Tae kwon do, a Korean form of martial arts, is practiced by some 70 million people worldwide. That practice gives its followers an instant bond, an immediate feeling of camaraderie, a sense of belonging.
So, if a group of Koreans, say, who are skilled at tae kwon do, meet with a group of Americans who practice the discipline, even though they can't communicate with language, they are instant friends.
That's exactly what happened recently when a tae kwon do demonstration team from the Gyeonggi Province in South Korea visited Kim's Tae Kwon Do Academy in Sandy.
The South Korean team was in Utah for a statewide event with all the tae kwon do schools in the area, but Den Dutson, who has lived in South Korea and speaks the language fluently, was able to arrange the special appearance at Kim's Academy, where Dutson and his son, Daiden, are both award-winning students.
"This is one of the best teams in all of Korea," said Dutson. "They have a 60-person demonstration team, and 13 of the team members were hand-picked to come here. What an honor for us. They usually participate in front of thousands of people. To have them come to our humble school is a great, great, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
The state of Utah and the Utah Sports Authority have had a sister relationship with the Gyeonggi Province for approximately 25 years, says Dutson. "But nothing had really been done with it. Last year, we decided to refresh the relationship, and we took a group of students to the World Championships that were held there."
That visit led to a return visit by the Koreans this year. The funding has all been handled by a nonprofit organization, the Utah Gyeonggi Do Sports Association, which was formed last year by parents and tae kwon do supporters. "The state requested that the private sector handle the event," said Dutson. "But the purpose is to promote sports within our youth and develop relationships and understanding of other cultures."
Having the Korean team here has been "fantastic," he said. "We took them to Park City to visit the Olympic Park. They got to ride the Alpine Slide and visit the shopping outlets. They all had smiles on their faces."
With Dutson as a translator, Jong Tae Park, the head representative of the demonstration team, also expressed their pleasure with being in Utah. "We are extremely happy to be here," he said. "It is wonderful to see what the students are learning."
He hopes through "the interaction of the students, they all will be able to increase their ability and skill. We have traveled all over the world, but we look forward to coming back here. We hope this will be a long-term involvement drawn out over many years. We hope to help the level of tae kwon do in Utah get to the level in Korea."
The South Korean team members range in age from 14 to 28. The demonstration they put on for the Utah students involved high-elevation jumps, spins, kicks, board-breaking and performing poomse, or forms, to music.
"There's a high level of technical difficulty," said Jack Markman, owner and head instructor at Kim's Academy.
The demonstration team was limited somewhat because the ceilings at Kim's are only about 12 feet high. Some of their standard demonstrations, which are usually performed in a high-ceilinged arena, involve students stacked three or four people deep, holding boards for other students to jump and kick. Here they could only go a couple of levels high, but the moves were still dramatic and impressive.
"Awesome" was the word used most often by the Utah students to describe the display. "What they do is awesome," said Tjaden Stevens, 13. "If I really try hard maybe someday I can do that."
"It's awesome," added Christian Grow, 10. He has already achieved black-belt status. "I can't do any of that now. But I can practice. It's something to look forward to."
For some of their warm-up moves, the Koreans invited the black-belted Utahns to join them. "It was nerve-wracking trying to keep up," said Kameron Hadlock, who has been an instructor at Kim's Academy for four years. It's really sick (he means that in a good way, of course) what they do."
But that reaction is exactly what Markman hoped for. "We want this to inspire, motivate and challenge our students."
That's what tae kwon do is all about, he says. The name means "the way of the hand and foot." It is to Korea what karate is in Japan and kung fu is in China a martial art that emphasizes both self-discipline and self-control. It is equal parts physical conditioning, recreation and mental discipline.
As a sport, it has benefits for all ages, but he believes it is particularly good for children. They are taught respect and discipline, and it helps build self-esteem.
Jenny Montierth agrees. Her daughter, Ally, has been a student at Kim's for about six months. "Ally was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety. Her counselor suggested she take some self-esteem classes and other things. We started here, and it has been amazing to see the difference it has made for her."
"I love it," said Ally. "I practice every day, and that helps a lot. Jack tells us to say that we feel one way, and we will begin to feel that way. It works."
"That's what they call the black-belt spirit," said her mother.
Other young students at the academy are equally enthusiastic. "It's amazing," said Koleman Kennedy, 9. "You learn self-discipline and respect, so my parents love it, too."
"It's just really fun," said Griffin Kennedy, 8. "I like learning stuff and protecting myself."
"It's fun because you learn how to respect your parents, how to use discipline and how to make each other stronger," added Parker Neff, 9. "It's a great sport to be in."
Part of that greatness is how it stretches across cultures, said Dutson. And that's exactly what this event has been all about. "It brings cultures together. It shows us what what have in common. It's a great place to start in building understanding."
Jong Tae Park agrees. "We want Americans to get to know Koreans, to know that we are very friendly people who want to reach out to other cultures. And we want to do it respectfully."That's what tae kwon do is all about.