How it Started

If you’ve been to our website or hung out in the dojo long enough, you’ve probably seen pictures of our students practicing in parks and basements, and heard stories about how and where it started…


Urban Kempo was born in a park—Iwo Jima Memorial Park.  Actually it was born in the halls of another dojo. But like all businesses, that particular dojo had a certain vision that it sought to put forth.  The culture that was being cultivated under myself, then the chief instructor of Potomac Kempo’s Old Town branch, was different in some large respects, and many conversations were held in attempts to reconcile the two contrasting visions.  In the absence of a compromise, a split was inevitable and in the winter of 2011 I explained to the management that I would eventually be leaving to pursue my vision as a martial arts instructor.  In April 2012 the evolution of “Urban Kempo” began with what was at the time a $0 budget, no office or dojo from which to spearhead operations, and some legal restrictions that inhibited us immensely.  What we did have was a leader, a vision, and a strong, dedicated and loyal group of students and parents that came together to ensure that the relationships they’d been nurturing over the years endured.

Lacking the traditional “dojo” in which to practice, we created dojos out of unorthodox venues.  For twelve months—from April 2, 2012 until late March 2013—we held lessons in parks, basements, backyards, family rooms, and even Skype.  Our traditional Japanese inspired uniforms characterized by patched jackets wrapped in colored belts and bare feet, morphed into contemporary western garb.  For kids this meant Spiderman shoes, Batman and Hello Kitty tee shirts, and jeans (given our budget the time, we used trees for kick shields and stuffed animals for medicine balls!).  Adults showed up in Lululemon, Under Armour, and the occasional (when permitted) New England Patriots paraphernalia.  For me, it meant either basketball shorts or jeans, a tee or sweatshirt, and a black belt hanging around my neck, accompanied by a whistle.  Indeed, for a time I took on the identity of “Coach Sensei.”  

Especially for the kids, it was important for them to understand that although I wasn’t dressed in my uniform that they’d identified me by since day one (which to a child elevates their sensei to near superhero status), I was still their “sensei”.  To keep it fun for them I’d occasionally change my identity—“Detective Sensei”, “Surfing Sensei”, and “Snowboard Sensei” were some of their favorites.  On occasion I’d have them vote on the cooler identity, and this led to some serious debates (its amazing how articulate kids can be when their minds are applied).  On a serious note, these kids had been taken out of their routine and that was tough.  These little ones deserve much credit for having stuck it out for so long.  It’s a testament to their many outstanding qualities, so many of which we tend to reserve for adults.  Perseverance is one that comes to mind for me, albeit there are many others.  The little ones didn’t lose their way amidst a dispersion of locations, distracting backdrops (especially ones littered with a plethora of new toys) and less face time with their sensei.  It’s challenging enough for a teacher to maintain children’s focus and motivation even with a stable routine.  Yet they persisted diligently to my call to “line up”, they answered my questions with the enthusiastic “yes sir!” and they competed to impress me.  This I would not have predicted.  And yes, I lost a lot of sleep thinking about these little guys and praying for the Urban Kempo operation to come together sooner than later.

In fact everyone had been forced to alter their routines.  Parents that had become accustomed to walking their children down the streets of Old Town to their lessons began driving to various locations, often changing at a dimes notice.  Adult professionals who were used to arriving from work, grabbing a bite to eat and heading to class, found themselves driving to Iwo Jima Park after work or on Saturday mornings.  For me, it meant that rather than being in one location, with one landline and one email address from which to balance a schedule of hundreds, communicating via cell, text, Facebook, and from multiple email addresses.  Often times we ended up at different locations, sometimes we simply coordinated the wrong day.  Sometimes I straight up, simply just messed up (apologies).  But the point is that all of us had to change our entire lives in order for Urban Kempo to exist.   This persisted for 12 months, and while we did lose some folks who began to doubt weather we’d actually materialize into a legitimate dojo, enough of us maintained to weather the storm.

Urban Kempo recently celebrated its 1-year anniversary.  Its logo, colors, design, location and most of all personality has been created and defined by our collectiveness.  Kempo has been my breath and life for years.  My entire world of martial arts—the forms, techniques, discipline, sparring, sweat, jokes, routine, mistakes, accomplishments, nicknames, and most of all PEOPLE—has been restored as a result of the perseverance of community.  The lessons at the park with the sun setting behind the Iwo Jima Memorial…the smiles and giggles emanating from little chubby cheeked faces…Saturday morning workouts with the adults…images of parents bundling up in blankets outside in the cold…dinner tables that I probably never would have been a guest at had it not been for the hiatus…”Kempo Camping” trips… hearing the word sensei helped me remember that just because I wasn’t in a dojo didn’t mean that I wasn’t still a sensei.  And just because we didn’t have a dojo did not imply that we did not consist of one.  Contrarily, looking back, it implied a very strong and tenacious one. I’m proud to be identified with this group, and hold a warm heart when reminiscing over our history together.  I can say without bending the truth, that we built Urban Kempo from scratch!

Clarendon is no easy place to land commercial real estate and this is especially true for fledging entrepreneurs in the martial arts industry!  But it was worth the headaches, the wait and the uncertainty. Arlington, you couldn’t have treated us better!  You took a nomadic and somewhat estranged group, welcomed us into your neighborhood and gave us your stamp of approval.  Your participation has shaped our collective character in extraordinary ways, materializing my vision in unprecedented fashion.  As was Urban Kempo’s year between parks and basements a huge challenge, our first year in the dojo was no walk in the park (no pun intended).  Lacking a mentor in the business world, and bare of a martial arts lineage for the first time in my career, I struggled hard and fell flat on my face many times.  Indeed, my human side had been exposed.  Your patience and belief in Urban Kempo is remarkable and my gratitude toward you immeasurable.  If you could understand how great it feels to be able to put uniforms on these kids and give them a structured environment in which to study, as opposed feeling responsible for them having to adapt sporadically and adjust to various places and backdrops, you’d know just how much all of this means to me.  Its way more than a business.

Huge thanks to all who have participated in and/or supported Urban Kempo.  From some of you support came in the form of following me around for classes, while for others it meant reassuring phone calls and emails from across distances and oceans.  If anything comes out of our endeavors over the course of the next few decades, my hope that we can redefine the DC martial arts landscape in a way that emphasizes community, loyalty and love for the art and one and other.  If the foundation of Urban Kempo is any indication, I think we’re well on our way to doing that.


Sensei Mike