2012-03-09 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

My wife says that getting old’s a good thing – “better than the alternative,” she likes to say – and I guess I hear that. But I can’t help wishing there were better alternatives than that. That’s why I recently started exercising, doing martial arts again after laying off for some 30 years – and why I got The Wave’s editor to okay a series about it for this paper.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “martial arts” refers to the various selfdefense/ combat systems developed in certain Asian cultures which have taken root here over the years. Jujitsu, judo and karate are almost as familiar to many of us today as boxing or wrestling – except that they carry a mystique their more prosaic Western cousins lack.

They’re typically associated with various hoary Asian traditions like wearing special uniforms (the ubiquitous “gi”), lots of bowing, and the use of different colored belts to signify rank. Rockaway, it turns out, boasts two classical martial arts schools of this sort on the west end and I stopped by both recently to talk.

World Champion Karate, on Beach Channel Drive just across the street from the Waldbaum’s Shopping Center, has been in Belle Harbor and Rockaway Park for about 40 years. Run by a retired schoolteacher, Sensei Bruce Hodes, the dojo offers training in the classical Japanese Shotokan style. I dropped in on a recent evening to watch a few classes.

Shotokan’s a “hard” style of karate, training its practitioners to develop power by constant repetitions of blocks, strikes and kicks to strengthen their limbs and develop fast, accurate technique. Like all karate styles, its main tools are the empty hand, augmented by powerful kicks. Training in classical Japanese and Okinawan weapons is also part of the curriculum. (Although rooted in Chinese kung fu, karate originally found its way to Japan via the island archipelago of Okinawa to its south.)

Sensei (it means teacher or instructor in Japanese) Bruce Hodes explains that he trained with the famous Ray Dalke, the most senior non-Japanese Shotokan instructor in the West in his day, a man who studied the art from Sensei Hidetaka Nishiyama, a direct student of the Okinawan master Gichin Funakoshi who first brought karate to Japan.

Hodes, himself, holds a seventh degree black belt (that’s high, in case you didn’t know!) and is currently chair of the Amateur Athletic Union/Metropolitan Division covering Long Island, the five boroughs and Westchester. Under its auspices, he organizes karate events in our area (with an upcoming tournament at Gateway’s Aviator Building just across the bridge in Brooklyn on April 29).

“Competition’s good for training,” he explains. “It helps students gauge their progress and gives them something to shoot for.”

The tournaments he runs are always carefully controlled. “I don’t want people getting hurt so everybody in our tournaments has to play by the same rules. That’s why our events are restricted to competitors from the classical Japanese systems – Shotokan, Shito Ryu, Goju Ryu and a few others. They all share the same standards.

We limit head kicks, for instance, in a way some styles don’t, and don’t allow full contact. It takes three points to win a match, the points being awarded for clean punches, kicks or other legal strikes by vote of the three judges on the floor.

The first person to get two points takes the match.” In styles like Shotokan, he goes on, “the emphasis is on finishing fights fast. The idea is to win by the first or second blow and not get drawn into a long, and possibly dangerous encounter, so three-point matches make sense.”

Sensei Hodes’ students are energetic and intense as he leads them on the dojo floor, a warm smile sometimes slipping past his fierce Shotokan mien as he exhorts them to greater effort. He and his wife, Carol, have been part of the Rockaway community for more than 40 years and live on the west end where he first began giving karate lessons in the ’60s.

“More and more people kept coming,” he says, “so pretty soon we had to get a real place. First we were using a neighbor’s basement and then we rented a place on Beach 129th. Maybe 15 years ago we finally got so big we needed something more and moved here to Beach Channel Drive.

Sensei Bruce trained his own daughter, Jamie, in those years and she went on to become a top national and international competitor, winning trophies in kumite (fighting), kata (fixed routines) and kobudo (weapons handling). For a number of years she was also his senior assistant instructor.

“There are 26 empty hand forms, or katas, in our style,” he continues, “plus weapons forms. Learning and effectively performing these provide a measure of a student’s progress and a basis for his or her advancement in rank.” It takes about four or five years, on average, to achieve the coveted black belt, he adds.

Over the years Sensei Hodes has trained hundreds of local kids and seen them off to college and careers, many coming back to let him know how they’ve done. “Some,” he says with a certain pride, “even choose their colleges on the basis of the availability of Shotokan. It can be a lifelong passion if you get the right type of training,” he adds. (Tell me about it!)

Although no longer young (like so many of us), Sensei Hodes can still kick with the best of ‘em – as he demonstrated several times for me during our talk. He also showed me some tai chi (a Chinese martial art which, unlike Shotokan, is done slowly and gently and is said to be especially good for the old codgers among us). Sensei Hodes teaches it to folks seeking its famed health benefits.

“A lot of changes have happened in the martial arts over the years,” he notes toward the end of our talk. “There’s been a proliferation of styles and new ones cropping up all the time. But Shotokan’s a proven system so there’s no reason to make changes! I teach it the classical way, the way I was taught and that’s what I want to pass along to my students – and hope some of them will some day pass on to theirs.”

We bow to each other (I haven’t forgotten my dojo protocol) and I head out.

A few blocks south, on the other side of the Waldbaum’s parking lot, along Rockaway Beach Boulevard, is Cadawan’s Martial Arts Center where local postman Lando Cadawan teaches Korean martial arts along with his native art of Philippine stick fighting (arnis).

Trained by the late Korean taekwondo master Pongke Kim, this sabonim (teacher/instructor in Korean) is a former tournament champ, himself, who’s been teaching taekwondo (Korean karate) and hapkido (which combines aikido locks and throws with kicking techniques) in Rockaway for 15 years.

Korean karate differs from the Japanese in its emphasis on looser, higher kicking and more athletic movements (jump kicks, spin kicks and so forth). The Koreans have also worked hard to make taekwondo their national sport and players wear protective gear (chest, arm and leg guards, plus head coverings) in both sparring practice and competition since they believe in making contact. “Korean stylists,” explains Sabonim Cadawan, “believe you can’t really know what it’s like to hit or be hit if you don’t experience it. The protective gear keeps our students safe.”

Sabonim Cadawan likes to kick high, himself, though he’s a short man – which may help explain his preference for the spinning and jumping kicks that characterize the Korean version of this art.

He also trained, in his youth, in White Crane kung fu which, like taekwondo, uses lots of long strikes. Although incorporating what he learned in kung fu as well as arnis and hapkido, Sabonim Cadawan builds his training mainly around taekwondo although he acknowledges that its sport-orientation may not always provide the best methods for dealing with attackers on the street.

“We like to compete,” he notes, “and many of my students go to various tournaments to test themselves against other taekwondo players but in the street, where the ground is uneven and other obstacles may trip you up when you’re on one leg, it’s sometimes better to keep both feet on the ground! High kicking’s very powerful if you’re really good and do it right,” he says, “but it’s not always your best option.

That’s why I teach my students to use the joint locking and throwing techniques of hapkido if they have to defend themselves in the street. You can always kick, if you still have to, after that.”

Does he see any other drawbacks to taekwondo’s high kicking approach? “Not at all,” he says. “If you learn to do really strong high kicks, it’s that much better because you can be sure your low kicks will deliver even more power.”

Sabonim Cadawan explains that he offers a range of classes, from modern taekwondo to kickboxing, to stick fighting and hapkido, all to ensure his students are well-rounded martial artists. A strong believer in the value of traditional training, he also insists on teaching the taekwondo forms.

“A lot of people dismiss forms practice,” he ac knowledges, “but I think it’s excellent exercise for conditioning. It also teaches you how to put the moves together in many different ways and ingrains them into your muscle memory so they become second nature. You need that in a fight so you can act instantaneously. ”

“Overall, taekwondo is an excellent way to stay in shape,” he concludes, “and great for your health generally. It’s also an Olympic sport so, if you train hard enough, who knows how far you can go?” And if it’s self-defense you’re after, he adds as I bow out, there’s nothing like a few good hapkido techniques to take the wind out of an assailant’s sails!

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