This begins what I hope will be an ongoing insight into the Brotherhood of the Taboada Cuentada system and those in our orbit. I have always been interested in the history of Balintawak. Listening to Grandmaster talk about how things used to be... how this particular thing developed... why this move made it into shadow fighting form... where this scar came from... it's hard not to be interested. It occurred to me that one day people will be telling stories about us: the things we did... the way we trained... how fun that one guy was when we all went out after training... how Grandmaster made that rocket scientist do a backflip at the beginning of every world camp :) . While I have always enjoyed the stories I have always been left wondering more about the people in them. To that end I want to add a layer of depth to our future stories, to create a record of who we are as individuals, in our own words, and as a brotherhood. We begin this series with Guro Jemar Carcellar, founder and head instructor of Richmond Balintawak. Jemar, currently based in Atlanta, Georgia, is known for his dedication to the art and instilling strong fundamentals in his students. Many thanks to Jemar for participating!
n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows
Who are you? How do you define yourself? What's your story?
I am Jemar Carcellar. I am a simple, God-fearing Christian, who is a life-long student of the martial arts. I am easy going. I love to laugh, hang out with friends and family. Growing up, I loved watching Kung Fu and martial arts movies. From Bruce Lee films to Shaw Brothers produced Shaolin flicks (Chi Kuan Chun, Alexander Fu Sheng, Delon Tam) to Chuck Norris and Joe Lewis pictures, I watched them all.
I am originally from Cebu City, Philippines. I immigrated to the United States in 1997 after working in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Dubai for eight years. I worked and lived in Maryland for the first several years. After marrying my lovely wife Natalie, I moved to her hometown – Richmond VA, in 2001. In June 2007, I started teaching Balintawak Escrima to some friends in my garage. After several months, we moved general work outs to a park but still had private lessons with some of my students in my garage. Such were the humble beginnings of Richmond Balintawak.
My work has relocated me twice to Houston, Texas and then to Atlanta, Georgia where I currently reside. As a result, Richmond Balintawak is now in three locations, two schools – Richmond and Atlanta, and a study group in Houston.
How were you exposed to Balintawak?
It was in the mid 70’s, I was about 12 years old when I saw an ad on TV – Balintawak International Self Defense Club. I remember it was just a simple logo (a red and white bull’s eye, with a stick, a bolo and a fist) with a voice over. When I first checked out the place, I noticed that it was just a small backyard of an apartment in Parian. It was the residence of the late Grand Master Teofilo Velez. I remember him warmly welcoming me. I asked how much the tuition was. Fifty pesos a month was his answer. I asked if I could get a ‘student discount’ (I was in high school at that time) and just pay P 25 per month since I only had a P 30 monthly allowance. He agreed. That was the start of my formal martial arts journey – Balintawak Escrima.
How long have you studied? Who was your primary instructor?
I started when I was 12 years old and studied consistently for several years during my high school years. I would arrive at around 5:30 and continue on until 7:30. The Velez family usually had dinner at around 7 pm and so I would wait until they were done. At first I left at 8 or 8:30 pm. However, I noticed that drinking starts at 7:30 and other masters and instructors from other schools start arriving at around 8 pm. The hits started getting heavier and more painful as the night wore on so I decided to ‘escape’ and leave before their fun began. Hence, my self -imposed rule of leaving at 7:30 pm.
I started with Zac Taco (now Master) – he taught me the twelve basic strikes. Then GM Teofilo would ask his sons Chito, Eddie, Monie and his protégé’ Bobby Taboada (now all of them Grand Masters) to feed or ‘agak’ me. Mostly it was Bobby and Chito. Many times GM Teofilo will feed me himself just to see how I was doing.
Pressures of college, marriage and career got in the way of continuous training. Even, then I was practicing on my own as best as I can.
In 2006, I was delighted to discover that GM Bobby was here in the US and living only one state away in North Carolina. It was a great and emotional feeling seeing him after more than 30 years. I was not the 12 year old anymore. Neither was he the 20 something. We reminisced the old times and how we missed them. He readily welcomed me back as a student. Since then, I had been consistently training with him. It has been a great privilege not only to train with him, but also to get to know him. He is one of the finest gentlemen I have ever been friends with. Tough on the outside, but has a soft heart that really cares for people on the inside. He is a good listener, counselor and can be found consoling friends and students in their time of need. Being a good example, he demands the same of his students. ‘Be a good example’ is always one of his parting words in seminars or private sessions.
What was the hardest part of learning Balintawak?
Patience. The instructors will not move you on until you completely learned the subject matter. For example, it took me more than a week of daily two hour practice to move beyond the 12 basic strikes. Also, in the first few months, all I learned was defending while being fed. As a teenager, I wanted to learn how to fight right away. Frustration reached its pinnacle when my Dad learned that I was studying Balintawak. He got very mad. He did not want me to waste money on such endeavors. He grabbed two sticks and handed one to me and asked me to show what I’ve got. He was a black belt in the Doce Pares System (at that time there was only one). He started hitting me from all sorts of angles at such a rapid succession that I was not able to block most of them. I was so frustrated that I almost quit. Luckily, I had the fortitude to stay on and continue studying this art.
Favorite part of Balintawak?
Simple and Progressive. Every move, action, technique is related and more uncovered or discovered through the years of study. The reflexes that it develops are astounding. Sensitivity of the hands, stick and general energy are developed through feeding, and later on random stick play.
Have you/do you study other arts? How have they influenced each other?
While studying Balintawak, I also cross trained in Tat Kon Tou Kung Fu under the late GM Victor Quillosa. Only ten years ago, I discovered that Tat Kon Tou was actually a collaboration of Anciong Bacon and Joe Go (Chinese Kung Fu) – both deceased. No wonder the forms, patterns and free style moves looked and felt like Balintawak.
As my eldest son was growing up, I studied several arts with him. In Maryland, we spent several years with Doce Pares under GM Dr. Patalinghug before moving to Richmond. In Richmond, I received my first and second degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. I also spent seven years studying Wing Chun Kung Fu – Moy Yat (Sifu Barry O’Brien) and then Lo Man Kam (Sifu John Kang). I also trained in Shorite Ryu Tai Jutsu and received my second degree black belt from GM Dr. Christian Harfouche.
All of these arts have shaped up who I am today as a martial artist. I highly value each teacher’s contribution in my development, not only in the martial arts but also as a person. Without such guidance, I would have gone astray, especially during my teenage years which were trying and difficult times.
I have discovered through the years that all these martial arts are indeed related. It doesn’t matter what the art is, it is ultimately up to the martial arts student to make it his/her own in order for that student to reap its benefits. The other reality that I found out, was that ‘as a person becomes older, gravity becomes stronger’. I call that Jemar’s new theory of gravity. That’s why the shirt-busting pecs become pant expanding barrels. Seriously, as I age and to my dismay, I am not able to perform the splits, can’t run as fast, can’t jump and kick as high as I did. Nevertheless, I am more confident now than I was in my younger years that I can defend myself and loved ones should the need arise. Such confidence is the by-product of consistency in martial arts training.
What's your day job? Have there been any concepts from that profession that have informed your Balintawak or vice versa?
I manage a team that provides business intelligence reports and analytical insights to the enterprise Marketing group in Suntrust Bank.
Marketing is about selecting a particular set of individuals, providing stimulus, with the aim of eliciting a behavior that would be beneficial to the organization. If such individuals perform the behavior, then that would be a conversion – i.e. the marketing campaign was effective.
The parallels to Balintawak are amazing. Starting with the feeding process until random play, it is a set of stimuli and responses. At the higher levels, there is that plan of multiple stimuli and forced responses, hoping to coral a person into a point wherein one can hit, throw, choke, or submit his partner. This is cuentada. When the partner senses what’s coming, he can counter it and stop the original plan from going to completion. What’s more, the partner has a plan of his own. This is the beauty of cuentada. Most of it is played in the mind and gets stopped at the point of initial execution. To the casual observer, it might look boring, each partner blocking and striking only to be blocked again. But to the two practitioners playing, it is an intricate ballet, forceful, purposeful and graceful.
What is the main lesson you want your students to take from your instruction in Balintawak?
Character first before skill. This is what I have always emphasized. Skill can be taught and acquired, that is my job as an instructor. But bad character and attitude are difficult to change. Character is what defines a person, not necessarily skill. There are many excellent fighters who have no character. These are the ones you find in jail or about to go to jail as they are nothing more than thugs.
Although it is very difficult to determine a person’s character the first day he/she shows up to class, they are eventually weaned out through time. Since our group is composed of really good people, I firmly believe that such bad eggs either leave or more hopefully, become transformed as they continue to study the art.
What do you emphasizes with beginners and what do you emphasizes with your more advanced students?
Fundamentals and Consistency. These are important to all practitioners. Consistent practice of fundamentals is the key progressing and enjoying the art.
For the beginner, just like a toddler first learning to walk. It is the responsibility of the parents to teach them the proper way to start walking. Just like what the toddlers experience, there will be falls and disappointments. However, the parents are always there to help them get up and encourage them to continue trying to walk. In due time, the child not only learns to walk but to run, jump and enjoy life.
This applies to the senior students as well. To every student, there are always opportunities to be sloppy, take shortcuts, or feel that they have arrived. The footwork becomes casual. Attendance drops. Then our love for the art starts to fade not because the art was faulty but because we slowly walked away from it. We must overcome these. One of the ways we can do so is to help teach the principles of the fundamentals and consistency the beginners. In doing so, we will be reminding ourselves of these very things that we teach and also help develop the next generation of escrimadors.
What does a typical class look like when you teach?
Except when I was starting Richmond Balintawak where everyone was a beginner, the typical class these days is about 40% beginners and the rest intermediate and senior students. The main challenge is to keep both groups engaged and challenged during the class. What would be ideal is to have separate classes for these groups. But alas, due to limitations on scheduling and venue availability, this will have to do for now.
What kind of things were you thinking about when you were developing your 24 techniques?
(To become a Fully Qualified Instructor in the Taboada System there are 2 primary requirements: 1. Bring a student through Level 6, "Completion of the Art", and develop 24 of your own techniques which you teach and then demonstrate from play.)
Preparing the 24 techniques is a journey in itself. There are competing objectives from audience appeal – simple to spectacular, or from applicability – efficient and effective. The first 12 were not that difficult to conceive since I was starting from a blank canvas. However, somewhere between 13 and 24, I began second guessing myself. I began to compare the later techniques to the earlier techniques. Perfectionism sets in. Thoughts of ‘seems like no. 4 is not good enough, so probably I should discard it’. So now, instead of 13, it’s back to 12 or 11. And the journey goes on. Eventually no. 24 is done. After some time and before the test, I came up with three or four more. Just in case I mess up or the earlier techniques were not good enough.
What I eventually settled on are the simple, efficient and effective techniques. No complicated steps since I always assume that in a real fight the opponent will not stand still and wait for me to complete my sequence. The quintessential question that I needed to answer was – Will it work against an opponent of any size – tall, short, thin, muscular?
Why did you want to become a Fully Qualified Instructor?
Becoming a Fully Qualified Instructor was just an integral part and by-product of my journey. It was another milestone I needed to achieve in order to get to the next level. In order to get better, I had to learn how to teach and guide a student to complete the art. It was a mutually beneficial journey. In order for me to pass, the student has to pass. This is a daunting task since we all know that not every person who walks through the door will make it. In the end it was well worth it.
I had not really aspired to be a Fully Qualified Instructor. I just wanted to be more proficient. But now I am really proud to be one and be a part of Taboada Balintawak. For I now belong to an accomplished group of individuals, a brotherhood, who are not only highly skilled, but one of the best people in the world. From my heart, you are welcome with respect.