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WEDNESDAY MARCH 24, 2010 Last modified: Monday, March 1, 2010 8:00 AM EST
Jean DeCosta demonstrates karate moves at the Okinawan Shoheiryu Karate School in North Attleboro, which she runs along with her husband Ed. (Staff photo by Martin Gavin)
Getting her kicks
BY MICHAEL GELBWASSER SUN CHRONICLE STAFF
NORTH ATTLEBORO - Jean DeCosta became the world's top woman in her class after graduating from school in Okinawa.
The kicker? She can't reach the next grade until 2018.
DeCosta, 60, of North Attleboro recently became an 8th dan, or black belt, in Shohei-Ryu/Uechi-Ryu, an Okinawan style of martial arts. She spent two weeks training with masters at a dojo in Okinawa. Her trip ran Jan. 21 to Feb. 4.
"There are some styles that go higher, but 10th is our highest, which means you have pretty much dedicated your life to the way of karate," explained DeCosta, who, with husband Ed, runs the Okinawan Shoheiryu Karate School in downtown North Attleboro.
"What means most to me is that I am the first woman in this style (both here in the States and abroad) to achieve the rank of 8th dan.
"I am very proud of that, and also the fact that both my husband and my stepson (Phillip DeCosta, an Attleboro firefighter) had both trained and been promoted in Okinawa previously, so now it was my turn."
This interview was conducted by e-mail.
SUN CHRONICLE: Most people have heard of black belts, but are unfamiliar with how they differ. How does a ninth-degree black belt compare to an eighth-degree one?
JEAN DeCOSTA: In our system, which is an Okinawan style, called Shohei-Ryu/Uechi-Ryu, an individual must have a certain amount of time in between grades, and must also meet a certain age requirement, which is 60 years of age or older.
Between 8th and 9th dan (black belt), an individual must have at least eight years in grade; that means that now that I have my 8th I will not be eligible for my 9th until 2018.
My husband, on the other hand, will be eligible for his 9th dan in about three more years, so hopefully we can make another trip to Okinawa then, if not before.
SC: What inspired you to train in Okinawa? Is the training available in the U.S.?
DeCOSTA: I train three times a week at our dojo (besides assisting with the junior class and teaching the tiny tigers class), but it is a privilege to be able to study with the masters over in Okinawa.
Okinawa is the birthplace of karate, so when a person attains a rank of 5th dan or more, I think it is important to experience the culture, their way of life, the food and of course the karate training.
It is an honor to be able to study with three of four Okinawan masters at a time and an honor to then go out for dinner with them, or be invited into their homes for meals.
I think it is important for our students, too, because it shows them that we are still learning and training. Just because we are the instructors doesn't mean that we are sitting back and saying "Well, we don't have any thing more to learn, because we are 8th dans;" we are also out there training and working as hard as they are.
SC: You mentioned training intensively for four to five hours a day. What exactly did you do?
DeCOSTA: Our training was usually from 10 to 12:30 in the morning, followed by a light lunch, sometimes with the masters, sometimes by ourselves.
From 6 to 8 p.m., we would work out in the headquarters building with the 9th and 10 dans or sometimes we would go to other dojos from 8 to 10 p.m., followed by a late dinner.
Mostly we worked on our katas (forms), exercises, techniques and stretching. Each class might be a little different.
Because I was going for my next rank and knew that I would have to perform three katas, I mostly tried to perfect my katas.
What was so great was during the day, there would be three of us training and sometimes four masters working with us. To receive that much individual attention was huge.
On the day Mike Kostyshak (another of our students who went with us and was tested for 7th dan) and I were to be tested we had a class that morning, a short break for lunch and then the testing was done in front of a board of seven Okinawan masters. My sensei, Tsutomu Nakahodo, could not be on the board because he was my instructor, so he, my husband and three other 6th and 8th dans sat at another table to watch.
SC: What surprised you the most about the training?
DeCOSTA: Having been to Okinawa four times, not much surprised me about training, but what did surprise me is the confidence and spiritual effect that this trip had on me.
It was intensive and sometimes exhausting as each day was very busy. We had very little time to sightsee or shop. But this was undoubtedly one of the best trips I've experienced.
SC: How common are ninth-degree black belts, especially in the U.S.?
DeCOSTA: In our style, not many.
All our ranks are certified in Okinawa by the Okinawa Karate Association and recognized worldwide.
Ninth dan is usually reserved for people of exceptional ability and character and those who have made contributions to the art. Sixty years of age and over 40 years of continuous training are normal requirements.
SC: You've taught the martial arts for more than 30 years. How has the public perception of the sport among Americans changed over this time?
DeCOSTA: I first started kempo in 1973 in a women's class in Providence, R.I.
When all the women, except for me, dropped out I was not allowed to join the men's class at the kempo dojo.
I found another school in Providence and studied there for a while but kept looking for something locally. It just so happened that Ed was opening up a dojo in North Attleboro, (actually Ed was the first sensei to open a dojo in the North Attleboro/Attleboro area).
Back then, there were very few karate dojos. Now they seem to be on every street corner. I'm not saying that this is a bad thing, but it has become more commonplace.
At our dojo, we are strict about keeping it a traditional dojo, just like in Okinawa.
It's sad to see so many styles watered down or dojos giving out belts just to keep kids interested. We always tell clients, make sure you ask a lot of questions, watch a class and find out as much as you can about the dojo so you can make a responsible choice.
SC: Similarly, how are American martial artists perceived abroad?
DeCOSTA: I don't know about any other style, but in our style, there is a great camaraderie, respect and friendship. It's lots of hard training, followed by getting together for dinner and a beer.
SC: How will your latest training affect how you teach your students?
DeCOSTA:Our dojo has been operating since 1974.
We always give our best to our students, but this trip and promotion has given us much renewed enthusiasm.
We can come back to the States with much information to share with our students and to inspire them in the way of karate and the pursuit of higher learning. I love working with the children, especially the ones that may need a little more help or the ones that athleticism doesn't come naturally too. For us, it is the pursuit of service to the art and making sure that the tradition of Shohei-Ryu stays strong.