Fitness buffs get a kick out of martial-arts fusion

The Baltimore Sun

Disco Dojo sounds more like an exotic recipe than a fitness class blending "a medley of martial arts with dance for the ultimate cardio workout." This, according to a fitness convention brochure, is "where ninja meets funk, tae kwon do meets salsa, and kickboxing meets jazz." First there was cardio fusion. Then spinning fusion and yoga fusion. Now meet martial-arts fusion.

Sparked by a growing infatuation with mixed martial arts (featuring different fighting styles) competitions and a desire for more athletically challenging classes, fitness instructors are blending traditional fighting moves with aerobic routines, dance steps -- even yoga.

The lure of finessing a roundhouse kick or reverse punch is apparently hard to deny.

"The younger generation coming into fitness," says Kathie Davis, executive director of San Diego-based IDEA Health & Fitness Association, "is the one more interested in other things," such as the mentally and physically demanding martial arts.

Disco Dojo, taught at the Well Spirit Fitness Center at the Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs, Calif., may seem like a fruity cocktail of moves, but it's not for cardio lightweights. Scott Cole, a California fitness instructor who developed the class about six months ago and will teach it at IDEA's World Fitness Convention in San Diego this week, shows students how to bob and weave, throw diagonal punches, kick from hip-level and do spinning kicks.

While almost all cardio classes require some degree of focus and control, the martial arts demand even more. Correct body placement and core strength are imperative. Cole called upon his dance training and more than 10 years of martial arts study to create Disco Dojo, believing that "not that much separates dance and martial arts skills. A great dancer has to be centered and able to move without hurting themselves -- same with the martial artist."

The physical benefits of martial arts moves can be tremendous, says Dr. Joseph Estwanik, a North Carolina-based sports medicine physician and a member of the American College of Sports Medicine's task force on boxing and the martial arts. The entire body moves in a 360-degree range of motion, requiring what he calls "functional coordination."

"You have to have the finesse, timing and proper sequence of muscles firing," he says, to conjure those offensive and defensive moves.

Action films with elaborately choreographed fights have boosted the appeal of the classes.

"The martial arts are cool. Some people are excited about the idea that they're going to be acting or living out what they've seen in the movies or TV," says Cameron Shayne, the founder of Budokon, which blends elements of yoga and martial arts. Of course, some instructors have only a nodding acquaintance with karate, kung fu or Jiu-Jitsu.

That doesn't sit well with Jake Lease, administrative director of USA National Karate-Do Federation in West Virginia. He says he's seen his share of fusion-class veterans with hyper-extended joints and strained muscles. "People are not learning how to kick; they're just getting their heart rate up and moving," he says.

He also worries that students may think they can defend themselves. "You're not getting a full-on, realistic self-defense course," he says.

And martial arts philosophies and values -- so much a part of the disciplines -- are often lost in the aerobics realm.

But going the fusion way has been beneficial for Brenda Curreri, who has been taking Cole's martial arts-infused classes.

"When I first started throwing punches, I looked at myself and laughed," says the 59-year-old teacher from Palm Springs. "I thought I looked like such a wuss. Now my form is better, and my understanding of it is better.

"It's absolutely a good catharsis," she adds. "I look forward to the hard work."

Jeannine Stein writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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