A friend asked me to look around town for martial arts programs for his daughter. This is the result. Please understand that I haven’t been to most of these schools or seen them in action. These are mostly my judgments on what I found on websites. My judgment is based on the twenty-five years I spent actively training in the martial arts. That training was pretty extensive, as I was lucky enough to encounter a lot of wonderful instructors. I earned black belt rank in taekwondo, hapkido, and iaido. I trained in taijiquan, silat, capoeira, t’aeggyeon, judo, Small Circle Jujitsu, fencing, and aikido. I had a passing acquaintance with spring-leg gongfu, Wing Chun, boxing, and wrestling. I even wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on the history of the martial arts. So I saw a lot more than most people. But again, all of this is just my opinion.
I’ve ignored karate, kempo, and taekwondo schools. They are great for getting into shape but may do air kicks (bad for the joints) or teach a lot of forms (not great for fighting). I should mention that I’m a 4th dan in tkd myself and ran a tkd for kids program for 20 years. It is still going 15 years later, now run by one of my students. The best things karate or tkd teach is movement, distance control, and effective kicks. Character is something you learn from your instructor, not from an art. Look at the instructor and trust your gut when it comes to judging character. But karate, tkd, or kempo would not be my first choice for kids.
Just so you can get a flavor for how I pick schools, let me give you an example of schools around Concord:
Concord Self-Defense Academy (http://www.concordselfdefense.com/): Classes are taught at the Wellness Center at the Hospital! The style is International Seirenkai (Karate & Jujutsu) and the mat space is not as good as the judo schools. They are using mats with loose surfaces, which can catch toes and twist knees, and in one photo an instructor is showing either throwing someone on hardwood (doable, but not smart) or uchikomi-ing them over it. The style is one that is very typical of the combination karate/jujutsu or taekwondo/hapkido schools around the U.S. I know, I trained in those for years. But if one is around Boston, one can do so much better.
PS: I’ve gotten a couple emails from students at the Academy since I posted this, including a request I take the review down. Nobody has seen fit to comment publicly to this post, though I certainly would if it was my academy. So let me make it clear that I’m not saying these are bad folks, or that they are teaching poor technique. After all, I did this sort of style for about twenty years! And I haven’t been to their academy. But I have done martial arts for a long time, and frankly, Boston has a number of excellent schools. Most students pick a school that’s close to their home, and if that is you, and this one is close, this one seems fine. I didn’t see any big danger signs from their webpage. But if it were my kid, I would go to one of these other places, for the reasons I give below. Just sayin’.
Marx Fencing Academy (http://marxfencingacademy.com/about-us/about-mfa/): I would send kids here rather than the one above. There’s not a lot of fencing academies around, the art is aerobic and teaches skills that are applicable in self-defense, if indirectly. And you get to poke people with a foil, which is fun.
Wah Lum Kung Fu of Concord (http://www.wahlumconcord.com/): This is Praying Mantis style gongfu. It looks pretty whack at first glance — lots of weird forms and flashy weapons — and normally the kind of thing I would run from, but these folks are the real deal. Wah Lum Kung Fu has been in Boston for quite a while under the tutelage of Pui Chan, and while I don’t agree with everything the style does, it is a truly traditional Chinese art (rare in the U.S.), with an authentic lineage (even rarer!), and a depth of instruction. You only find this sort of place near a city with a Chinatown. The style has a lot of the same problems as the karate schools (air kicking, forms, etc.), but the cultural richness would outweigh that for me. Even better, some of these schools teach Lion Dance (very rare in the U.S.), and if this one in Concord did that, I’d sign my kid up in a second. There are photos of Lion Dancers up on their site, but they are from the Chinatown celebration of Pui Chan’s career about five years ago (I went, and learned a lot about the local schools that way), so I’m not sure if this school actually does them. The main school is on Edinboro Street in Boston (http://www.wahlumpai.us/).
My first choice for kids is a jūdō school that emphasizes “mutual benefit and welfare.” Judo was originally designed as a means of physical education, and because of that there is a better chance of finding an instructor who takes care of his/her student and partners. There’s a lot of falling, so don’t choose if the child already has back problems. And avoid schools that emphasize competition, as the number of student injuries will be higher. There’s a Sambo school in Woburn (http://sambo7.com/), which is a Russian art based on judo. I don’t know anything about the school but Sambo schools tend to be more aggressive than judo schools, with less depth of instruction, so for kids I would avoid them.
Newton Judo Club (http://www.newtonjudo.com/): This one looks good. The cost is $25 per month for kids, which indicates that this may be run by older judoka who still believe in judo as largely an amateur practice (in the best sense of the word) that is run for community benefit after one’s “real” job. Looks like a small group (might be better if there were more students). They roll on Swain mats set on a basketball floor, which is a little hard. It would be better if there was a suspended floor designed for falling. I can’t find much on the instructors, but Bullshido (http://www.bullshido.net/forums/showthread.php?t=63031) only says good things.
Tohoku Judo Club (https://sites.google.com/a/tohokujudo.org/tohoku-judo-club/Home): It is run by Clark Edson (6th dan) and has several Japanese instructors (a good sign). They have a dedicated mat space with extra padding on the walls in case people get thrown there, which is great. It looks like a large school with a lot of depth of instruction. The cost is $35 per month for kids.
Pedro’s Judo (http://pedrosjudo.com/about-us): This Wakefield school looks to be the best competitive dojo in the area. The staff seem to be very qualified and the website demonstrates a good attitude. It is competitive, so I wouldn’t put my kid there, but if your child likes competition, these folks will get you where you want to go, and probably do it safely to boot.
Boston Judo Club (https://sites.google.com/site/bostonjudo/): This is a downtown competitive judo school with 3,000 square foot of dedicated mat space. Looks good, though I’d probably choose Pedro’s over them.
Around Boston, there is a wealth of Chinese martial arts, something that one doesn’t find elsewhere. That’s probably where I would send my child, just so they could experience something that is hard to find in the U.S.
Bow Sim Mark Tai Chi Arts Organization (http://www.taichi-arts.com/): Another fantastic resource. Bow Sim Mark was a wushu champion before she came to the States in 1976. She knows her stuff, and her son Donnie Yen (http://www.taichi-arts.com/article/donnie-yen/) is a martial arts movie star. Her students all perform the form identically, which I actually don’t like. If one has a different body type, I think the form should be modified, and watching a bunch of guys do exactly what a small woman is doing does not seem right to me. Shows too much instructor control for my taste, but she is a world expert, without a doubt, and one could do a lot worse than learn from her.
Wing Chun Kung Fu Academy (http://www.wckfa.com/): Wing Chun is a great system for close range boxing, as long as one has the strength to back it up. Expect to see muscular instructors. They concentrate on penetrating one’s defense and striking and do it well, but they don’t tend to move a lot and when one encounters weapons, that can be a problem. I don’t know anything about this Chinatown school though. If you are a strong guy who wants a good workout, this will do it for you.
Yang’s Martial Arts Association (http://www.ymaaboston.com/): Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming is an internationally known instructor and author, and has a lot to give. He teaches Shaolin wushu, which I don’t like much. It is a lot like the karate arts, and since the mainland Chinese killed or imprisoned most gongfu insturctors in the 1950s, I feel that the modern wushu does not have a legitimate lineage. That’s why I prefer the Wah Lum folks, because that is gongfu that came to the States before it got wiped out in mainland China. I much prefer Yang’s Chin-na, but that is more for adults than for kids.
Other schools of interest around Boston (but not necessarily ones for kids) include:
Capoeira Gerais Boston (http://capoeirageraisboston.com/): Capoeira is a very athletic art. If you are looking for something gymnastic, this is it. There’s a lot of handstands and flips, lots of kicking, and normally no punching. This group looks small but capoeira can be fun and it is hard to find in the States.
Castoldi’s Jujitsu (http://www.castoldijujitsu.com/): Dave’s dad Al brought jujitsu to New England around 1945, so the lineage is excellent. Ed Melaugh also runs a school around town. Small Circle Jujutsu schools are not Brazilian Jujutsu (BJJ). Instead, they teach an American style of standing jujutsu, and were originally linked to Hawaiian jujutsu and judo. I’m sure they train on the ground as well; most people do these days. I trained with Wally Jay and those guys for about 4 years, and I like a lot of what they do, but the Boston guys tend to be rougher and better for adults. Watch out for finger locks, because dislocations on small joints like that are easy to get. I saw several of these in training. I dislocated fingers on two guys myself, so I moved away from that sort of training. If you are an adult looking for self-defense effective training, this is a good place for you, but I probably wouldn’t send my kids.
Martial Arts Research Institute (http://www.combatkalisilat.com/): This downtown Boston school teaches Pencak Silat, an Indonesian art. I don’t know anything about the instructors, but Silat is a fun art for adults and they trained in Harimau, which is a blast. If you want to learn Filipino knife and stick, they do that too.
There is a LOT in the area I didn’t mention. That means I wouldn’t bother with them. They might be fine, but they don’t shine as much as the ones I did mention. There’s only two groups that I would actively warn people away from.
Oom Yung Doe: The one website I went to was dead, and I haven’t seen the local instructors, but this group has a legendarily bad reputation. They are known for cultish behavior and poor technique, so my advice would be to avoid them at all costs! See Bullshido (http://www.bullshido.net/forums/showthread.php?t=13572) if you want more details.
Anything with the name Elite, Premier, or Cadre in the name: This sort of marketing indicates arrogance at least and too much control over students at worst. If they offer free uniforms, require long-term student contracts, and have flashy web pages, run. There are a lot of commercial schools that look like this, and seem very professional, but a lot of their effort is going into marketing their school and that is the wrong attitude for a martial artist, in my view. I had a friend who ran his school this way, one of the guys I tested with as a matter of fact. He made a lot of money off of it but alienated a lot of his instructors by not treating them right. He’s now facing several felony charges for fraud (from his real estate business, not the martial arts). You need to be able to trust the school where you leave your kid, and these schools are not always ones you can trust, unfortunately. There are some (I’m thinking of another friend now) but the percentage is not good.