Do you want to start with talking a little bit about your dojo, how you got started?
My father had a wrestling background in Greece—that’s what he was doing in Greece as well as acrobatics. So when we came to America, we started doing shows because Astoria was a large Greek community at the time. All the Greek immigrants landed here. So there were lots of venues, and they’d have lots of dances so they can keep with their ethnic backgrounds. You know, so the Greeks can meet the Greeks, that kind of thing. So we’d be invited to perform. The performances led to, “Hey, that’s really good, where can we take our children—how can they learn?” We said you know what? Since so many people are asking, why don’t we just open up a gym? That was around the late ‘73, early ‘74. And so from there, with the background in wrestling, we also partnered up with some Koreans that were doing martial arts. And that was—I’d say I was five years old at that time. I was doing acrobatics since I was two. Tony was doing it roughly when he entered the army, so around 19. Around that age he was doing wrestling and acrobatics in the army. He went on to become champion of Greece for four years for what now they would call MMA, but without the kicking and punching. But it was freestyle wrestling; you were allowed to grab, do arm locks and things like that. What you weren’t allowed to do was you weren’t allowed to punch. You were allowed to knee, elbow, but you weren’t allowed to punch and kick.
It’s cool how you incorporated the taekwondo aspect into it. Did you have to learn that or was it easy coming from your background in gymnastics?
They’re very similar. In a sense, they both require strength. They both require flexibility, endurance, and stamina. They both require intense concentration. The only difference is instead of raising your leg to do a jump or a kick [like in martial arts] you’re raising your leg to do a flip. Everything else stays the same except what you’re directing your action towards. In gymnastics, it’s a singular motion: It’s you against the event, whether it’s an apparatus or event you are applying your skills to, whereas martial arts it’s you against the opponent. But the concept is the same; you still need that hard training to get to that goal. We incorporated a lot of our acrobatics and gymnastics into the martial arts. Generally, some Kung-Fu forms have flips in them, or high-flying jump kicks. Taekwondo generally doesn’t, but we changed that. We just added backflips into it or round off—handstands or something, so we made it kind of unique. And when we went to tournaments we would win on that aspect because the other people doing [just] martial arts didn’t have that talent. They couldn’t do any kind of flips, they couldn’t do jump splits in the air or that kind of thing. It helped us in a way.
You don’t see a lot of places like this, I mean I can’t help but think about the gym down the block, Crossfit, and how different the atmospheres are between you and them.
Well they were here for a while. They were trying to get started and they rented out our space until they built up a clientele. They’re good yes, but it’s a different aspect. We still do all the training that they do but instead of the time they spend on lifting weights we’re doing either gymnastics or martial arts. In fact, when they were here they were asking if we could teach them gymnastics so they can put more of it into their program.
So you’ve lived in Queens basically your whole life?
My entire life—well since I was 5.
What does Queens mean to you?
I’m not familiar with all of Queens because it’s so big, I would say Astoria. I find it an energized community. I can’t speak for all of Queens because this is a giant borough. But I do find that right here the proximity to Manhattan makes it so attractive. I have friends that moved out to Bayside and come to Astoria to go to the cafes. So it’s grown a lot and I’m happy because it’s good for business.
How has the neighborhood changed? Astoria has become very diverse, but its gone through a lot of demographic changes.
When I was younger—I didn’t know about it, basically my parents kept us very sheltered—we were not allowed to go out a lot. It was school and back, and that was basically it because back then you had four hours of training, so there wasn’t much time for a five or seven year old to go out at nine o’clock at night. Later on, when I would go to junior high, I went down to 126, which is on 21st and Broadway. That was a real culture shock because there was a high percentage of Blacks and Latinos, there were maybe 5 or 10 Greeks in the whole school… so that was a little bit different, and not that I minded, and not that anything happened, but you could tell there was that tension. And there used to be a lot of tension outside between the races. I mean we got [tension] from the Italians. We got it from the Italians and that came from Europe: the Italians and Greeks were against each other in World War II. When the Italians were here already and the Greeks started emigrating that created a conflict. The Italians got it from the Germans before us, right?
These are kind of old-world feuds…
And they bring them here. And now, it’s become much more racially tolerant. But there used to be a lot more tension when I was growing up, you could feel it. You definitely did not go down to the Queensbridge area, or even the housing on 21st Avenue; you didn’t pass 14th Street unless you wanted trouble, and that could happen. So in that sense, the community has become a lot more tolerant.
How has the changing ethnic background affected your business? What groups of people come to your gym now?
We did have our lean years: in the beginning our clientele was 95% Greek, now its 5% Greek. That’s a radical change! It didn’t happen overnight, but as the Greeks got more affluent with their restaurants they started moving away to the suburbs, so then a new wave of immigrants came—the Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Mexican, Spanish, Ecuadorians came—the cycle happens here often. For the moment, our classes are mostly made up of Hispanics. There are a few students from Egypt and India, but mostly Hispanic.
Is it still, in this day and age, important to think about identity and how it relates to your parents’ ethnicity?
I had thought about this before I read it in a newspaper article and it confirmed what my thoughts were… alright it goes like this,
when you’re new you’re trying to assimilate into the community as best as possible, this way you’re not getting poked on or picked at, so you try to blend in with the community as much as possible. You don’t want to show your ethnic pride because that’s what puts you out of what the norm. So in the beginning, the Greeks were trying to hide their “Greek-ness” per se. Then, around the 90s, it became chic to be Greek.
We were then the second generation of children. Our parents suffered through their time, working and getting money. As a second generation, we were more affluent. We started getting the beemers, and the bigger cars, more money.
As we assimilated we were able to say “Hey, now I’m part of the community” and the language barrier was broken. My Dad still speaks with a gigantic accent. Now the assimilation process is over, so it’s ok to go back and say, “I’m proud of my heritage, this is who I am.” That’s basically what the article was saying, once you’re intertwined into the community then it’s ok to say, “I’m American, but Greek as well.”
So, would you want your children to learn about Greek culture?
Oh yeah, I took them to Greek school if anything to learn the language. It would be kind of shameful to take them to Greece and for them to not learn the language and not be able to speak to uncles and aunts, you know? They actually can read and write better than I can.
Again, it’s that assimilation process. I was never taken to Greek school, and my mom had to reteach me Greek—reteach me Greek, isn’t that funny? And that was the assimilation process: they wanted me to speak English so much that they weren’t pushing Greek.
Has your teaching changed or evolved over the years?
Well, the teaching changes with, not so much with gymnastics, but what changed a lot was the martial arts. When we were first doing martial arts, the instructors were basically Vietnam vets that were coming back, Korean vets, and they wanted to continue that kind of training, and it was very strict military type training. We would get whacked with a stick and I’m talking about welt marks on your butt if you didn’t listen. It was strict—’shut-up, do your work, no questions asked.’
That’s interesting, I mean I taught English in South Korea for three years and I’ve heard that it’s mandatory for people joining the army to take taekwondo, so it makes sense that it would be very militant.
It was very disciplined and that’s the whole purpose of it: wartime training. We had to tone that down to appease the generation that’s a little more coddled, you know. They don’t take kindly to that. Like I said, when we first started, in the Greek generation a parent would walk in and say, “If my son gives you any problems, you know eh? (makes a smacking gesture with hand) you beat them up, no problem huh?” (laughs) because that’s what they did in Greece! That was discipline in Greece: You make a mistake, you get a slap—“Where’s the padofola?” But that’s the only thing that’s changed; we’ve toned the strictness of the karate. We’ve found it’s a lot easier to get the child to like it when kids are having fun doing it. I’d like to say we became more entertainers than teachers, because we have to do both, we have to make them learn and keep them entertained. Entertainment for children is everywhere. So if you’re not keeping them occupied mentally they’re gonna go, “I’m not doing this, let me go home back to my iPad. That’s more fun. I can make that karate guy on my iPad do more things than I can because entertainment is found everywhere and their attention span has come down to this (gestures thumbs on a phone).
There’s a lot of competition out there for kids to get distracted with: phones, tablets…
And they have a lot of schoolwork. They have a lot more pressure and aggressive testing. We have lots of parents that actually use the gym as a tool. We have lots of children here that have been clinically diagnosed. So we get a lot of referrals from doctors bringing their children here. So their therapist or doctor says “I think you should try a martial arts program, it’s gonna help with focus and school,” or “I think physical exercise will help your son or daughter with motor functions.” So we get a lot of referrals that are clinical in nature. That’s something we’ve adapted to.
I don’t have a degree as a therapist, but if a kid walks in, two seconds later I know that that kid is here for that reason. He has focus… his attention is not there all the time. He has anger issues, physical issues. You can spot that after being here for 35 years, you can spot that in a heartbeat. You get some parents that are in denial and that’s the tricky part. You’ve gotta coach them into it because some parents are truly in denial, “…well he just has a lot of energy.” But you can tell the child needs some sort of help.
Has being here helped them?
Oh absolutely. Over time. There was only actually one case… he was a danger to himself. Other people were doing something and he would run under their [instructors] feet kind of thing. He would go batnuts, and I go, “I can’t be responsible for him getting hurt.” Not that we couldn’t work with him, we could. So we told his parent, “If you want to continue, start with private lessons so that we can work with him until he gets better, and then we could put him back into the general class population.” She didn’t take that too well. So I can’t say I’m disappointed in that because the child was a handful. But they should have opted to come in for the private lessons. For her it would’ve been beneficial. And that was the only child where we said “I’m sorry we can’t have your child in the general population.” Another lady she understood right away and said “No, I want to start my child with private lessons” that way he can learn what a tumble is, and then she brought him to the general classes. He still battles with autism, but he follows class just fine because he had that time alone to learn when the instructor says, “tumble” to do it; when the teacher says, “jump” to jump. That took time for him to learn…
I’m glad there was an alternative way of helping the child instead of the overly used method of medication.
Absolutely. In my opinion kids are being diagnosed way too often for too many reasons, “Oh, he picks his nose too often, he has ADHD.” It gets out of whack sometimes. I can tell you this, I know from myself; I had a deficit disorder when I was younger. I believe all children do to some degree, but once you pass a certain line, that’s when you should seek a medical help.
I don’t see many places that are family-oriented like this gym. Do you think as a community we’re starting to lack places that carry a sense of familial history?
The only place where you see family like this is in restaurants. Generally, in the trade business parents don’t want this kind of business for their children. More often than not, you’ll see it in the restaurant business: one son or daughter will stay behind to help, that kind of thing, because they do make good money but they work tremendous hours. What we have here is unique because learning all this stuff takes so much time together that you bond extremely well. You have to. You have to trust the other person with your life, so that bond after time becomes unbreakable, and you don’t want to break it because it is such a strong bond. Plus, it’s healthy.
We have a good thriving business. I can’t say, if it wasn’t would I still be here? I still need to feed myself and my family. I might’ve had to do something else. But since we’re here and we have this we’re gonna continue. My daughters now—ones’ in college and ones’ graduating from high school this year, they go “Don’t worry, Dad, we’re gonna keep it as a school.” Because of all that time together they feel a connection to this place that you don’t get anywhere else. We now have “grandchildren” a parent brings their son or daughter, and now the son or daughter brings their kids, so a third generation of students are born. Again because they spend all their time here they feel a connection to this place that they don’t get anywhere else. When we walk in here it feels like a family.