Astoria kids learn Tae Kwon Do discipline

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By Dustin Brown

Nikki DelPlato was never too keen on prancing around in a tutu.

“My parents always had me in ballet, but I'm not that type of person,” she said.

Instead, the 16-year-old Bryant High School student donned a robe and began studying Tae Kwon Do at age 4. She now spends every afternoon teaching the art to children and preparing to earn her second-degree black belt at Kim’s Tae Kwon Do Martial Arts School in Astoria.

Although the school has changed hands repeatedly since the second-story space at 22-56 31st St. was transformed into a martial arts studio about 20 years ago, its name has been more constant. Five years ago it went from Tiger Kim’s to S. Y. Kim’s — whose prominent sign still shouts at N train riders at Ditmars Boulevard — and last year it was acquired by Grandmaster Yong Kim, who runs the school today.

With kicks swinging up to her nose, DelPlato’s flexibility certainly rivals that of any ballet dancer, but the similarities end there. She said at its most basic level, Tae Kwon Do can be described as a Korean martial art that is “70 percent kicking, the rest punching.”

It is founded on discipline, and the little figures who spread along the mats struggle to replicate the poise and decorum of Master Kyo Park, the head teacher at the academy.

“Since I was 5 I wanted to go here, so when I get attacked by a bad person, I could kick them and run away and tell my mom,” said Alex Delgado, who comes to Kim’s every day for an after school program . Now a robust 6, he’s finally convinced his mother to relent, and he enthusiastically shows off his moves in the school’s playroom.

For many of his comrades, the decision to study Tae Kwon Do wasn’t quite as calculated.

“I like it ‘cause I like to kick,” said Samantha Rodriguez, a 5-year-old orange belt who started classes in September.

While kindergartners like Samantha treat the class as a chance to play and test their physical limits, her mother Angela Rodriguez expects the benefits to last longer than the momentary thrill of swinging her leg.

“We wanted her to get into it because of the discipline and also physical exercise — it’s good for her,” she said. “It gives them some kind of structure with confidence. She's a bit more calm and focused now.”

Samantha wasn’t the only one to get a little push from Mom. Park said his mother encouraged him to study Tae Kwon Do when he was a “very weak” 7-year-old in Korea. He moved to the United States 10 years ago, and the now robust 31-year-old currently teaches invigorating martial arts classes to students of all ages.

Park said students need about two months to get used to the routine, after which they begin moving up through the spectrum of belts that constitute the Tae Kwon Do hierarchy.

However, not everyone is equally adept at the discipline part, especially in the early afternoon classes, where the students are youngest. Though they all sit calmly on the floor at the start of class, their legs crossed and backs straight, the poise is difficult to maintain through the entire hour. Most twitch and pull at their robes, while others crane their necks to peek out the window or flash a funny face at their mothers.

Park runs his classes with stern affection. While he instills respect and discipline in all of his students, who call him “sir” and stand in obedient anticipation of his commands, he isn’t afraid to show off a silly streak.

“This is not a break dance,” he scolded three students, shuffling his feet to imitate their lazy movements.

Still, Tae Kwon Do demands discipline from its practitioners , and Park won’t tolerate too many antics — from anyone. When he taught Rudy Giuliani’s son Andrew seven years ago in Manhattan, not even the mayor could prevent Park from prescribing pushups to curb the boy’s energy.

“He plays too much,” Park said. “I’d say ‘Pushups.’ He’d say ‘Yes, sir.’”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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