- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2000

An inspired group of teens in Northwest D.C. has taken a stance against violence by combining their study of an ancient martial discipline with modern performance art.

The Peaceful Warriors, a culturally diverse martial arts performance group, advocates nonviolence and targets their message at youth. Through a blend of tae kwon do, a Korean defensive art, and the common man's hip-hop culture, the nine-member ensemble conveys a message of mutual respect, self-confidence and self-control.

On Saturday, the Peaceful Warriors will sponsor a martial arts extravaganza at All Souls Unitarian Church in Northwest. The group, all students of the D.C. Self Defense Association, a tao kwon do school founded in 1976, hopes to raise funds to spread its message to other youths and to train with Puerto Rican martial artists in their tropical homeland.

"It's going to be a lot of fun," says Ja-Shukry Shia, 18, a Peaceful Warrior and Yale University sophomore, about the upcoming martial arts event.

The two-hour event will feature demonstrations of aikido and kung fu, other martial arts techniques, as well as international cuisine. Guests will be entertained by jazz and Latino bands.

Mr. Shia, a self-effacing "probationary" black belt and a long-standing practitioner of tae kwon do, says he and teammate Roshan Sohoratally, 19, also a black belt, will team up to demonstrate a choreographed fight scene, based on techniques studied in classes.

"Fight scenes are two minutes each and require a lot of practice with a person whom you trust implicitly," Mr. Shia says.

"We never hurt each other," he says.

During Peaceful Warrior performances, fight scenes end in a draw to make the point there's really no point to violence, Mr. Shia says.

A graduate of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown, Mr. Shia got his introduction to the martial arts at age 6. He grew up in the Adams Morgan neighborhood in Northwest.

"I got jumped a couple of times. My mom didn't want me to learn how to fight, she just wanted me to be in better shape," Mr. Shia says.

"But I wanted to learn how to fight like the Ninja Turtles. So, she enrolled me in karate classes at Sacred Heart School. When the program moved, she found me another place to take classes," he says.

He and his sister Chi soon started to study under D.C. Self Defense Association founder and fifth-degree black belt Carol Middleton.

Twelve years and six belts later, Mr. Shia credits the martial arts for his recent accomplishments at Yale. It's a time of spiritual enlightenment for him, he says.

"It's got everything to do with focus. Just this past year I had to take calculus, where 50 percent of the class was trigonometry. I'd never taken trigonometry, and it's a little startling when 50 percent of your grade rests on something you've never taken," Mr. Shia says.

"I'm indebted to the martial arts for focus. I went to the library and taught myself trigonometry. Again, I say it's spiritual absolute focus. Just you and your consciousness. We practice it in the Peaceful Warriors. It's very easy for me to focus on something that's very difficult for me," he says.

The martial arts performance group is the brainchild of D.C. Self Defense Association teacher Lauren Wheeler. Ms. Wheeler, 38, has taught at the school for 12 years. She noticed students discontinued their martial arts training when they reached puberty. So she set out to devise a plan to hold students' interest.

"I had seen a group of martial artists in Oakland, Calif., called 'Destiny Arts.' They were involved in anti-violence youth programs and used a combination of the martial arts, hip-hop dance and theater," she say.

"So, five years ago, I approached the teens and preteens at the school to find out if they might be interested in developing a group where were could apply martial arts to everyday life," Ms. Wheeler says.

Since then, the Peaceful Warriors have performed annually at the Mount Pleasant Day event in June and at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Most recently, Ms. Wheeler says they performed at the Peace Festival at 14th and Girard streets in Northwest and at numerous churches in the area.

In two weeks the Peaceful Warriors have a chance to exchange ideas with youth from the Emerald Isle.

"We have the wonderful opportunity to work with a group of students from Northern Ireland. These are youth who are active peacemakers who are trying to develop friendships between Catholic and Protestant youth," Ms. Wheeler says.

The Peaceful Warriors will conduct a workshop with the 20 Irish youths on conflict resolution and anti-violence, she says.

Ms. Wheeler, who lives in the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast, says the Peaceful Warriors' goal through performances is to send a positive message to the community about today's youths. It's twofold.

"To counteract the negative stereotypes about youth of color and to counteract the popular culture's images of martial arts," she says referring to the gratuitous violence portrayed in movies featuring Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal.

"The way in which we convey martial arts is that it's a discipline. It's a way in which we practice self control of emotions, our bodies and our actions.

"One of our goals is to develop a better sense of self, and that statement directly relates to decreasing violent actions by individuals, and in our case youth," Ms. Wheeler says.

Kahina Robinson, 15, believes that when the student is ready the teacher appears. She had studied Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian tradition that involves martial art, music and dance. So, when her buddy suggested she consider tae kwon do, Kahina jumped at the opportunity.

"This experience has given me confidence. I joined the school when I was 12. I was shy and not very talkative. Now, I'm going out and teaching workshops to people that I've never met," Kahina says.

"Performing the physical movements helps me get through a bad day or a disagreement with friends. I know for some other Peaceful Warriors, it kept them from being interested in joining gangs or getting involved in the street life," the Duke Ellington junior says.

Kahina, who lives in Mount Pleasant, says the Peaceful Warriors represent the majority of youths despite media portrayal.

"We're trying to change the community in a positive way. There are so many teens out there who are involved in theater, dance and visual arts programs in all parts of the country," Kahina says.

"There are a lots of teens in the world that are trying to make it a better place through their participation in the arts. This happens because of people like Carol Middleton and Lauren Wheeler's dedication," she says.

WHAT:Martial Arts Extravaganza

WHERE: All Souls Unitarian Church, Pierce Hall, 16th and Harvard streets NW

WHEN: July 15

TIME: 5-7 p.m.

ADMISSION: $15 adults, $5 children, $25 family. Sliding scale available.

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