South Charlotte

Dollar-stretching karate class finds niche on Albemarle Road

For a karate class whose instructor is trying to teach kids how to protect their lunch money from bullies, a $6 weekly fee sounds like a pretty good investment.

While many martial arts classes certainly could be more involved for students, and consequently more expensive for parents, the Tuesday evening classes at Albemarle Road Recreation Center appear to be neither.

With 60 to 70 weekly participants, there are plenty of students - and parents - who are comfortable with the class' laid-back atmosphere and affordability.

The class is one of several offered at Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation facilities by Young Champions of America, which has programs nationwide and an office in Cary. Students work their way up through the levels of belts just as they do with every martial arts class, albeit at a slower pace.

Duane Tankersly has been studying martial arts for 40 years, but he's been teaching at Albemarle Road for only three months. Still, Tankersly has recognized that the local recreation facility has found a niche in the martial arts world.

Facility leaders consider Albemarle Road's program special to its neighborhood, on North Idlewild Road. They realize many of its users in the vicinity appreciate the value of a dollar.

"I guess in a sense they are providing the service to the underprivileged clique," said facility manager Lathornia Brooks. "There are those that may not have the resources to put in the funds for a program of a different kind."

The group is divided into beginners, intermediate and advanced classes. At all levels, Tankersly and assistant Frank Richards stress the importance of self-defense.

On a recent Tuesday night, as Tankersly and Richards tried to teach them a basic escape move, the students looked like they were having as much fun as they would on the school playground.

Already nicknamed "Flash Kick" for demonstrating her high leg kicks to the rest of the class, 9-year old Samira Issa was the first to be "accosted" by Tankersly during the drill.

At her cue, Flash Kick - er, Samira - rips away from Tankersly's grip and runs shrieking toward the opposite side of the basketball court. The huge smile on her face represents anything but distress, however.

Samira, whose 6-year old sister Yasmine also takes lessons, said, "I was interested in taking karate ... because sometimes when we go shopping you don't know how easily you can get lost. So we can use karate when we're in danger."

At age 10, Nick Coffey is the group's most decorated student. In 3 1/2 years, he has collected about 20 trophies at competitions.

A red belt, Nick aspires to be able to perform kicks and flips like martial arts icon Bruce Lee. Nick's father, Shawn Coffey, says they will stay loyal to Albemarle Road and pursue Nick's black belt there, although he could expedite the process by attending a more intensive program somewhere else.

"It 100 percent is a neighborhood program," said Shawn Coffey. "It's definitely something to be proud of. ... We're in a neighborhood where finances are tight. It's good the program is so affordable."

Because it is cost-prohibitive for some, there are students who don't wear the standard "gi," or uniform; instead, they may substitute a T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants.

Tankersly says part of his instruction requires students to have their own sparring "weapons." Some kids make their own at home but many go without.

Without sparring, students have a more difficult time preparing for competitions. But that doesn't bother kids like 6-year-old Emir Cebo. Apart from kicking, he enjoys karate for one reason.

"I can defend myself so I don't get hurt," he said.