Fredonia martial arts studio teaches discipline, as well as self-defense
It’s Thursday evening and a dozen students line up in three neat rows in the mat-covered gym.
After bowing to their instructor and the flag, the students count to 10 in Korean and begin exercises designed to build strength, flexibility and stamina.
Class has begun at Fredonia’s American Tae Kwon Do under the watchful eye of Aaron Vorpahl, a fourth-degree black belt in the Korean martial art.
Vorpahl leads classes in the ji do kwon tradition of tae kwon do, one of nine styles that date back to the sixth century, when the Korean peninsula was a battleground for competing kingdoms. Ji do kwon is favored for its fluidity and speed.
“Ji” translates to knowledge and intelligence. “Do” means the right way of life. “Kwon” is the spirit of one’s mind.
“The ji do kwon style embodies the indomitable. It doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down, you keep getting back up,” the school’s Web site explains.
Throughout the hour-long session, the class — which includes adults and youngsters as young as 6 — practices a series of perfectly timed kicks and punches, along with more mundane exercises such as sit-ups, push-ups and running.
Even though Queen’s “We Are the Champions” plays loudly on a boombox for part of the class, the 28-year-old Vorpahl keeps discipline tight.
Every command and instruction is answered with a respectful “Sir” from the students, several of whom already have their black belts.
Before being accepted into the school, students must agree to a strict code of conduct. Cell phones and chewing gum are not allowed in the building, and talking is not permitted during classes.
Although Vorpahl is a demanding instructor, he also maintains a playful relationship with the students.
“I want them to have fun and enjoy themselves, but they should never lose sight of why we are here. The essence of tae kwon do is discipline and self-control, the control of the mind, body and spirit,” he said.
“Contrary to what many people think, tae kwon do is not about learning how to fight. It is about learning discipline and confidence so you never have to fight. If you have self-control, you can walk away from a fight.”
It was just that notion of mastering control that got Vorpahl into the ancient martial art.
“I was pretty hyperactive as a child, and my parents thought they would give tae kwon do a chance when I was 5. It worked wonders for me,” he said.
Vorpahl’s father Ron was so impressed with the transformational power of the sport he went on to become an instructor.
He now owns schools — or dojangs — in Hartford and Menomonee Falls.
Aaron helps his father at those sites and opened the Fredonia dojang a year-and-a-half ago. Classes are held Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays in the Highland Center.
“I took over the school from another instructor who wasn’t doing a very good job and was about to close,” Vorpahl said.
“Most of my students are kids, and I told their parents, ‘Give me a month to show you what I can do.’ Most of them stayed, and we have had great success.”
Among the success stories is Robert Parker, a black belt who is the first student from the Fredonia dojang to qualify for the three-day national tournament, which will be held later this month in Florida.
“It is quite an honor, because Robert will be competing against the best in the country,” Vorpahl said.
The beauty of tae kwon do, he said, is that it offers students a full range of challenges.
“It really isn’t about winning medals and competing for championships, but the students can take it as far as they want,” Vorpahl said.
“I don’t push students into participating in tournaments, but it is a great way for them to see how much they have learned.”
He laughs when asked if there are parallels between his school and Hollywood’s version of the martial art student-mentor relationship captured in the film “The Karate Kid.”
“Actually, I don’t think it is too far off. If you spend a lot of time with students, you can’t help but grow close. They become my family, my kids,”
He said starting the Fredonia school has been a learning experience for him, too.
“I grew up in the Milwaukee area and was always sort of a city kid. When this opportunity came along in Fredonia, I wasn’t sure a small community like this could support a school,” Vorpahl said.
“But it has been great. I have about 50 students, and you really get to know each one of them because of the size of the classes.”
INSTRUCTOR AARON VORPAHL keeps a close eye on students as they limber up for a class at Fredonia’s American Tae Kwon Do. After working on strength, balance and dexterity, students go through a series of kicking and punching drills during each class. Photos by Mark Jaeger