Michelle Del Giorno is a world champion in karate, hooked since her first tournament at the age of 16, but she said on Monday that despite what some may think, self-defense is not all about kicking, punching, blocking, and throwing. At her dojo in Sag Harbor, Epic Martial Arts East, the curriculum teaches kindness, respect, tolerance, focus, discipline, confidence, and self-control.
Her students earn stripes on their belts through group acts of kindness. Community service projects have included preparing care packages to be sent to troops overseas with Jordan’s Initiative, collecting gently used children’s clothing for the Retreat, and raising $6,000 for Team Tarlow and Hand, which donates money to Swim Across America’s cancer research efforts. Beach and park cleanups are considered a form of self-defense too, she said, because they help protect the environment, which we all depend on. Students’ projects are recorded in a portfolio for later use in job and college applications.
“It makes kids feel good about themselves,” she said, adding that self-confidence helps kids deflect bullying and become leaders, not followers, things they learn from their sensai through role play, too. Along with improved behavior, many students also get better grades.
“It’s about deflecting what is around you without being confrontational,” Del Giorno said. Her students become more physically fit, but they also learn how to take care of their health in other ways — good nutrition, for example.
The dojo’s competition team, called Storm, or Select Team of Role Models, is comprised of students with orange belts or higher. “The kids love it,” she said of competing in tournaments. The group of 7 to 12-year-olds also performs demonstrations, such as the one on Saturday on Long Wharf during HarborFest.
She encourages parents to stay in class to hear the messages she’s sharing with students, and they have been very supportive, she said. Her students hail from East Hampton and Southampton, as well as Sag Harbor, where she said she teaches practically the entire third grade.
A parent of four boys, Del Giorno has taught martial arts for about 25 years. She offered kickboxing and karate classes at the Sag Harbor Gym for many years, until they grew too large and she knew it was time to open her own dojo, where she now teaches karate to children, teens, and adults, as well as jujitsu and tai chi. She has taught karate and kickboxing at the Ross School for eight years, and teaches horseback riding, too, at the school’s summer pony camp at the Topping Riding Club in Sagaponack.
Riding, like martial arts, has been a part of her life since childhood. Both are individual sports, which Del Giorno said she has always preferred. “I like to challenge myself.”