Shihan Durand Howard earns a new belt for distance learning
On a late weekday afternoon in May, 6-year-old Aila Harris grabs onto her mom’s arm and effortlessly tosses her onto the living room couch. Mind you, this isn’t a domestic squabble over homework or spending too much time in front of the TV. The Maplewood resident and green belt is in the midst of a distance learning class at Blue Life Karate & Kickboxing Centers. And her mom, Tisra DeWitt, crashes down onto the couch with aplomb.
On the other end of the Zoom call, Shihan Durand Howard is commending Aila for her emphatic move while practicing a karate evasion technique. The class of five students takes turns throwing their parents or older siblings onto living room and basement floors while Howard guides his students from his dojo on Springfield Avenue in Maplewood. While he hasn’t seen his students since the arrival of the pandemic, Howard has broken his classes down into small groups so he can engage with them on a personal level. Howard’s work hours have greatly increased, including weekly one-on-one Zoom meetings he offers to every student.
“Every once in a while, I get to wave at a student who passes by the front door on a bike ride or walk in the neighborhood,” says Howard, who is simply referred to as “Sensei” by the Blue Life community. “You have to make this work. Blue Life Karate cannot close down.”
While the pandemic has forced almost every business to innovate, Howard has been developing ways to re-invent the study of martial arts since he opened Blue Life Karate (BLK) in 1992. Since then, he’s grown his dojo into a school that teaches toddlers, retirees, and everyone in between.
Maplewood couple Thea Kearney and Peter Sampson have been studying at BLK for seven years. Their son Keir, 11, also trains at the dojo. Ellery, their 14-year-old son, has trained there in the past. The Sampson family is a Blue Life family – which is strikingly common for Sensei’s class enrollment.
“Martial arts are all about practicing,” says Sampson. “Quite literally, ‘use it or lose it.’ Keir does the virtual classes and I have done two myself. [...]The classes are shorter but more focused on form and agility, perhaps two things that get pushed back in a physical class. It also seems to be beneficial for the students. They get to see each other for a start.”
Sensei got an early start studying the craft of karate. His biography speaks to the rich history of martial arts in Essex County. “I was bullied a lot and I was nervous around other kids,” says Howard, who grew up in East Orange. By first grade, his uncle was teaching him karate at home while his father lent his boxing expertise.
“Martial arts became a subculture outside of going to school,” says Howard. “There were a lot of kids who were hanging out on the corner, but I wasn’t one of them.” As a teen, he attended the Ninja Turtles school (the name pre-dates the television series) on South Orange Avenue in East Orange.
Although he’s studied myriad martial arts, Howard focuses on teaching ninjutsu karate, blending form, technique, and self-defense practices. In addition to achieving his ninth-degree black belt, his resume includes state, national, and international achievement. He’s a three-time world champion for the World Karate Union and was inducted into the U.S.A. Martial Arts hall of fame.
Howard's karate school has taken home an impressive amount of awards. “[He] is producing quality students and creating a bond that the martial arts community can connect with,” says Grandmaster Jessie Bowen, who founded the American Martial Arts Alliance Foundation. “Blue Life is the only school in New Jersey that has been selected for our [martial arts school of the year] award.”
While Blue Life has scooped up multiple awards, the parents drive home the point that it’s Sensei’s rapport with his students that makes the dojo such a gem. “[Howard] is firm in his instruction, but at the same time, he gives the kids space because they need to be kids,” says Maplewood resident Mousumi Bose, who has observed her 8-year-old son Etash Betzer take lessons at Blue Life for over two years. “I don’t feel like [Etash] gets any less experience [with online classes] than he does face to face,” she adds. In addition to watching her son take classes, Bose is a kickboxing student at Blue Life.
When asked what inspired him to start teaching in the early ‘90s, Howard cites a disturbing, yet pivotal event. In 1992, a woman was carjacked in the Pathmark (now Stop & Shop) parking lot on Valley Street. “I was touched by the news,” recalls Howard. “What touched me even more was the fact that when I went to Pathmark to do my own shopping, I noticed that the parking lot was practically empty. Because of the carjacking that took place, the community was afraid to shop in their own back yard. I decided to do something.” He began offering self-defense classes for free.
Howard credits his own children, Ashley and Justin, for his foray into teaching younger students. Both started out at Seth Boyden Elementary and graduated from Columbia High School.
“When I started teaching them, I realized that you have to be animated,” he says. “Sometimes you have to make them laugh. If you get it just right, they’re never going to forget how to do a cross-body palm block.”
Sensei credits word of mouth for the rapid growth of his dojo. “I began with a class of three and two months later, I had 85 students,” he says.
Decades and four dojo spaces later, BLK is now located at 1882 Springfield Avenue. Howard says former Mayor Victor De Luca helped secure the former Bank of America space. “His endorsement helped make all of this work out,” he says. He also praises realtors Mark Braverman and Robert Northfield of the Robert Northfield Team at Keller Williams Mid-Town Direct for their advocacy.
“[Durand] is a pillar of the community,” says Kate Elliott, a local realtor who, along with her 7-year-old daughter, Millie, both study karate at BLK. “I think it’s neat that it’s by word of mouth that people keep coming to his studio,” she says. “He’s very family-minded and that’s why families continue to come and stay.”
Millie concurs. “I like being a joshi,” she says, describing the honorable role of assisting Sensei in class. “I get to help the kids line up. I get to be in charge like Sensei.”
Perhaps most impressive is the family of three generations who studies at BLK. The trilogy includes 7-year-old, Oscar Mouhteros, who has studied karate for three years, Kimberly Senter Mouhteros, Oscar’s mom, who takes kickboxing classes, and Brenda Senter, Oscar’s grandmother, who takes a self-defense class.
“There’s no doubt that he cares deeply about these children,” says Kimberly. “When he has to correct them and get them in order, it’s like you’re watching a loving parent or an extension of the family.”
“I get to be a bad granny,” says Brenda, who along with six other women, make up a class of retirees in their seventies and eighties. “I think that it is absolutely amazing that he can teach the young ones, the middle ones...and probably his greatest challenge has to be teaching a group of retired women. Even if we get the moves, we forget what the next step is. He has to have a lot of patience to instruct us and he is masterful at what he does.”
Brenda’s class has become rather well-known among the Blue Life community, and they sport an unforgettable acronym to boot. They are B.A.S.S. – which stands for “Bad Ass Senior Sisters.”
In addition to the variety of student ages, Howard has worked hard at making sure that BLK is representative of the community. “We live in a diverse town; it is our strength,” says Peter Sampson. “BLK is truly diverse. I have seen hijabs and yarmulkes, black, white, Hispanic...the holiday party potluck has every dish from every nation.” Adds Sensei, “Everyone’s blood is red.”
Although Howard is working hard to keep his dojo open, he believes that BLK serves a vital purpose for children during the pandemic. “We’re not just doing karate,” he says. “These are life skills. We can’t have kids stop practicing. They need to interact in whatever way is possible right now.”
Blue Life Karate and Kickboxing Center is located at 1882 Springfield Avenue in Maplewood. For questions about virtual online classes, call or text Shihan Durand Howard at 908-967-8132. All class information is available at bluelifekarate.com.
Donny Levit is a journalist, writer, and Maplewood resident. He is the author of Rock n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories. You can hear him DJ his show “Under the Influence” on Bone Pool Radio. Follow him on Twitter @donnyreports and Instagram @undertheinfluenceradio. His son Jack is an advanced purple belt at Blue Life Karate.