At Steve DeMasco's Shaolin Studios, Grandmaster DeMasco and his staff of instructors illuminate students of all ages in the nuances of Martial Arts. Himself a vastly experienced practitioner of Martial Arts, DeMasco specializes in kung fu and teaches his pupils not only the fundamentals of the sport, but also the importance of self-respect, discipline, and not just learning from old kung fu movies. Each instructor here also brings their own high level of cred to their classes. As practitioners of Shaolin martial arts—the ancient predecessor of all martial arts—they're all internationally certified by the Shaolin Temple in China.
Years before he would teach hand-to-hand combat to Special Forces candidates or have his studio voted the best of 2011 and 2012 by CT.com, Andrew Scala was stuck in traffic. As he inched down a clogged I-95 on his way back from New York and his job as a sales representative, he made a decision that changed his life. The next day, he quit his job, sold his car, and bought a plane ticket to Japan, where a friend was studying martial arts. He arrived three days later, beginning an eight-year stay in Hokkaido, where he eventually trained daily beneath the great-grandson of a samurai. At one point, he and two of his colleagues were invited to demonstrate their skills in front of more than 300 high-ranking Japanese military officials. Andrew not only mastered styles such as aikido, karate, and iaido, but also immersed himself in Japanese culture and learned to speak fluently, opening the door for the lifelong bond he shares with his teacher. Today, Andrew runs Darien Martial Arts Academy based on a philosophy that values integrity, honor, and self-discipline alongside physical skill. He lavishes his rich depth of knowledge upon students, teaching them the basics of Japanese with each lesson. As they grow curious, he relates the modern practice of martial arts to tales about the "truly intelligent and also fierce" nature of the samurai, erasing misconceptions along the way. "All those things are useful tools for helping children get motivated, not just for martial arts, but to become good students, good musicians, good athletes, good people," Andrew said, noting that as they train their minds with martial arts, the benefits spill into other aspects of life. His students bring in their report cards to show him their successes—and they also know that "if a student is good [at the academy] but he's starting to be disrespectful at home, he comes here and he pays for it here." He trains all ages of students, who typically begin with karate and then train in other styles or master weapons—the long and short staff, sword, and chain. He periodically brings his best students on trips to train at his old dojo in Japan, watching them develop a lifelong love of Japanese culture as they see him integrate easily into his old home. But though he takes martial arts seriously, Andrew makes classes fun and encourages each of his students. He's known for telling jokes and keeping the sessions lighthearted. "You don't have to be mean to be strong," he said. "The strongest guys I know are also the funniest guys I know."
At Connecticut Martial Arts, classically trained martial artist and fifth-degree tae kwon do black belt Master Steven Doyon leads a team of instructors who teach both the physical techniques and the philosophy of martial arts. Fitness-kickboxing classes teach participants to punch and kick as they shed weight. Muay thai kickboxing classes focus on the martial art's core techniques in intense lessons. Kids' martial-arts lessons teach youngsters to defend themselves against bullies as they acquire discipline and focus.
Candlewood Fencing Center's 6,000-square-foot facility gives fledgling fencers and seasoned pros the tools they need to develop their skill with sabers, foils, and épées. Seventeen lunge workout stations allow students to hone attacks, and three electronic speed stations train reflexes to parry an incoming thrust or jury summons. The center is equipped with solid wood floors that are built with bounce, making lessons and sparring practice easy on students' joints.
At UFC Gym Commack, an orchestra of fists and feet slapping heavy bags resounds through the gym. Nobody here settles for punching empty air; instead, professional-grade bags and training mitts absorb blows chucked by students of all skill levels who can burn up to 1,000 calories during fitness classes. Although each boxing, kickboxing, and mixed martial arts class is an authentic fight-training regimen led by a professional fighter, students never have to step into the ring.