It's not just martial arts, but also character, trust and love

On a Thursday night in Denver, two dozen people of all ages gather for a taekwondo class. They warm up by sprinting between cones.

The instructor, Erich Cloninger, explains that the students' goal is not just to touch the cones, but to go past them.

This simple request symbolizes Cloninger's philosophy of martial arts instruction.

"In here, we set ourselves apart," he says to the students.

After class, Cloninger explains, "I want my adults to lead by example. I want them to separate themselves from everything that would hinder them from achieving greatness."

Cloninger has similar expectations for the kids in his class and, like the adults, he believes the discipline they develop in class will transfer into their everyday lives, helping them improve grades and complete responsibilities at home.

"I want them to listen and follow directions because they want to," he says. "(When) they trust you, they will want to listen."

The class shifts gears, and Cloninger has the students working on a jiu jitsu move called "shrimping." They lie on their sides and, in one swift motion, bring the top and bottom halves of their bodies together in jackknife fashion. The students work in pairs, critiquing each other's technique.

Rezan Solmaz, one of the adults in the class, enjoys the fitness benefits of martial arts. "It's great exercise. It's aerobic and anaerobic," she says.

Her partner for the drill is Kelly Wright, whose son and daughter, ages 10 and 8, are also in the class. Wright practiced karate for years, even throughout her pregnancies. Her family started Cloninger's classes shortly after he began teaching in Denver in 2005. Wright says she appreciates Cloninger's relaxed approach.

"Martial arts is no longer a dictatorship," Cloninger says. "It is about building relationships with your students."

Denver Tae Kwon Do opened a school in Sherrills Ford in 2009. Its code of conduct stresses values such as patriotism, obedience and trust.

Between his two locations, Cloninger has around 75 students, including several families. Each class is different. One night, the students might be working on kicks and punches; the next, they'll be using a bow staff. The mixed martial arts instruction includes tae kwon do and jiu jitsu with emphasis on character development.

In the Thursday class, Cloninger next demonstrates a back kick, explaining that the kicking foot should sweep the opposite knee as it comes forward.

"See if you can hear it on each other's uniforms," he says.

The students - kids and adults - answer in unison: "Yes, sir!"

As they pair up again, Cloninger steps to the corner and cranks up the music, Christian rap. Then he walks from pair to pair, always smiling, helping the students to perfect their kicks.

"I've been in your shoes. I know what it's like to do something over and over again until you get it right."

Cloninger often has the adults in his class teach new techniques to the younger students. Although he has distinct philosophies for kids and adults, they work together in an atmosphere of respect and fun.

"I love the kids," he says. "It is important to love on them constantly and to encourage them. Unfortunately, for some students, the times spent at the academy will be the only time our kids receive this kind of attention. We teach our adults that life is not about ourselves but about what can we do to encourage and help others."

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