Black belts are ranked in degrees or dans, from first degree to ninth or tenth degree. Time in rank, time in the art, and skill requirements for earning each degree vary within the hundreds of martial art organizations. One organization may require more to earn a first degree than another organization requires for its higher degrees.
Black belt degrees are practically meaningless outside the organization that awarded them. A black belt within an organization is similar to being a star football player at your high school. At your school, you are a star with all the prestige and rewards that come with the designation. However, at other high schools, you are considered just another student; and, once you graduate, you are considered just another person, nothing special. You may brag about your high school football accomplishments and think people from other schools care, but they do not. Likewise, within your martial art organization you may be a highly respected high degree black belt, but, outside your organization, you are just another person claiming to be a black belt.
The following are generic descriptions of the black belt degrees. The responsibilities, accountability, and skill requirements of each will differ among the hundreds of martial art organizations.
- First Degree. First degree black belts are rookie black belts. They start out feeling proud and may be a bit boastful, but they quickly learn that with the rank comes greater responsibilities and accountability. Behaviors and poor skills that may have been tolerated at the color belt levels are no longer accepted. Many students consider this end of their journey; they have reached their goal so they stop training, and move on to other interests. Some students may be selected to begin training to become instructors and be allowed to assist instructors in classes.
- Second Degree. Second degree black belts lose their rookie status and begin to become real black belts. They crossed the black belt hump and are now on a new journey.
- Third Degree. Third degree black belts begin to become leaders in the school and find that first and second degree black belts look to them for guidance and directions. They begin to solidify their position in the school and become vital assets to the head instructor.
- Fourth Degree. Fourth degree black belts are permitted to teach lower rank black belts. They assist the head instructor in regional seminars, demonstrations, and other public functions at which the school and the art are represented. Their technical expertise should be noticeably above that of junior black belts, particularly in terms of speed, power, timing, and perfection of technique.
- Fifth Degree. Fifth degree black belts begin to teach the art beyond the realm of the school. They begin to develop national responsibilities within their organization.
- Sixth Degree. Sixth degree is usually when black belts enter the master levels. They are considered subject matter experts, after this point their growth is within the leadership and management of the organization. They begin to formulate national concepts and principles within their organization.
- Seventh Degree. As masters, seventh degree black belts are able to ascertain and develop changes in the national teaching curriculum to tailor it to persons, cultures, and agendas. They begin to teach and spread the art internationally.
- Eighth Degree. As masters, eighth degree black belts are senior black belts that are admired as true masters of the art.
- Ninth Degree. Ninth degree black belts are masters who have served a lifetime of dedication to the art. Their years of sacrifice and service to the art have made them an integral part of the art itself; they have internalized the art until they have actually become a part of it. They are a part of the senior leadership of the organization.
- Tenth Degree. Tenth degree black belt is sometimes awarded to the founder of a martial art or the head of the organization. Within an organization, their is usually only one active tenth degree; there may be others who have retired. The rank is so respected by peers and students that even a casual statement by a tenth degree may affect the course of the art and the organization for years to come.