WeissCrax: Young Ninjas star in local ‘promotion’


Young martial artists demonstrate Dynamic Circle Hapkido at Skofield Park.

It coulda been a movie set!!

Characters straight from ‘Central Casting’ …

High up in the hills … amidst early morning clouds … on a grassy meadow nestled amongst the trees.

About 80 happy people – all ages, shapes and mostly slender sizes.

Some tall.

And some very, very small.

Nearly all dressed in red, boldly-designed tee shirts and exercising crisply in unison.


It’s immediately a spectacular performance .

But it’s the littlest Ninjas – actually four and five year old rookie martial artists in training – who steal this opening scene…

Not quite ‘in sync’ but lotsa passion!!

The ‘extras’ off camera laugh and applaud.

Another flick being filmed in Santa Barbara?


Just the Martial Arts Family Fitness’ (MAFF), a family-owned and operated school dedicated to improving lives through martial arts, second annual all-school student promotion in the art of Dynamic Circle Hapkido.

Location is actually Skofield Park — here to test these martial artists ready to move along ‘the rainbow’ – to attain their next higher degree belt, with celebratory BBQ immediately following.

“During the summer, MAFF loves to prepare fun and engaging activities for our youth students,” said Sensei (aka teacher) Andrew Hollingsworth, a MAFF Youth Instructor. “The outdoor promotion last year was such a hit that it was decided to make this a tradition at our school.”

Besides the Ninjas – the school includes three student groups: Tigers (ages 6-7); Youth (age 7-11) and Adults (11+).

Hapkido’s True Colors

White (Beginner) … Orange …Orange with Stripe …Yellow … Yellow with Stripe … Green … Green with Stripe … Blue … Blue with Stripe … Purple … Purple with Stripe … Red … Red with Stripe … Red and Black Stripes with Red Stripe on top …Red and Black Stripes with Black Stripe on top (means you are now an official candidate for Black Belt) … Black Belt … Nine Degrees of Black Belt … Grand Master.

“Historically, our adult students and our youth students promote on different days,” says Dave Wheaton, MAFF founder and owner. “We live in a very beautiful place, and an outdoor promotion allows students, guests and parents to experience what other classes go through, as well as an opportunity to interact with people they may only see in passing at our school.”

Some little Ninjas

To promote from one level to the next, students must exhibit proficiency in the current curriculum’s areas of study, including basics (hand strikes and kicks), self defense techniques, take-downs and throw forms and one-step sparring.

“Our system is based on a predetermined curriculum developed by Master Dave,” Hollingsworth added. “Each student is encouraged to continue practicing what they have learned throughout their studies and making the art their own.”

It’s clear that ‘Master Dave’ is THE Guru. A martial artist for over 45 years – he’s started several schools across the USA – Connecticut. Florida. Hawaii. Washington.

The Santa Barbara chapter — ‘Hapkido International World Headquarters’—launched nine years ago.

“He’s a rock star though you’d never know it because he’s so humble” a Black Belt Candidate later shares. “ Master Dave is in the Karate Hall of Fame – is a 9th degree Black Belt and a Grand Master.”

Not bad, huh?

And he sure has every reason to be proud today!!

As usual, he’s assisted by Melodee Meyer, his beautiful wife of 15 years (Psst- don’t mess with her either – she’s got a Black Belt, too!) and members of the Test Board — all well-accomplished in Hapkido.

This Investigative Sportz Reporter somehow lands some ‘primo real estate’ — front and center at the head table ( only three seats) with Master Dave on the far right and Meyer in between.

She translates when needed.

Many of the Martial Arts Family Fitness students received promotions and the school presented a check for $15,000 to an orphanige in Nepal. (Greg Mishkin Photo)

After the welcome, group warm-up exercise and recital of The Student Creed to start the activities, there’s individual testing by each martial artist.

The MAFF Student Creed

I am a Martial Artist.

I am building a strong body, a disciplined mind and a resilient spirit.

I care for myself so that I can help care for others.

I choose to uphold the tenets of my school, on and off the mat.

Each martial artist soon reports to the front table and introduces himself/herself and with an always bow:

“Good morning, Master Wheaton and members of the Test Board. My name is ______. Today I am going to break “XX” number of boards with _______ technique, and my favorite technique is ______.”

Dave Wheaton

Melodee Meyer and Master Dave Wheaton are all smiles on this special day

The Master acknowledges each martial artist with a nod and responds to each request.

He overrides only one or two, and always with respect — like the one young female martial artist who wants to break three boards all at once.

“Let’s go with two this time, maybe three at your next test,’ he responds.

“Yes, thank you, sir,” she responds with a smile.

It’s almost surreal watching these Oscar-winning performances. Only this is the real deal.

It’s the concentration … determination … and focus by each artist that shines through as they do their test. Sensei Hollingsworth, sometimes with an assistant, helps line things up when a board is involved.

The demonstrations include jabs, throws, kicks, take-downs and then something confusing that Meyer clarifies…

WC: Excuse me, did that young boy just say he was gonna do an ‘ass kick?’

MM: No – axe kick.

WC: Isn’t the same thing?

MM: Basically – yes.

That kick to the lower legs to bowl someone over is performed here on what looks like a heavy bag used by boxers, only much, much lighter.

Then moments later, another question:

WC: What’s the deal on the boards?

MM: They’re pine and also composite wood, made especially so that the grain is all in the same direction. And you don’t want wood with a lot of knots – that could hurt!”

The boards are being split in half, left and right by a variety of body parts – hands, of course, feet or elbows – all with explosive power!

They’re also of varying thickness, depending on training level. The composite boards are for the youngest and newer students.

All get to keep after their split wood as a record of their achievement and are handed their new color belt after successful test completion — they will soon proudly wear until they are ready for their next promotion or advancement.

The typical training time for each level belt is 10-12 weeks –though that can fluctuate, as it did for Jennifer Mishkin, today officially a Black Belt Candidate. At this same time last year, she wasn’t sure when or if here next belt was coming …

Mishkin has had serious health issues – first ‘The Big C’ in 1996. Docs gave her six months to live. She fought through it and in 2002, she and her husband Greg were about the first ones to sign up when MAFF opened in Santa Barbara.

“We started with the kickboxing program,” she said.

They kept going – Greg is a 3rd degree Black Belt.

Then last year — another serious medical twist for Jennifer. She was soon on meds and zapped of her energy.

She fought back gain …

“My body was so sick but any training I could do was so cleansing and empowering. It’s the only place where I can yell and kick things!” she says.

And the good news?

That’s all behind her and she’s back on her healthy Black Belt course.

And then there’s Mateo Mercur – a former professional triathlete who always wanted to try Hapkido but never had time. No longer competing; he has turned to coaching.

He is “founder and head coach of Elite Racing Team, a Santa Barbara-based triathlon team… is the head coach of the UCSB Triathlon Team …. and founder of Trinity Endurance Sport … he has coached thousands of athletes from beginner to elite, including the current 20-24 women’s Olympic distance World Champion.”

Mercur amazingly ‘had time’ nearly two years ago and finally tried Hapkido.

“It has given me an inner peace that actually helps me be a better coach – with a strengthened focus that has even enhanced my ability to communicate,” Mercur, already a Blue Belt, offers.

And today during his promotion test, his goal is to split a thick board with his elbow.

This wooden board suffers a clean break.

He hits it and bounces off.

Master Dave calmly says, “Give it another shot, Sir.”

Mercur, a psychology student at Pacifica Graduate Institute, later described this sensation …

“To put it in technical terms: I felt a strong activation of my sympathetic nervous system and started getting pumped up. I took a few breaths to down-regulate and keep my focus.”

On the second attempt, he went through the board to a rounding applause!

And then there is the story of the young teenage boy who first came to training barely able to speak, yet old enough to communicate. His self-introduction today is just like everyone else.

“He’s come a looooong way,” Meyer leans in and whispers.

After the last participant completes her test, then the official changing of the belts (think graduation ceremony without tossing the caps in the air), Master Dave privately shares what Hapkido means to his students, especially these young kids …

“This is indoctrination into a lifestyle based on our core values such as courtesy and respect. And our students reflect this doctrine. But what it does for these kids is truly amazing as it gives them a greater sense of confidence, especially needed these days in our society … helps with their self-esteem … and helps them become better students and that is reflected in their great grades.”


A lifetime of benefits, so to speak.

And for the final act of today’s production, the sun has also burst through!

The school presents a $15,000 check to Mendies Haven, a home for orphaned and abandoned children in Katmandu. The money was raised by the school’s students and staff through a variety of fundraisers, including a kick-a-thon.


And now cause for celebration with a little BBQ.

Just follow those little Ninjas …

About Martial Arts Family Fitness

Special thanks to longtime amigo, WeissCrax fan and Black Belt — Alex Rodriguez for his assistance and gracious hospitality in bringing this story to life here…

Martial Arts Family Fitness is an award-winning school (voted ‘The Best Martial Arts School’ seven years in a row by readers of The Independent) that opened its doors in Santa Barbara in 2002. The Chief Instructor, Master Dave Wheaton has trained in martial arts for over 40 years, and is the founder of Hapkido International, an organization that teaches his unique martial arts curriculum of Dynamic Circle Hapkido to many schools across the United States. Martial Arts Family Fitness teaches martial arts and fitness classes to adults and children, specializing in children’s life skills, youth leadership and family fitness. For information on Martial Arts Family Fitness visit www.kickboxers.com or call 805.963.6233.