“There are many ways up the mountain.” That’s one way in which Fighting Spirit Karate Studio founder Sean Schenker expresses his teaching philosophy. “It’s important to approach martial arts with an open mind and an open heart.” Now his school, based for more than six years in the Cherry Hill Plaza, has found a new route up the mountain: Beginning June 17, it will relocate to 19 Osprey Lane in Gardiner. The new venue will permit about 2,000 square feet of mat space, as opposed to only about 650 square feet in Cherry Hill, allowing for the expansion of programs and enrollment.
Schenker doesn’t seem worried about his client base keeping up with the growth of Fighting Spirit’s physical location. Many of his very young students followed him from the Little Gym in Kingston, where he had taught for about five years prior to opening his own school in New Paltz. Some of those kids who started learning from Schenker as early as age three are “elders” now, and are even helping out with renovations of the cavernous new space in the Gardiner industrial park. “I’ve got an army of ninjas now in my adult students,” he says. “We’re building a temple together.”
The New Paltz native, familiar to many locals as a guitarist whose current band the Trapps has made something of a national name for itself, has been studying martial arts since the age of five. “I grew up in a very strict Japanese style,” he says, called Midori Yama Budokai Junari karate, where Schenker holds the rank of Yodan Fourth Degree Black Belt. Later he went on to explore other martial arts styles, and his school’s faculty reflects an appreciation that many different traditions have much to offer. “A lot of schools are very linear in their thinking… I take a wider-range view of martial arts. The threads of what makes martial arts exciting and fun and humbling are all connected. It took me 20 years to realize that a lot of the principles are the same.”
Although karate is the “backbone” of Fighting Spirit’s curriculum, Schenker’s staff can boast intensive backgrounds in many different styles. Among the other martial arts from around the globe that they are qualified to teach are Brazilian judo, muay Thai kickboxing and the Israeli military style called krav maga. “We’re not a cookie-cutter program,” he says. “What works for one student doesn’t necessarily work for another. We’re here to help them discover their path.”
Schenker’s eclectic approach has proven very popular, with the school in Cherry Hill fully subscribed almost from the get-go. “We were a very large dojo in a very small space, serving hundreds of families,” he says. “Since the time we opened, by the end of the first year, we were close to capacity and looking for a bigger space. But nothing became available.” Now, not only do the numbers of students stress the capacity, but the individuals take up more space as well. “Now that they’re teenagers, their emotional and physical presence has become a lot bigger,” he says of his longtime acolytes.
Shidoshi Sean waxes rhapsodic as he describes the many welcome amenities that the new site will provide, in addition to room for expansion. “There will be a parenting area and coffee lounge,” he says, “and a viewing deck that looks down over the dojo.” One “high-ranking student” has sculpted a 16-foot-tall three-dimensional rendering of Fighting Spirit’s turtle logo, which will be mounted against a wall in the new facility. Adding to the venue’s appeal for many parents, doubtless, will be the fact that it’s situated “a couple of doors down from Yard Owl,” the craft brewery on Osprey Lane.
The Cherry Hill location of Fighting Spirit will close its doors on Wednesday, June 14. The Grand Opening of the new Gardiner site takes place on Saturday, June 17, with a ribbon-cutting at 11 a.m. From noon to 3 p.m., would-be students can get a taste of what classes are like via a series of participatory seminars demonstrating different martial arts styles. Celebrity guests for the day will include a couple of the Gracie Brothers, superstars of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, according to Schenker. Admission that day is free, so it’s a great opportunity to try out a few techniques and find out which suits you best.
To find out more about Fighting Spirit Karate Studio’s upcoming schedule, including a special Youth Summer Camp in late August, call (845) 926-5009 or visit www.fightingspiritstudio.com or www.facebook.com/pg/fightingspiritkaratestudio.