us. Our presence didn’t have a big impact on their training. Everyone was quite focused on what they were doing. Indeed, Judo requires high concentration, otherwise your adversaries will easily take advantage of your lack of attention on the task at hand. It was impressive for us to watch so many people practicing a martial art at the same time. It was very intense to see everybody give the best of themselves, and we feel respect for their discipline and commitment to it.

The jūdōka (how a practitioner of judo is called) train on a tatami, a stiff carpet which dampens shocks delimits and is a square fighting area that varies in colour during competitions. The official uniform of the Judo members is called a judogi which means “Judo uniform”, or more commonly a Gi. We noticed that some wore a blue Gi, while the rest wore a white one. We thought that it had something to do with their rank, but that wasn’t the case. Jasmine said that they were basically the same, and the colours were used to distinguish members in tournaments. Ranks however, were associated by the colour of the practitioner’s belt, originally called obi. The colours from beginner to expert are normally as follows: white, orange, green, blue, brown, black, and red.  However, the team only wore either black or white belts and the coach had a different belt design.

There was a certain way on how to tie their belts: a reef knot. The sport really has a lot of intricacies with regards to customs, but it also has a practical side: the tightness allows for the Gi to stay in place (although some spars can be so tough that the belt loosens!).

After showing the new move, the coach signaled for the members of the team to spar with one another. It didn’t matter if their opponent was the opposite sex or not. Although one would have a hard time pinning their partner if their weight class division is higher than theirs. This is basically how the training cycle goes: the coach teaches a move, they practice, then they spar to win, which will follow a water break, and then repeat. The process may seem monotonous, but in actuality the training session was intense! The session started with the team sparring from the floor and later sparring while standing up. They were having fun while practicing, but it wasn’t just that. You could see the determination to perfect the move learned (whether a ground or throwing one) in some of their faces. They were clearly dedicated to master the sport, it was evident in their training. Even though they were laughing, you could see that they were still focused on executing the moves properly. While sparring, the students also had an option to go against the coach. One had to volunteer to go against the coach, and it seemed like they weren’t afraid to do so since the coach didn’t have to call anyone to go against him because someone would always be in line.

It’s kind of strange though, because when we asked some of the people about some historical aspect about Judo (like for example, why was their belt tied in a certain order, or why they wore the left flap of their Gi over the right one). Many of them didn’t know the answer, even Jasmine. So we resorted to asking another member who seemed to be in a higher rank than the others. He answered our questions, saying that the Gi’s style was reflected from what the samurais wore underneath their armour, and that it was a custom to follow. I think this circumstance depends on how the person came to join the Judo team and how long they were a member.

Jasmine said that most of the men’s team came from the Ateneo High School Judo team, which may account for their knowledge in the history of Judo. The women’s team came without any prior experience, many entering during their second year. Our key informant told us that she joined Judo because she was bored and the sport seemed interesting to her so she tried and she appreciated it because it allows a high degree of physical expenditure to a fun dimension. Other female members said that the sport was unique, that it looked fun to learn, or because they were invited by a current member to join. Based on some of the answers that we garnered from the team, some of them did not really know the why’s of the Judo customs and background, focusing more on the practical aspects of the sport (which was technically more evident in the women’s team). Then again, we also took account that those who did not seem knowledgeable were of lower rank than those who knew the answers to some of our questions regarding the sport’s background.

Judo isn’t really popular in the Philippines compared to basketball and volleyball, according to our informant. However, based on what we saw that day, those who had come to know and practice the sport have clearly shown their passion and dedication for it.

The ones we were able to talk to were friendly and they didn’t mind that we had questions to ask them. And they were really open to beginners who want to learn. We asked Jasmine if it was hard for a beginner to keep with everyone’s pace, and she said that they learn new things every meeting, so the newcomer didn’t have to worry much. Others are also willing to help out, so if the beginners keep on attending practice, they’ll be able to learn in no time. Jasmine even invited us to join the team! The key to learning in Judo, as our key informant told us, is to know which moves you can and want to do- because people have different aptitudes with the many styles of techniques that Judo offers. One beginner was learning postures under the tutoring of another student who was showing him demonstrations and correcting his moves. They were gravitating all over the training space during the whole class, not following the instructions given by the coach but doing a special program for beginners. The one who was instructed was a black-belt level, unfortunately got injured during one of the previous training sessions. Instead of missing practice, he preferred to assist the coach, to see his judo partners, and to aid them in the training session.

We have been told that the first step in learning, was to know how to “fall”. Weird isn’t it? If you don’t know how to land your body when your opponent throws you then here is the danger: It might lead to you breaking your leg (or your arm), which will then cause you to cry out in pain, leading you to go to the nearest hospital to have a cast on, wherein the doctor will prohibit you from training sessions, causing you to feel miserable because the others are having fun and you aren’t, thus you’ll end up regretting joining in the first place. It’s pretty sad because this happened last semester to a newcomer. The poor guy was limping during the first few months of his injury after his cast got removed because he did not land correctly (but he still loves Judo, so there’s that!).

With the prospects of acquiring an injury, our group mate Ada was still brave enough to experience firsthand how being thrown around felt like. Of course she learned the basics of falling (both side and back falling) in order to prepare herself. But she did not experience being thrown on the normal blue mat that the Judo team was practicing on. No, she was special. She was given a chance to fall on the soft mobile red foam mat that the team had! It was normally used for beginners as the foam inside was thicker than the blue one, so we weren’t worried about her (plus we had help from the masters!). During the demonstration most of the people kept practising but few stopped to watch and to give advices, in order for Ada to become more comfortable and confident with the black belt girl who was about to throw her down. Here’s a short commentary of how she felt with the activity:

Being judo-flipped was a fun experience. My curiosity outweighed my fear so I decided to go for it. As mentioned, I had to learn to basics of what to do during the fall so I wouldn’t injure myself. It was simple enough to learn for someone who had zero judo experience. They took out the softest foam for me to fall on too, which I’m very grateful for. It was so soft. I had to get thrown three times, mainly because my group mates weren’t able to record the first two times, and for each throw the intensity would go higher. It was honestly fun and I wouldn’t mind doing it again. It only seemed scary at first and it only lasts for a few seconds. Once you land on the mat, you feel the rush of the fall. I just ended up laughing after being thrown. I felt dizzy after being thrown three times though, but that was it. My body didn’t hurt. But I think if the girl threw me in their normal foam, it would hurt a bit.”

When the exercise changed to practice the “throwing down”, the class was divided in two parts, mostly because of the lack of space. One part of the students started to practise in un-mixed pair of approximately the same weight, under the watchful eye of the coach. The other half of the students stayed on the border of the mats, loudly encouraging their mates while waiting for their turn. We noticed at this moment that the women naturally tend to stay together during their moment of rest, and that they were more open to talking with us than the men.

During the observation we also had noticed several portraits of famous jūdōka attached on the walls of the dojo. Among them, in the middle of the room is Kano Jigoro, the founder of Judo in Japan. It gave to this sport an even more historical and respectful aspect.

After the training ended, everyone arranged themselves into lines in preparation for their last bows. They bow once in respect to the founder of their sport, once to their coach, and lastly they bowed amongst themselves.

We started with a bow in the beginning, and thus we ended everything with a bow.


The act of observation provides a lot of data and information. We were able to see and comprehend various actions and movements, all the while making sense of the scents and sounds of the surrounding environment. But what is lacking in becoming a bystander is that we could not truly grasp the experience of Judo itself, because it is after all a physical activity. And so, it was imperative that one of us would try out the sport. Sure, we couldn’t be experts after watching the team practice, but what this exercise would provide would be an understanding of how the novice members felt when they play themselves. Observing is a very personal act. It doesn’t fully engage the viewer in the act itself. The viewer is limited to his own understanding and feelings of the event. Participation gives the observer an insider’s perspective on the activity. He or she is able to grasp a better understanding of the activity because of the firsthand experience.

Having a key informant is also a great advantage since the informant gives the facts of the activity. The key informant serves as the teacher of the observer. Aside from learning the basics techniques of Judo, we were also told to bow at significant instances. We learned about their routines and rituals during training and during competitions. We were able to learn their practices in more detail because we had someone from the inside. We wouldn’t have been able to learn these things simply from observing on our own. We would be making assumptions. We learned quite a lot on this day, and we wouldn’t have done it without the help of Jasmine.

From participant observation, the observers were able to see the event from an outsider’s eye so they may be more keen on details. An interview tends to be biased because of the nature of the interviewee to emphasise the good points in an event. For example, we are able to observe how the team acts from our own perspectives- we got a feel of how the environment was like, and how the team interacted with each other. Interviews can’t give that.

Questionnaires are also a different case. If we were to use this type of method in information gathering, we would be limited to the questions we asked and sometimes we might not be able to ask important questions because we wouldn’t know that we should be asking them. Since we were not that familiar with the sport, it would be hard for us to think about what kind of inquiry that we would make the Judo team answer. With participant observation, we were able to ask questions while we were observing because the team would be doing something and we would be curious as to what it is. Another issue with it is that it could be that not all members of team would answer our questionnaire. And for those that did answer them, they would not necessarily answer the questions (especially those in the form of “Why” and “How”) in an expressive way. From all the questionnaires that we gathered before, most of the “Why” and “How” inquiries were answered in less than two sentences. We don’t think we could get as much information about the Judo training session this way, because it seems as if people want to quickly finish answering the sheet.

Sometimes, members are also shy to answer our questions. That is why it is better to observe this kind of activity, all the while asking questions from our key informant because in this way we are able to go back and forth with each other on things we might’ve missed.

However, a questionnaire or interview has its own strengths. It would be the better option if one wanted to focus on the expert’s perspectives. We were not able to talk to most of the practitioners, so we had to rely on their facial expressions and actions with regards to how they feel about their sport. Because these methods provide a structured set of questions, data is easy to compare.

From the cafeteria observation to Judo practice, Philippine society and culture is visibly collectivist. People like to mingle in groups, yearning to form strong bonds. From a barkada (Filipino word for “group of friends”) in the cafeteria to the Judo team, Filipinos love to be part of a whole. During our observation, after members were done with their spars or practices, they immediately gravitate towards their friends. They would rather not stand idly, waiting for the next instructions of their coach. The session aims to hone their personal skills in relation to the many ground and throwing techniques of the sport. But the members were not only focused on themselves. They helped one another, especially when someone is struggling to perform the move. We heard things like, “Kaya mo yan!” or “Try pulling your weight from another angle!”, and so much more encouraging words followed by some clapping and shouts. Jasmine also noted that they often eat together and hang out after practice. These groups outside of home became their second family. What is gained from these moments is not only personal, but also social. The concept of ‘pakikisama’ is truly evident.


We entitled this short essay, “Wonder at the Unfamiliar Dance”. It reflected our group’s feelings towards our observations at the training session of the Judo team. Why wonder of all words? We were surprised and amazed at the passion and dedication that the members displayed during practice. But those words cannot encompass the sensations that we felt during those two hours. Our emotions ranged from fear to awe.

What we saw was beautiful.

We wondered at that unfamiliar scene, full of admiration for all the members of the team. Each of the team members were disciplined. Despite the long hours of training, with only few breaks in between, they still carried on. They were determined to learn, to make themselves better-not only for their individual development but also for their team. Others had a hard time or did not perform the moves well enough but they were not left alone to learn by themselves. They were surrounded people who motivated and supported them.

The kind of team spirit they showed us was pure and selfless.

It was not a solo performance, but a dance alongside family.


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