By Sarah Nagee
By day it is a regular basketball court, but every Monday and Wednesday night Roble gym is transformed into a room where entrants bow before stepping in. During these times, the gym serves as the dojo for Stanford Kenpo Karate, a club sport established on campus more than 15 years ago.
The club, headed by fourth-degree black belt Barbara Minneti, includes a cross section of Stanford students as well as staff members. While some have just begun their training and are working to advance from white to orange belt, others have been with the group for as long as six years and have progressed up to the brown belt level.
"[The club is] a very representative group of the University," said medical school student Max Kanevsky. "We have both undergrads and graduates, people from many different backgrounds, some who have done martial arts before and some who haven't."
Participants are drawn to the martial art for many different reasons, whether as a good endurance workout, for strength building or just a time to let out frustrations with some kicks and punches.
"I've liked learning to defend myself," said chemistry graduate student Paula Rickert, a club member for the past year and a half. "There's a lot of discipline involved as well as exercise. Plus it's fun, sparring is really fun."
Many of the club members first became involved with the club by enrolling in the Department of Athletics' karate class. With different visions of what karate entails, sometimes gained only through kung-fu and ninja shows, the classes allow newcomers to give the art a try.
"Every since I was a little kid I liked watching martial arts in movies," said freshman Tim Kutzkey, a second-quarter Kenpo student. "When I came here I finally had the opportunity to do it. It's a good workout, plus it's kind of like an escape."
In addition to providing a good work out, the Kenpo style of karate emphasizes four areas. It builds its foundation on "basics," the movements themselves. These moves are then applied in self-defense techniques which are series of more intricate sequences.
The kata builds upon these techniques, comprising a preset series of movements performed by an individual. Since the moves are open for some degree of personal interpretation, Minneti describe the kata as the aspect which, "allows students to show their creativity, their fluidity of movement."
As Kenpo students include both men and women with various body frames and sizes, the style's flexibility makes it all the more interesting to perform and watch.
"The style is different from other martial arts. It is not as rigid or tradition bound," said Linda Bickham, assistant instructor and first-degree black belt. "Two people can look very different even when performing the same techniques."
These style differences become apparent when watching Rickert, a small frames woman standing no more than 5-fee-4, run through the movements in her kata. Working toward her blue belt, she stands out as on of the few women in the club comprised of 95 percent men.
"It would be nice to have more women here but strength doesn't really make a difference," Rickert said. "The most advanced doesn't mean you have to be strong, actually being smaller forces you to do the technique correctly because you have to be able to do it against everyone, no matter how big."
After 25 years of study and for years as the club's head instructor, Minneti agrees that size does not make much difference in the execution of the art. Rather, she has developed the skills and movements of Kenpo over the years as they best suit her. The training has not only earned her distinctions as a knowledgeable instructor, but she has also gained a special confidence.
"As a woman, there's a self-defense aspect to it," she said. "I've been hit really hard sparring where I've been knocked down but I know that I can get up and respond with a multitude of weapons. If I'm ever grabbed, there won't be a question."
As part of their practice schedules, club members split up into different levels to spar one-on-one and work on the material required for their next belt level. In preparation for tournaments, the club also gathers as a whole for sparring matches, which the brown belts judge based on the number of strikes delivered. These contests require physical prowess as well as full concentration.
"There is an emphasis on strength and endurance to some extent, plus there's the purely mental aspect," explained Kanevsky. "It's not enough to be the strongest or the quickest, you have to feel it inside."
Under the guidance of Minneti and Bickham, the students come to view the art as more than just a combination of blocks, kicks and punches. After years of training and practice, the two instructors impart their own styles, integrating aspects of both body and mind.
"I look at is as much more mental now," said Ken Van Vleck, a member of the Class of 1990 and now an area lawyer. "If you watch them, they both move very, very well, it's a kinder and gentler style as opposed to using a lot of muscle."
Through teaching, both instructors emphasized, they've been challenged to examine their own movements. Often their students will question the reasons for performing throws at certain angles or placing kicks in a particular place.
The members Bickham dubbed the club's "die-hards," the brown and lower-degree black belt students also take on teaching roles. As the self defense techniques require a great deal of instruction, the more experienced students benefit from interactions with the lower belts.
Whether still working to advance to their orange belt or continuing with the club long after graduation, the Kenpo students learn more from their art then just blocks and chops.
"It's more then just coming in here and going through the moves, it's about personal growth," Minneti said. "Some people have said it's been the highlight of their Stanford careers because it's pushed them to do more than they think they can. You really push the limit."
Sunil Vemuri applies a technique called
"twisting the jaws" in which he counters fellow graduate student
Paula Rickert's attack by twisting her arm and striking with his