Just over three years ago when we opened Urban Kempo, we began with a small group of families and some adults, most of whom followed me over from Old Town, Alexandria, a neighborhood that will most likely harbor our 2nd Urban Kempo location, one sweet day.
In keeping together throughout a very long year of discovering, negotiating and building out our home in Clarendon, we looked to various locations and contrived numerous social activities in efforts to keep our community close and our relationships strong. After all, time and space are imminent adversaries of longevity, a goal that we remain resolved to live out.
These activities ranged from BBQ’s and dinners at some of our homes to lunches at some of our client-owned restaurants (shout out to Old Town’s Rustico). Most notable, however, were our Kempo Camping events where we’d set up shop for a couple of nights, play games with the kids during the day and roast marshmallows at night. Kempo Camping not only served as a way for the kids to maintain ties with their dojo buddies and also their sensei, but it offered the adults a forum in which to share long, meaningful, and sometimes personal conversations with each other for hours under the stars and over a few beverages. What started as a group effort to save a dojo community began evolving into a close network of friendships
To an outsider it may not have been as apparent (and perhaps even to us who were caught up in the emotional moments of a recently fractured dojo community), but these events, spaces, contexts and interactions that characterized those moments symbolized a shift away from the conventional dojo paradigm towards something very different. By spending time together in the privacy of homes and other spaces traditionally reserved for exclusive friends and family gatherings, we began grafting new social spaces and their relative ways of interacting onto conventional teacher/student ones. The product became our Urban Kempo, a school with such close knit ties that one sometimes wonders at the end of the day what the ultimate product of the school really is.
(Clearly, the art of Kempo is one of them, and I stand behind my accomplishments within the industry, my skill as an instructor and practitioner, and also my direct lineage through Grandmaster Taylor, to defend any criticism along that line. But due to my nature as a people person, our unique history as a community, and the martial art’s ability to effect so many amazing ends, I tend to see a martial arts “product” as something relative to each student, and as different than most people within the industry see it—something more dynamic and more valuable than a mere ability to punch and kick, stand still for a prolonged period of time, or recite the principles of a certain dojo.)
For us it seemed difficult to separate simple notions of karate from business, and business from relationships, relationships from feelings, and in the end it became clearer and clearer as the Urban Kempo support system proved more extensive, more reliable, more genuine, and more stable, that I was not only entering into a brand new business venture, but that we were developing a new kind of family structure as evidenced by the time we were spending together, the places in which we spent that time, how we came to think about and prioritize each other, and of course, the sacrifices that enabled all of this. If actions reflect the nature of a reality, then wouldn’t all of this suggest that Urban Kempo was becoming something slightly different than a mere karate school? And that our roles in each other’s lives were more substantial than mere client/service provider relationships?
Here is where my perspective on KempoKats becomes relevant.
KempoKats is MY turn to invite MY family into MY home, and break it in without the belts and uniforms that mark it solely as a space for practicing discipline and respect for authority. KempoKats is a chance for the kids to come together in a space that very much feels like it belongs to them, while also being recognized by them as a space that they are in many ways forbidden to be “children” in, and work out some of those tensions. If you knew what I knew and have seen what I’ve seen (and parents, I know a lot of you can relate), then you’d see the children constantly struggling between their instincts as children to play within a space that feels so much like home, and a potent awareness that they are in a place that enforces strict principles such as discipline, self-control and respect for authority. It is a beautiful struggle that the children endure. And I’m so happy to have provided the battleground for it!!
I am actually OK, even as a karate teacher, to see the children relax a little bit too much, hang around the dojo a little bit too long, and maybe have just a little bit too much fun inside of our space. It is primarily my presence in the dojo that makes it so challenging for them. After all, they’ve enjoyed time with me, their sensei, in their living rooms, basements, dinner tables, backyards, restaurants, parks and even on vacations. I have known some of these children by name even before they were born! And at the same time, they know me first and foremost as Sensei, a figure that commands respect and one that they strive to impress. They have a hard time distinguishing my role in their lives at many junctures, and at many junctures mine theirs. But don't some of these tensions resemble those that they encounter at school, at other people's homes and indeed at home? I have an immense amount of empathy for these children, and a very deep compassion for them.
We just held our largest KempoKats to date. Being raised on Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, R2 and Darth Vader, I was stoked to screen Star Wars Episode 7, precede the movie with games and pizza (and Sugar Shack doughnuts thanks to Janice!), and give the kids a space to develop their own childhood memories, establish new affinities, and contribute notions and feelings that will one day become nostalgic for them. All of this made possible by a network of families that came together during the Spring of 2012 with the common goal of keeping me involved in their children’s lives. How humbling is that?
I know that we are not the first dojo to have kids nights, but I am asserting that we stand unique amongst dojos in that our Urban Kempo kids nights radiate a much more special vibe--no biases here!
I’ve repeated this saying many times and I’m going to do it again here, “birds of a feather flock together.” The tone that we set and the vibe that permeates our dojo has not remained exclusive to that small group, as families with similar ideals and values conducive ours have established their auras all throughout the dojo. You’ll notice in our logo the silhouettes of a parent and a baby leopard, placed to symbolize the family dynamic of our dojo. I hope that the next time you find yourself sitting in the dojo, you are able to visualize yourself and your child in that picture, which was designed for us by our own Ronald Aikens—Urban Kempo’s only black belt and father of two our junior green belts.
In conclusion, I suppose I’m making the point here that Urban Kempo is not merely a karate school. It is a home. Dojo traditionally means “school” and sensei the “teacher” within a dojo. But I’ll be darned if that is all I am to these children and to many of my adults. And I’ll be livid should our dojo be described as a mere school. We are something different than that. But we already know that of course!
So there is my perspective on KempoKats. I hope to see you all at our next get-together. You know you’re invited!!