At the Martial Arts Studio on Queens Boulevard near 77th Avenue in Forest Hills, children and adults from around the neighborhood and Queens are taught mental discipline and camaraderie through a series of defense techniques from a world-class athlete.
Steven Sciandra, 44, the title holder from the 2006 Jujitsu World Championship competition in Rio De Janeriro, brings his diverse skills in wrestling, Karate, Aikido, Judo, Kali and Estacada Kajukenbo to his followers, many of which have just been picked up by their parents on their way home from school.
“I started when I was a kid, when my father was going for classes and I used to go with him,” Sciandra said, remembering his childhood in Merrick, Long Island. “They didn’t know what to do with me and I would just copy them on the sides.”
Sciandra later became a student of the Martial Arts Gym when it first opened in 1986. After graduating from Old Dominion University in Virginia with a degree in sports management, he came back to New York and bought the dojo in 1996, this time with a whole new set of goals for the studio.
Today, he is not only the owner, but he is also the gym’s Shihan (head instructor) training his students in the craft he has studied and mastered over the years, such as Judo, Goshin Jujitsu, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), Kajukenbo and Kali.
However, the target audience has changed since he was young.
“It used to be just a group of guys, from 18 to 25, that wanted to get together and fight,” Sciandra said. “Now it’s all about the kids coming in with their parents and learning discipline, fitness, and down the line they learn self-defense.”
Nelson Tai, a resident of Forest Hills, has practiced martial arts for the last 27 years, and although he goes to a gym in Manhattan for training, he started bringing his twins to Sciandra’s Pee Wee Class for four to seven year olds last summer so they could learn from the highly respected trainer.
“I hope they will take away a little discipline and learn to give a little respect to others,” Tai said.
The proud father sat on the sidelines as his two boys, Michael and Gabriel, received their yellow belt promotions at last week’s meet.
And he is hopeful they will follow in his own footsteps; Tai is mostly interested in ensuring they take away the morals that go along with the art form.
“Martial arts at this level, it’s not about fighting or defense as much as it’s about learning a little self-respect for one another,” he said. “It’s about getting them to the point where they’re confident that they don’t have to fight.”
Michael Rubbo, 43, lives just three blocks from the gym, and although he never joined as a child, he has since taken up the sport with his son and daughter a little over a year ago.
“I joined because I wanted to do martial arts my whole life, but I swore to myself when I was young that if I ever had children, I was going to make sure my children would learn martial arts and be well-rounded individuals,” Rubbo said. “I’m really happy to be here and I’m glad this place is so close to where I am from.”
After a long day at work, Rubbo picks up his kids from P.S. 101 where he is often recognized by a number of other children from the class, as he is now a Sensei (teacher) at the gym in his children’s class.
“I don’t feel like I am a teacher. I feel like I’m assisting, and I know he calls us teachers, I will probably never feel like I am at that level,” he said, taking a break from helping the children follow through with some of the routines instructed by Shihan Sciandra. “I am just happy to be here interacting with my kids.”
At the end of their disciplined workouts, the Pee Wee class choose which game they wanted to play, sparking smiles in Sciandra and the adult instructors as they join in the fun.
“With the kids, if they’re not having fun, no matter what, they lose their attention,” Sciandra explained.