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Acevedo earns global distinction in ‘Palace Hand’

May 12, 2012

Alysha Acevedo (right) practices the “Palace Hand”, the martial art of the Royal Family of Okinawa, by using swords under the watchful eye of instructors Kimberly and Dennis Branchaud (left) during a recent workout at the Kodokai Martial Arts Dojo. Acevedo was recently issued a second-degree black belt in the rare martial arts form. PHOTO BY ERNEST A. BROWN.

NORTH SMITHFIELD — Alysha Acevedo didn't cringe, but did seem rather uncomfortable when asked how she's doing academically in this, her junior year at North Smithfield High.
“Not so good in chemistry; math isn't going too well, either, and I love math!” she chuckled. “But I did get a 95 last week on my chemistry/common task, which is sort of like a project. The good news is I did something I didn't think I'd be able to do.”
At 16, Acevedo has the same troubles, issues, wants and dreams as anyone her age. She wants someday to become a member of the U.S. Coast Guard, or to attend college, or both. A recent recipient of her driver's license, she'd like to take the keys to her mom's car and go shopping with friends or run errands without Dotty Acevedo not wanting to ride in the passenger seat.
In one subject, however, Acevedo is stunningly different from her peers – in fact, she just had something bestowed upon her that no teen outside of Okinawa has.
On Thursday night, April 26 – “at about 6:30,” she grinned – Acevedo was issued a second-degree black belt in the rare martial arts form of “Palace Hand.” Her sensei, Dennis Branchaud, did the honor.
According to Branchaud, owner of the Kodokai Martial Arts Dojo at 175 Eddie Dowling Hwy., she also is one of a rather minuscule group of people who currently own a black belt rank in this form.
“When 'Sensei' told me I would be awarded the second-degree black belt, or 'Nidan,' I felt honored, not so much excited,” Acevedo explained of the moment. “It was just the fact that he had seen enough progress in me to decide I was ready to be a black belt, too.
“That night, he sent someone to attack me, then another; they were both guys much bigger than me,” she added with a laugh. “I took them down without any trouble, and it happened over and over again. I just used the techniques I had been taught to restrain them. I took them down with a combination of their momentum and my weight and leverage.
“I really didn't have a reaction. It was more like what I was thinking and felt inside.”
She was asked if she celebrated the monumental achievement, gave a scream or yelled “You're kidding!” and merely shrugged.
“I didn't really, but I did in the parking lot,” she giggled once more. “My mom was sitting in the car, and I said, 'I just got my second-degree black belt!' She yelled, 'Yea!' and told everybody over the next few days.”
Branchaud calls “Palace Hand” a “highly-effective, self-defense practice that was originally owned only by Okinawan royalty over 500 years ago.
“For centuries, it was kept highly-secretive, and was only passed down through the generations, from father to son,” he said recently, Acevedo by his side, at his dojo, the only school in the United States devoted solely to the discipline's teachings. “Only in the past decade have people outside of Okinawa, Japan been allowed to train in this art.
“Over the past six months, Alysha has made a tremendous amount of progress,” he continued. “Learning it is a steady process; there are no tricks to it. This is the opposite of karate, which teaches regimented responses to predetermined attacks. In 'Palace Hand,' our responses are to be evolving moment to moment.
“It's a zen-like thing, where we want our minds to be on what is really unfolding, as opposed to what we think is. It's not about anticipating what may happen, but responding to what is actually happening.”
“Palace Hand,” known as “Motobu Udundi” in Japan, is all about getting maximum results with minimal effort. It's a battlefield art specialized for situations with multiple attackers and weapons. This environment required efficiency, economical use of one's strength and stamina, fluidity and unique strategies.
“To address these issues, several characteristics evolved, making this style particularly relevant for today's defense needs, where baseball bats and knives have replaced spears and swords, and where multiple attacker situations are typical forms of assault,” Branchaud stated.
Characteristics of “Palace Hand” include: Defense and offense are one, as no karate-like blocks are presented; techniques are designed to seize the initiative, and keep it; movement is fluid as opposed to rigid; many techniques are designed to restrain attackers, though can achieve severe damage with only a minor adjustment; fighting doesn't occur on the ground, though students do practice escaping in the event they're brought down; and techniques do not rely upon size or strength but leverage.
Branchaud, who runs Kodokai with his wife, Kim, is a native North Smithfielder. Upon graduating as a Northman in 1977, he went to the Community College of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College before enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps.
While in the military, he was stationed in Okinawa and chose to learn karate.
“It was invented there, and it's the karate mecca of the world,” he revealed. “I mostly became involved because I wanted to learn more about self-defense. Being in the Marines, you never know when you could become 'busy,' and – obviously – I wanted to win.”
When he returned home, he opened up his dojo in 2000 and taught karate, but he went back to Okinawa in 2002 to visit his old sensei (or instructor). That's when he happened upon the ancient art form.
“He told me we had to pay our respect to the seniors, and one was Toma, an 84-year-old 'Palace Hand' master who was also my teacher's mentor,” he offered. “My instructor was Odo, and we went to Toma's house first. We sat around table drinking orange juice, and Toma began demonstrating very effective 'Palace Hand' techniques on me.
“He was 84, but he was able to bring me to the ground over and over again; I just thought, 'Wow! What is this?' That piqued my interest right away. It was, to me, a missing puzzle piece. I had been in karate for a couple of decades, but I always knew there was a weakness in it. Karate really doesn't allow a smaller person to defeat a larger person because it relies on kicking and punching instead of leverage.”
One of Toma's students, Takamiyagi, taught Branchaud, who later became a fourth-degree “Palace Hand” black belt. He mentioned his teachers in Okinawa were eighth-degree.
“It goes up to 10th-degree, but finding a living 10th-degree is pretty hard … Because my teacher was mentored by Toma, the karate principals I had been taught were quite similar to 'Palace Hand.'”
He opted just under three years ago to drop the karate instruction and focus only on teaching his new love.
“It made more sense from a practical point-of-view,” he said. “I had a lot of students, and I wanted them to learn how to protect themselves. Karate is something that teaches people to get into a solid, rigid stance and punch hard, but that's not going to do much if you weigh 80 pounds and your assailant weighs 250.
“I always thought there had to be something better for these students, but I knew of none,” he continued. “I looked for a solution but found none. From 1978 to 2002, I taught karate, but I always knew people wanted something more. Upon my visits to Koza (a small town on the island), I thoughy, 'This is it. This is what I need, and what I should be teaching.”
Branchaud didn't know it at the time, but – while still teaching karate with a bit of “Palace Hand” rolled in – an eight-year-old girl, in the back seat of her mom's car, would often pass his school. She would say, “Mommy, what's that? Can we go inside?”
Acevedo loved playing traditional youth sports, and did, including basketball, soccer, gymnastics, softball and swimming.
“Basketball was my life; I loved it,” she noted. “I played in the D.A.R.E. leagues, but I always had asthma, and it was pretty severe when I was a child. It held me back, all the running. We used to go by this dojo, and I wanted to know what was going on down there. I would always ask her if I could learn karate, but she'd always say, 'Next time, next time.' Finally, when I was eight, she gave in. She finally said, 'OK, we'll stop.'
“I was very nervous at first, but I liked how everyone was so friendly,” she added. “It was also interesting. I liked all the kicking and punching.”
Branchaud admitted he lost some students when he isolated his practice to “Palace Hand,” but Acevedo wasn't one of them. She's been his student for eight years, and – on Aug. 15, 2009, just two days after her 14th birthday – she garnered her first-degree black belt (or “Shodan”).
“After that, I didn't think I'd receive any more promotions in rank,” she said. “I don't know why.”
Stated Branchaud: “I didn't, either. I didn't know how long she would continue. It's very difficult for anyone to train that hard for that long. This is a battlefield martial art; that's what it was designed for, as opposed to other disciplines, which are used for personal, or civilian, defense.
“In Okinawa, they had police to deal with the 'bad guys,'” he added. “Many centuries ago, for the noble class to be involved in fighting, it wouldn't be to stop your average thief but for an act against the royal family. These techniques are designed to disarm and arrest, not pummel someone into submission.
“Look at karate, or aikido, judo, tae kwon do, all were invented over the last 100 years, and all evolved with sport, or 'one-on-one,' in mind.”
Acevedo mentioned her sensei changed from karate to “Palace Hand” slowly, with karate moves still a part of instruction.
“He introduced us to ways of walking, and other techniques,” she said. “They were completely different from what we had learned before, and I thought it was fantastic. In karate, one of the most important moves is blocking, turning away a huge guys' punches. I'd walk out of here with huge bruises on my arms, and it was no picnic.
“When we started performing 'Palace Hand' moves,' it was more fluid than being rock-hard and tight,” she added. “He told us this is what the battlefield required. Like I said, I loved it. It's so smooth, but powerful, too.”
Branchaud insisted rank should be a by-product rather than a goal, that it takes years of desire, discipline, hard work, sacrifice and patience – not to mention working with difficult partners – to become more seasoned.
“We're not a typical martial arts dojo,” he stated. “You don't see trophies, no lists as to how to become a black belt, like at most karate and judo schools. Neither Alysha, nor anyone else, gets a lot of recognition in 'Palace Hand' because it's still so secretive. There's no showmanship to it, no competitions, like tae kwon do in the Olympics.
“Here, it's low-key. You come in, do your work, learn and leave. You don't do this to impress an audience; you do it for your own personal satisfaction. Alysha didn't learn this right away. I judge her by her actions every time I see her. I may see her in a grocery store, and I'll ask, 'What kind of person are you?'
“You don't want someone who can put on a show, but someone who lives the right way; look at Alysha,” he continued, pointing toward his prized student. “She's fit, humble, dedicated, respectful and she knows how to work hard for something she believes in. She has power in her softness, and that's pure Palace Hand. It's very powerful, and it comes from skill, timing and a calm demeanor.
“This is all about controlling your character and emotion, being aware of your surroundings and your own self. This is silent. Ideally, there's no sound. We want to move like a shadow, give no information while gathering information, be prepared but look unprepared.”
When asked if she would pursue greater achievements in this discipline, Acevedo instantly said, “Yes, I will. I want to know what happens next.
“I've always figured that martial arts, especially 'Palace Hand,' is like reading a mystery novel. You never know what's going to happen next. As you read, you think something's going to happen, and then, Bam! There's a twist, and you think, 'Boy, was I wrong!'
“This is really important to me,” she continued. “With this second-degree black belt, I'm now more responsible. It's also a new step of responsibility. It's not like doing homework, or taking the dog out for a walk. Now I have to stand up for what I am, and that's 'Nidan.' With it comes more responsibility, and now I feel more determined to reach any goal I have. I feel so much more confident.”
Branchaud just smiled.
“When it comes to special, Alysha's way up there,” he said, looking into his student's eyes. “We've been through a lot together. With her, I don't hold anything back. I'm not saving any techniques. All I can do is present to her concepts, and see if she understands them. After understanding, you practice and practice some more.
“When you achieve 'Shodan,' it means you've accomplished a basic understanding of a style. In America, it's sold as a goal. In some schools, earning a black belt is celebrated at a graduation. In this, shodan is an entry into a more skillful and refined practice, not the end. 'Nidan' means you're traveling that path.
“Most people in martial arts don't even get to the entrance, and Alysha's traveling the path. She's worked so hard, and she's so deserving. We're all so proud of her.”

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