The Shotokan Karate Federation of Michigan held its first class at the Forum Health Spa and Coliseum in Westland, Michigan on October 23, 1983. Initially offering instruction to only five students, the school has grown substantially over the years. Originating from a training schedule that offered classes one hour per week, the school now holds no less than seven separate training sessions, each one aimed at providing a particular group of students with training that is most appropriate for their level. The growth of the school as been remarkable, enrolling a lot of good people and gaining positive experiences along the way.
Sensei Tony Valvona had, for some time, been considering opening his own karate school, but it took the encouragement of a friend to get the idea moving. His friend was an employee at the Forum Fitness Center, which made choosing the location an easy decision. One hour, once per week classes were advertised to Forum members. While the initial group of five students may not seem very large, it was enough to keep the idea alive.
The school itself was something of a departure from traditional karate schools in ways that are still evident to this day. As Sensei Valvona has frequently mentioned, the “old style” philosophy was to help the strong students get stronger, and to weed out those who were not up to the task. But, he says, "It's the weaker students who actually need the help," and the school’s programs and classes reflect this different philosophy.
Sensei awarded his first black belt to one of his original students -- a woman -- in 1991, and has awarded black belts to men, women and young adults in the ensuing years that meet his exacting standard. Although tournaments have never been one of Sensei Valvona’s main focuses, his students, particularly the younger students, routinely bring back medals and trophies from local and regional competitions, and some exceptional students have even competed at the national and international levels.
As classes grew over the years more sessions were added to meet the demand. As the mix of students varies Sensei Valvona strives to group students by skill level to keep the advanced students challenged without confusing the newer students. Today the traditional program has stabilized at training three days each week, allowing Sensei to focus on other, somewhat different challenges.
Evolution and Expansion
In accordance with the philosophy to help the weak(er) students, the next obvious step was to help children. To reach out to this group of students satellite programs aimed entirely at children were opened in the nearby Livonia Public Schools, Wayne-Westland Public Schools and at the City of Westland Parks and Recreation’s Melvin G. Bailey Recreation Center. The programs’ goals were to build the children’s self confidence, teach them how to avoid fighting, and give them the skills to protect themselves from bullies, should the need arise. The programs were eventually centered at the Bailey Center, but still included the training at the public schools. Currently the programs are centered at the Warren Road Light and Life Church in Westland. The resulting program, however, would end up being one of Sensei Valvona’s greatest but most rewarding challenges.
Training began in the obvious way; hour long sessions once per week to teach the children traditional karate skills. This approach attracted some students, but not as many as had been expected, and retention was something of a problem. Some research quickly revealed why: Young(er) students simply cannot handle the rigors and discipline incorporated in the traditional classes like older children and adults. Armed with that knowledge, Sensei set about creating a program that would be educational to children but was structured in such a way that they would enjoy their experience. His research eventually led him to look outside the realm of Shotokan Karate where he discovered the Lil' Dragon program; a training program aimed at young children which embodied the goals and ideas that he believed to be most important. For older children, Sensei combined the Lil' Dragon philosophy with the traditional Shotokan skills to produce the Dragon program, an intermediate program unique to the Shotokan Karate Federation of Michigan. He explained his vision to one of his traditional students, Robert Nawrocki, who turned Sensei's vision into a reality. He developed the programs and the transitions so that there is a smooth movement from one program to the next.
A Rewarding Experience
The success of the Lil' Dragon and Dragon programs has led to remarkable growth among the school's youngest members. It has also benefited the traditional program because many of the students who graduate from the Dragons continue on in the traditional program, bringing new energy and enthusiasm to the adults and higher ranked students.
Beginning with only five students and a vision, the programs of the Shotokan Karate Federation of Michigan have grown to hold a combined roster of well over fifty active students at any given time. Under Sensei Valvona’s guidance, the school has expanded beyond the traditional boundaries of Shotokan Karate, incorporating the best of modern martial arts thinking into the well established Shotokan framework.