Saugerties couple with Glasco dojo bonded through martial arts

John and Nancy Eccles (photo by Christina Coulter)

Ellie Leffler, a lithe pre-teen with wild curly brown hair, moves with poise and distinction beyond that of the typical 12-year-old. Running through a “kata” — a Japanese word for a choreographed series of blocks and offensive movements — her form is perfect and her mind, it appears, is blank or elsewhere. She exemplifies “mushin,” a Japanese word for “no mind” that describes the ideal, reflexive way in which a kata is performed once it has been rooted in a student’s muscle memory.

“Shoshin,” the Japanese word for “a beginner’s mind,” was the name of Nancy and John Eccles’ first dojo on Glasco Turnpike. Ellie has trained at their current spot, Glasco Karate in the Simmons Plaza, since 2015. A black-white belt, Ellie attends class twice weekly, and performs these kata at competitions a few times a year. According to Nancy and John, who are renowned area judges for such competitions, the student can see invisible opponents while performing a good kata. In a great kata performance, they said, the judges can see those opponents, too.

“The reason I started is because I was getting pushed around and bullied,” Leffler said. “Nobody does that anymore.”

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Since opening this location in 2011, Nancy and John said that about 190 students, from 5-year-olds to adults, have taken off their shoes and stepped out on their dojo floor, bowing to each other both as they step on and off the practice space. At the beginning of each class, students perform “shomen” — Japanese for “front,” where students kneel at the front of the dojo, all facing one another. First, students bow to a wall of photos depicting a lineage of Goju-Ryu masters: hung in the center is a photograph taken in the 1880s of Chojun Miyagi, the founder of the karate style, surrounded by photographs of his students and their students after them. Next, the group bows to senseis Nancy and John Eccles. Missing from the memorial wall is their own sensei, Masaji Taira, as only deceased sensei are dubbed “Master” and have their photos mounted on the wall. The ordered bowing continues, with the highest belts addressed first and the lowest last, before the group begins a rousing session of stretching and calisthenics. At the end of the lesson, the ritual repeats, this time starting with white belts and ending with a group bow to the ancestry of teachers past.

“It isn’t a religious practice, it’s a practice of respect,” said John. “What’s very important to us is our lineage that we can trace back for generations.”

John has practiced the Okinawan style of karate since he was 17, evidenced by a grainy photo featuring a younger, shaggy-headed Eccles with a white belt sitting Indian style on a dojo floor. Decades later at his own dojo, the knuckles of his fore and middle fingers stick out like promontories from years of diligently practicing with a bloodied “makiwara” a standing wooden slat wrapped with rope used to make the two joints convex over time. Another physical testament to his dedication — both he and Nancy have the kanji characters for Goju-Ryu tattooed prominently on their right arms.

“I grew up in a tough little river town and had to learn to defend [myself],” said John of the origin of his lifelong passion. “I wanted to learn karate because of the movies. Back then, if you looked in a phone book, you’d see a lot of karate schools around, but back then there was only one in Westchester and it was too far away for me to study. There was a dojo in Mount Kisco and it was kind of secret — there was no telephone and you kind of had to find it.”

While John studied Goju-Ryu from the beginning, Nancy began her martial arts career learning Tang Soo Do, a similar style to the more-prevalent Tae Kwon Do, alongside her children. The pair struck up a conversation at the Hyde Park Brewing Company, where John once worked, over her children’s karate clothes. They married in 2007 and opened their first dojo soon afterwards. Nancy designed the dojo’s logo as a homage to that dojo in Mount Kisco that started it all: added to the original one, a fist with two dots above the two first fingers, is a white crane with outstretched wings.

Before taking up fists and bow staffs, Nancy was an elementary school teacher in the Wappinger district for 35 years; now, while her husband wears a white gi, hers is black to show less dirt after working on her knees training small children on their level. She said that karate is a good practice for any kid.

“It’s like every kid should learn music — it teaches self discipline, it teaches focus, it teaches balance and physical coordination, respect, courtesy, good manners, working with others, working by yourself, working with a partner, how to deal with disappointment when you’re not ready to test and the person next to you is, how to be proud of yourself without bragging and how to be humble,” she said. “We think of these kids as our grandchildren.”

Goju-Ryu, which translates to “hard-soft style,” refers to a technique consisting of hard strikes and kicks and sloping circular motions (think “wax on, wax off”) used to block and manipulate one’s opponent. The reference to the classic film The Karate Kid here is no mere coincidence — not only is Goju-Ryu the same style of karate taught to protagonist Daniel LaRusso, but John and Nancy’s own teacher had a hand in training the film’s screenwriter, Robert Mark Kamen. The rest, as they say, is history. Having originally met their teacher through attending a series of seminars, John and Nancy were quickly brought into his fold.

“He accepted us — after practicing with us for awhile and getting to know us. In karate you become someone’s student, but you need an introduction,” John recalled. “Usually a relative or friend would introduce someone, but we started going to seminars and he was very very gracious, took a liking to us immediately. His students came to practice with us, and gave us recommendations. We didn’t know it was going to happen at the time, but after a seminar we usually socialize afterwards, and that’s when he gives out promotions, asking for people to come and test before him. One night, he called us up and gave Nancy her ‘yondon,’ her fourth-degree black belt, and mine as well. He also gave us what’s called a ‘jun shi bo’ certificate, for running an associate dojo.”

In reflecting on their teacher’s decision to bring them into that status, Eccles counts it as one of the proudest experiences of his life. “It was absolutely a wonderful experience — to have someone of his lineage and stature to recognize the two of us was just a deeply profound experience for me personally. My daughter being born, marrying Nancy, and getting that certificate are the most prominent events in my life. It’s very deeply important to someone who practices karate to have this kind of validation.”

As to their decision to open their dojo in the area, Saugerties and its surrounding locales have been just as important to John and Nancy throughout the last several years. After retiring in 2016, the couple moved from Kingston to Saugerties, and consider themselves adopted Saugertiesians at heart. “We decided to move into the village — we just, we were motorcycle enthusiasts and we enjoyed Stella’s Station, that would always mark the end of our ride up here. We liked Saugerties very much, and the people, and they liked us. We’ve made a lot of good friends here and just love it here. We decided to start the dojo in Glasco, and it was originally just a room that we renovated, and it was off the beaten track, but it was here.”

“That’s the gift that we have,” said John. “We’ve received it and passed it on, just the gift of a lifelong pursuit of learning. It never stops.”

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