By Anna Gaskell Observer Staff Writer The group of black-robed students look like they”re going through the paces of a fierce and noble dance. But any time someone moves too slowly or ” worse – looks like they”re not concentrating: time for push ups! Twenty, at least. And on your knuckles too, if you can. Karate isn’t for the weak-willed. You don’t have to watch a Jackie Chan movie to know that. Every syllable, Ka-Ra-Te, seems to punch out at you. But I”m about to learn that this martial art is less about fighting than Mr. Chan made us think. Although it’s every bit as cool as he made it look. The art was first developed in Egypt. But it was really popularised in Okinawa, a large group of islands off Japan. And now, here it is, in an old school building just off Hanley’s Road in Nevis. In the old stone school house, Sensei Vincent Maynard and Sensei Richie Lupinacci are instructing the students. They range in age from the under 10 to the over 40. There is a black flurry of synchronised movement each time one of the Senseis calls out. Dr. Robert George, who’s testing for his black belt in January, tells me that karate groups elsewhere usually have separate classes for different age-groups and skill levels. But, he says, “The best way to teach is by example.” So the young ones on Nevis are lucky; they get to see the skill they”re aiming for. These young ones were a little nervous in class last week; juniors” belt testing was held over the weekend. Sensei Vincent advised them: “If you are not paying attention, the instructors will know, and your parents will know. You have to stay focused.” I heard on Monday that they were all brilliant. Three hours is a long time for anyone to stay focused. This year over 70 people are being tested to see if they can advance to the next level and to a new belt, each hoping to get a little closer to that much-desired black belt. Three of Sensei Vincent’s students will be aiming for that black belt in January. The classes have become so popular that there is talk of the need for a school in the Newcastle area too, for those who can’t fit in the Hanley’s Road or Bath Village classes. But 10 years ago, when Sensei Vincent faced his first Nevisian class, there were just twelve students, all of them beginners. They met upstairs at the place that used to be Crony’s. In 1998, people knew just a little about karate, mainly from the movies and from a Peace Corps volunteer who had set up a school when he was in Nevis. The school didn’t last without him. People reverted back to their old assumptions about karate, one of which still lasts in many people’s minds:” it is all about fighting. Dr. George can’t understand it. The idea that people train in karate because they actually want to fight is totally absurd to him. He says, “If I was in a real fight I”d be pelting chairs or something” why would I use karate?” Karate is a “physical and mental discipline” he says. All sports come from martial arts, he explains, and therefore from military practice, from war. Karate hasn’t been broken down like most sports to just focus on one or two strengths; it focuses on the whole body and the whole mind. “It embodies an Eastern understanding of the body and health”, says Dr. George. Karate is not dangerous: Dr. George says he’s seen many more injuries in other sports.” Sensei Vincent tells me that in his 10 years as a karate instructor on Nevis, he’s only seen one injury: a girl scraped the sole of her foot on the ground while going through a karate sequence. Sensei Vincent regrets that people think karate is violent. He thinks this association might prevent the Education Board from putting karate into the schools” curriculum in Nevis. He thinks this is a misinterpretation of karate, and it’s sad because he says he’s seen first-hand proof that karate can ‘turn a school around.”” He taught at a school in Fort Lauderdale and saw grades go up, as students” motivation and concentration improved. “It gave me great joy to see that happen,” he says. Many of the younger students” parents also tell me about the benefits of karate. After all, this is a commitment for them too, sitting through the duration of the class while their children learn. But they willingly give up their time. One mother told me: “I would encourage all of my friends who have sons to send them to karate.” It seems that, according to her, her sons” behaviour at home and at school improved dramatically once they got into karate. She points out her two boys to me, and I can see the concentration in their eyes as they move their limbs in time with instructions from Sensei Vincent. Karate must have a reputation among some people for doing good; even the Police have turned to Sensei Vincent for help with ‘troubled” kids. The hope is that both the discipline and the self-confidence gained in having a new skill will persuade these youths to take a different attitude to life. Sensei Vincent admits that some of the kids sent to him by the Police are unwilling or unable to change their attitudes. “You can make them do all the push ups you like, but once they leave this room they”re doing their own thing again anyway. But we don’t give up on them, we just keep trying. The worst thing for them would be to quit.” Karate class teaches more than just kicks and strikes and “katas”, the sequences of moves. It teaches something that many people have given up on altogether: courtesy. Sensei Vincent asks me: “You know who the first people we teach the kids to give respect to are?” And he answers, “Their parents. And then adults and friends.” I see it in the class: everyone clearly respects the Senseis. I mean, they don’t even resent the push ups. There is none of the usual back chat. According to Dr. George, another wonderful thing about karate is that you can do it all your life. You can be great at football until you reach a certain age, and then you burn out. Dr. George started karate because he saw it is something “more permanent than the usual sports around you.” Something he could keep up as long as he stayed healthy. That will be a long time for Dr. George: he’s a surgeon so he knows a lot about being healthy. It’s nearing the end of class, and it’s time for the one-on-one combats. Everyone moves to the side of the room to watch, as two of students are called up to ‘spar” against each other. Everyone laughs and cheers as a very little white belt boy shows that he is fierce and determined; his green belt opponent keeps walking backwards, just trying to block him and his fast-moving arms. Then it is another couple’s turn, and another’s. All in good humour, the other students cheer as if they were watching world-famous boxers in the ring. The class ends on this high note; it’s time for everyone to go home. But they”ll all be back tomorrow. For more katas, more sparring, and yes, maybe a few more push ups.
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