Briarcliff, NY - UMAC Briarcliff
UMAC Briarcliff is owned by Master Chris Berlow, a 5th dan in Taekwondo. While the school is part of a franchise, it is run mostly as an independent school, It isn't technically affiliated with the WTF, but UMAC does use the organization's five tenets of Taekwondo, in addition to a similar color belt system, listed here from lowest to highest:
"Advanced" or "High" Red (black stripe down the middle)
After these there is the Bodan belt (red on top, black on bottom), which is somewhat of an intermediary stage between the color belts and first poom/dan black belt, so as to ease the significant transition between the two. Between the black belt test and the actual receiving of the belt at a special tea ceremony, the belt is flipped so that the black half is on top.
You can advance to the next color belt when you have received four stripes: one for forms (palgwe, starting at il jang for yellow belts and ending in pal jang for high reds, kicho il bo for white belts), one for kicking combinations (sparring drills, varies by belt), one for self-defense (selected Hapkido wrist grab escapes whcih vary by belt, and choke escapes for orange belts, and punch defenses for green belts), and one for board breaking (varies by belt). Belt tests are $50 each and are cheaper when more than one member of the family trains at UMAC. Black belts have a similar testing system with more advanced techniques, but receive patches that go on the underside of the belt instead of new belts. Bodans basically repeat the color belt curriculum and receive stripes to mark advancement. Black belts use the same stripe system, although rigid adherence is generally disregarded with adults and exceptionally advanced students, but learn other forms, including taegeuks and various others including Koryo, Jin Tae, Sip Soo, and Keumgang.
Black belts at UMAC are not certified by the Kukkiwon, but testing is as far as I know basically in accordance with the Kukkiwon standards. UMAC left the organization of its own volition after certain scandals and corruption came to light within the organization, although I don't know what these were or if they're as bad as they're made out to be.
There is a promotion every month (also called "graduation," "promotion testing," or just "testing," although I have never heard of anyone "failing") at which time you basically show off what you have learned at your current belt rank and are awarded your next one. Though students rarely promote until they are deemed ready (which is one reason why nobody fails), the standards are a little more lax than one might think, due in part to the significant number of studens who graduate each month. The school operates on an approximate 4-week rotation, with the graduation being at the end. Week 1 after the graduation is sparring week, which is followed by forms, which is followed by self-defense, and, lastly, by breaking and review, at which time you make sure that you are ready to promote.
However, there is a mandatory wait period between promotions, meaning that you can only test for your next belt every two months, making it approximately 18 months until bodan, and another 9 until black belt, for an absolute minimum total of 27 months until one can attain first dan, which usually ends up being more like 30 because there are only 3 camps per year. I and some of the other students at the school believe that Master Berlow tends to push students through the belt system, but it is unlikely that this will change any time soon.
In this review, I will be referring mainly to the adult classes, but much of the commentary can be applied uniformly across the various UMAC programs.
This is arguably one of the school's weaker points. Most techniques are done either in the air, as in a standard warmup, on hand targets (usually stationary), or in no-contact partner drills, although speed, distance, and timing are emphasized. Self-defense techniques are done with compliant parters. There is, however, one all-ages sparring class per week, on Fridays, in which you basically do WTF-style sparring for an hour and go over a few techniques and strategies during breaks. It is lightly attended by a few regular students, and so specific one-on-one assistance is readily available. The instructor who teaches it, Walter Kiss, holds a second dan in Taekwondo and a third degree black belt in an unspecified kickboxing style, and also claims to have experience in other styles, including full-contact karate. Master Berlow was excellent at WTF Taekwondo sparring "back in the day" and won a number of competitions, as did Senior Instructor Giacovas, although they do not teach sparring classes any more.
UMAC Briarcliff is well-stocked with kicking targets and shields. There are also a number of Wavemasters, and there are also rebreakable boards of various strengths. Each dojang also has what they call a "cheese mat," which is just an angled gymnastics mat. It is used for flying sidekicks when upright against the wall and hapkido rolls on the ground.
There are three dojangs, spread out in various locations in a small strip mall, two of which are separated by 2 storefronts and a child-care center. The oldest one is the largest, though it isn't exactly in great shape, and is used mostly for birthday parties, kickboxing, and the AMP (see the Children's Classes section). The main dojang is relatively new and reasonably-sized. The third is used exclusively for Little Dragons and Champion's classes (see the Children's Classes section) on account of it being about as big as a large living room and poorly supplied. The former two each have one wall of mirrors, and all three have puzzle mats.
*Updated* Instructor-Student Ratio
Anywhere from 1:10 to 1:25 for the kids, depending on the class, and anywhere from 1:3 to 1:15 for adults. Individual attention is scarce, especially at the higher levels when it is assumed that one can perform all the techniques correctly, despite the glaring reality that this is not so.
UMAC has a very positive, friendly atmosphere, and a "yes-I-can" attitude is pervasive. Master Berlow believes adamantly that Taekwondo is "not just about kicking and punching" and incorporates this fully into every aspect of the school, including the adult classes. Adult meditation seminars are held every few months, and Master Berlow offers Tah Do (something having to do with traditional Korean tea ceremonies) classes on the side. He also frequently refers to the principles embodied in the book and movie series The Secret, and has also begun teaching Winner's Image seminars, although he does not teach them through UMAC and they are entirely unrelated to the martial arts program.
Once in a while, however, and quite often in the children's classes, this comes at the price of technique and training quality, which is why I can't give it anything above 7.
Like most Taekwondo schools, the strikes consist almost entirely of kicks, which are taught reasonably well and are introduced at good intervals relative to rank. However, due to the large classes, it is often easy to get away with sloppy or incorrect technique, and, because an entire week can go by without hitting a singe target, bad technique sometimes turns into hard-to-break bad habit. At tests, there is no contact except in the self defense and breaking sections, so this sometimes becomes an issue. The punching, for the most part, is utterly deplorable at UMAC, but in sparring week punch combinations are added to the warmup instead of forms-style blocks, and in self-defense week elbows and kness are incorporated, even though I have so far seen a total of about 10 minutes over the course of a few years devoted to their proper execution and application. Many of the students do not spar, do not know how to, and do not care to ever do so, particularly the children.
*Updated* Grappling Instruction
The only reason this is not listed as N/A in the rating is the fact that the "self-defense" which I alluded to before involves stand-up grappling in some form or another. It consists almost entirely of Hapkido-based "grab-my-wrist" joint locks, and their effectiveness in real situations is questionable, although I have actually successfully pulled off some of these techniques against my douchebag friends trying to steal my lunch or just fucking around. They rely mostly on speed and the element of surprise to avoid being belted by your attacker. The principles are all there (step to the side to avoid getting hit, how joints are and aren't supposed to bend, etc), but the defenses themselves are generally lackluster. To compound the issue, some of the instructors either don't know the technical details of the techniques or simply don't teach them well, if at all, so LARPing generally ensues, even in the adult classes on occasion.
Weapons play a minor role at UMAC Briarcliff, although many of the 2nd and 3rd dan forms and self-defense techniques involve weapons. The bo staff is probably the most frequently taught, since it looks great at demos and there are a number of forms for it, while the others seem to be a grey area. Nunchakus were recently added to the mix, although there is no requirement for even knowing what they are in the official curriculum. Swords are used rarely, since there's only one form that uses it in the entire curriculum, and it's at the 2nd dan level. Knives are also used only once in forms, but comprise much of the 2nd dan self-defense curriculum.
*Updated* Children's Classes
The most prominent feature of UMAC is the children's classes. An overwhelming majority of UMAC students are elementary or middle school students, and most of the classes on the schedule are intended for them. Belt levels in children's classes, which meet twice a week per level, are broken up into beginner (yellow through orange), intermediate (green through purple), and advanced (brown through high red), as well as a white belt class, "UMAC Dragons" for ages 5-6, a "UMAC Champions" class for developmentally challenged children, along with a children's black belt class. The advanced and black belt classes are one hour long, whereas the other classes are 45 minutes long. Master Berlow, in addition to his Taekwondo qualifications, holds an M.S. in teaching, and classes are a good balance of engaging fun with training and discussion of martial arts values. However, the training itself, while probably better than a typical stripmall school, isn't particularly amazing. Occasionally, even mediocre approximations of techniques receive stripes.
There is also an After School Martial Arts Program (AMP), which is basically where the kids take a bus from their school to the dojang, dick around for 30 minutes (eat snack, hang out), take a class, and then dick around until they get picked up. They do learn during the class, but the training is of a generally of a somewhat poorer quality due to the sheer number of students in the program, who range from white belt to second poom black belt and from first through seventh graders. Instructor Kiss does a good job of managing the program, which was recently revamped and has improved significantly since he began as its head. AMP students must also receive a "character stripe" in addition to their four technique stripes to promote.
The cardio kickboxing class has recently grown in attendance, but the training level has for the most part held constant. Since it's getting colder, jumprope and training specific techniques have taken the place of roadwork.
The cost for regular training is average and promotion tests are slightly high. Black belt tests, however cost hundreds of dollars, but include a weekend-long retreat, a new uniform, a high-quality custom embroidered belt, and a certificate. The weekend retreats, which cost $200-$300 on their own, can be attended by anyone, but are mandatory for black belt testing, although they are significantly more expensive for testing students. Approximate black belt testing prices:
1st Dan/Poom BB: $500
2nd Dan/Poom BB: $625
3rd Dan/Poom BB: $700
*New Section* Author's Conclusions
UMAC Briarcliff could be considered a McDojo with a good heart. Despite it being a bit of a belt factory, Master Berlow remains comitted to his goal of helping his students and the community through Taekwondo. And while much of the lower-level training isn't very good, there is high-quality training to be found, if one looks hard and is persistent enough. I will never be able to ever dislike UMAC Briarcliff (the other UMAC schools on the other hand... :p ), although I disagree with Master Berlow on a number of points and am contemplating switching styles altogether. If you're looking to become a fighter, stay the hell away, but if you want to feel good about yourself and kick some stuff in the process, UMAC Briarcliff is a fine school for you.