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Hai Karate!

Silver City has a pair of karate schools for those who want to get a kick out of fitness.

Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder


For a town its size, Silver City is remarkable in that it has two — count 'em, two! — karate schools. An ancient form of weaponless defense — karate means "empty hand" — the martial arts have grown in popularity in recent years as a method of gaining fitness, strength and balance in the body. Karate can also provide discipline for the mind and spirit. Think Karate Kid, here, with all that "Wax on, wax off" stuff. Then, too, there is the self-defense angle, something that has brought increasing numbers of women to the discipline.

Silver City's two schools — Supreme Way Karate and Family Karate, both on Hwy. 180 — offer two very different approaches to the martial arts. Whether you want to learn the history and tradition behind all the moves or just cut to the chase and hone your self-defense style and build your body's "core strength," an observation visit will help you decide with which sensai (karate instructor) you should train.


At Supreme Way Karate in the Lois Lane Plaza, Frank Cornidez is working with his first group of students for the evening. These are the "Little Dragons," students who are between four and seven years of age. It is amazing how cute people under four-feet tall look in a gi, the karate uniform that is sashed with an obi (belt) of various colors to denote rank. Though these students are young, some wear obis of yellow and orange, showing they have been tested and already are moving up through the ranks.

Sensai Frank Cornidez shows students how to practice fighting stances at Supreme Way Karate.

Cornidez, "Sensai Frank" as he is respectfully called by his students to denote he is their instructor, sits before the group of small fry, asking questions: Who is Grandmaster Robert Trias? What happened in 1945? What is a dojo? What does karate mean? What is your style and where is it from?

Hands shoot up and Cornidez calls on the students. One precocious three-year-old — with fuzzy, short-cropped hair and an intensely serious expression — calls out answer after answer in a loud, serious voice. "That is a karate school, sensai! He opened the first karate school in Phoenix, Arizona!" he answers, even when other students are called upon — and especially if the other student gets the answer wrong.

Cornidez smiles good-naturedly. "Awesome job!" he says, a refrain repeated frequently throughout the evening. Cornidez jumps to his feet and claps his hands together. The students jump up in response, and he sets them to physical exercise: running laps around the gym, doing jumping jacks, stretching and limbering up. The students count out their repetitions in Japanese, "ichi, ni, san. . .," and so on, up to 10.

They go through their kicks, blocks and punches, performing well-rehearsed katas, or series of movements. Sensai Frank reminds them of the meaning behind the deadly ballet they are performing.

"How many attackers?" he asks. The students follow his lead to kick, then punch their imaginary opponent in the front. "Don't forget the guy behind you!" he warns, and, still balanced on one foot, all raise a knee, then give a forceful kick to the air behind them.

"Good, go-o-o-ood," Cornidez croons. "You got him, too!"

After a one-hour practice with the Little Dragons, Cornidez will instruct the next age group, pretty much up to age 14, though there are a few adult beginners as well, and then the mostly 14-and-up group. After these three karate classes, he'll work with the kick-boxers for an hour. This is the schedule at Supreme Way every Tuesday and Thursday evening.

There are often some two-dozen students per session, and Cornidez frequently breaks them up into groups, with a few working together on their weapons handling, another small group practicing kicks, sparring with each other, and perhaps a small group of beginners working on a basic kata with a more experienced student.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, Cornidez trains the Multi-Martial Arts (MMA) and Muay-Tai ("grappling" style fighting) students. Many of his students compete in state and national competitions.

"The US Karate Champion is one of my students," he says with obvious pride. "The New Mexico state champion is a student of this school. And the number-one contender female for New Mexico state champion is also a student here."

Cornidez has been teaching for some 30 years, in Tucson, El Paso and, the past 25 years, in New Mexico — Bayard, Las Cruces and now Silver City. Supreme Way Karate has operated in the big gym space at the back of Lois Lane Plaza for about a decade now, and has around 80 regular students enrolled.

Tradition is big at Supreme Way Karate dojo (school). Cornidez teaches the ancient method of Shuri-Ryu karate from Okinawa, Japan. All students are expected to study and learn the history behind their fighting art — though not all the adult students recite from memory so well as that three-year-old Little Dragon.

"It is important to know where your karate comes from," Cornidez asserts. "It is good to learn the history and meaning behind your belt, behind your style. I really believe this is important, and my students want to know this."

Dojo etiquette is posted on signs around the gym, reminding students of the need for respect, proper behavior and discipline. Each class begins with recitations — "Karate is my secret; I have no weapon; forgive me if I must use it" — complete with a well-practiced series of hand movements, bows and meditative posture. Each class ends with the students thanking the sensai and sempais (student instructors), giving respectful bows and acknowledgments, and engaging in a down-the-line-style hand-shaking ritual where each student tells every other student "good job."

Cornidez says most of his students take karate for fitness and discipline. A few of his adult female students, he acknowledges, started taking classes for self-defense. And while he does give posture cues related to fighting — "this block stops an attacker from the side, this kick disables the attacker so you can get away" — almost all students come to appreciate and become interested in the martial art for its grace, the challenge of learning and executing the moves well, he says.

He has black belt students who started training with him when they were just five or six years old. "It's great to start working with them when they are so young," he says. "They are like sponges!"


Just up the highway, Sensai Dave Richardson runs Family Karate. Late this summer, the school moved to the old Iron Horse Corral building at the corner of Hwy. 180 and Memory Lane, where A Better Chimney and Beta Tech Solutions also are now tenants.

"We've only been here a few months, but we're going to be moving again, back to the building where we used to be, in the plaza across from Taco Bell," Richardson says.

He started teaching in Lordsburg in 1981, then moved the school to the Community Center in Tyrone in 1985. Many of the students wear gis with the old school name, "Tyrone Karate School," on the back. After a few years in Tyrone, the school moved to Silver City.

Karate is the only martial art taught at the school. Classes here, on Monday and Thursday nights, also progress according to age: first the 7- to 13-year-olds, then 14 years and up, and finally the third-class brown and black belts.

Richardson estimates his regular enrolled student load at near three-dozen. His typical student is between high school and college age, not necessarily looking to learn how to fight, he says, but interested in karate for the fitness aspect. In fact, Richardson's shies away from the fight-oriented crowd.

"If a guy comes in and says, 'I want to learn karate so I can kick this guy's butt,' I kick 'em out," Richardson says. "It's a terrific builder of character, and learning to protect oneself helps build confidence. The physical discipline is what it's about."

In fact, the school is more "Americanized," if you will. Opening exercises are more like calisthenics — 50 push-ups, sit-ups, then what Richardson calls "side-ups and back-ups," working the muscles in those areas.

"We're focused on the strength of the whole core, not just abs," he says.

Having gone through their rigorous warm-ups, the students now line up for drills. First are kicks. The dozen students who are present for this second session — the 14-years-old-and-up group — line up on the padded floor mat and watch as Richardson models a straight-on kick. The students then traverse the mats, and even go off the mats to the far end of the gym, kicking the same kick over and over, like a line of butt-kicking marching tin soldiers.

Richardson stands on the sidelines, offering corrections as needed and encouragement wherever he can. "Yes, yes!" he says to a young teenage girl. "That's it! Do you feel the difference? That one was right on!"

The students turn around when they reach the far wall, then kick their way back to the starting point on the mats. Next is a roundhouse kick. The students set off again, perfecting this maneuver, first with one leg, then the other, and again returning to their starting places on the mats.

Next, Richardson chooses a student to hold a huge leather cushion, shaped something like a flattened football with straps. The students assemble in a curved line facing the cushioned volunteer, and Richardson explains the kicking drill. He models the series of kicks he'd like each student to make. Each student is to kick the cushion twice, once with each leg, at a mid-range height. The students take their shots at the cushion holder, Richardson again offering on-the-spot corrections and praise for dead-on hits. It seems there is extra credit for kicks that cause the cushion holder to move off position.

Richardson gets into the fine points of the stance.

"Do you see how my hips are chambered?" he asks, his hands emphasizing his pelvis' position. He gives a kick from this position, then goes back to another posture, perhaps what could be called "unchambered," then kicks again with chambered hips. "Do you see the difference? This is what puts the power behind the strike."

The students nod and prepare to go at it again, this time with a new cushion holder. Having taken a fair number of hits, the other guy was starting to waver a bit.

Though the students begin and end their sessions with a simple ritual, it's obvious the emphasis is not as much on such traditional elements.

"I really have deliberately lost that part of it," Richardson says. "I find that US students aren't interested in all that. I do, of course, retain the respect for human life and for each other, and I teach my students that. But the students I teach just really want to get down to it. They want to perfect their moves and learn proper form."

The small classes at the dojo are perfect for this kind of form instruction, he adds.

Even the style of karate is less tradition-oriented. "I have my own style, under the blessing of my instructor," Richardson says. "It is Okinawan-based. I took what I liked out of four or five different forms. The style is called Yuko-na-karate do. In English, it translates as 'the efficient way of the empty hand.'

"I have five basic katas that I teach," he goes on. "This method uses only the basics, what you would actually use out in the street if you were in a fight. I've often heard instructors say, 'This is what you use here in the building, but this is what you use in an actual fight.'

"I teach what you would absolutely need to know to defend yourself. That's what I'm about. That's what my students want to learn, and that's what I teach them. Just perfect kicks, perfect blocks, perfect moves. We work 'til we get 'em right."

— Donna Clayton Lawder


Supreme Way Karate — Karate classes are $40 per month, Tues. and Thurs., 5:30, 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. Kickboxing Tues. and Thurs., 8:30 p.m., $30 per month. MMA/Muay-Tai classes Mon. and Weds. at 7 p.m. Sensai Frank Cornidez, 537-5443.

Family Karate — Karate classes only, Mon. and Thurs., 6, 7 and 8 p.m., $40 per month. Sensai Dave Richardson, 313-4969.

Both schools allow observation of classes before signing up. Call to schedule.


Donna Clayton Lawder is senior editor of Desert Exposure.