Ft. Worth, TX -- Authentic Kung Fu
Authentic Kung Fu is a Ft. Worth, TX - based school teaching three different styles of traditional Chinese kung fu: Seven Star Praying Mantis (Wong Hung Fun Lineage), Wing Chun, and Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan. The Sifu for all three styles is Steve Cottrell. Sifu Cottrell is not very supportive of the idea of training in multiple martial arts at the same time, so students in one of his classes cannot participate in the others.
Sifu Cottrell is extremely knowledgeable, but more importantly he has an excellent attitude and great teaching technique. While prone to being a bit verbose in his explanations, they are never boring, and are often quite entertaining. He is exceedingly friendly, never talks down to his students, and while there is most certainly an atmosphere of respect and admiration towards him in the school, there is no sense of intimidation or ego around the man. There is also none of the elitist, dogmatic attitude that many schools have where other styles are regularly criticized and disrespected. On the contrary, Sifu Cottrell is a very respectful, humble man and encourages that same outlook amongst his students.
Kids and Adult classes are kept separate (thankfully), with different schedules for varying levels of advancement. For Wing Chun and Mantis classes (which meet on different days), Beginners attend from 7-8, Intermediate students from 8-9, and Advanced students from 9-10:30. You are encouraged to come as early as you wish, so many Advanced students show up at 7 to help with the beginners or, if they are not needed, practice their own material.
While some classes can be rather large, there is extremely little time spent doing drills as a large group. After initial warm-up, the class is broken up into small groups or pairs, with more advanced students working with the newer students while Sifu Cottrell goes around helping, correcting if necessary, and answering questions.
This approach helps generate a very pleasant instructor:student ratio, but also means that effectively you are forced to teach as you advance, at least within the Adult classes. Once you've spent a certain amount of time with a technique you are expected to be able to effectively explain it to a newer student, although you are never thrown into a situation where you have to teach someone else something that you aren't comfortable with, and in general I've found that having to frequently instruct others helps to solidify your own understanding of the material that you've learned thus far.
This setup fosters a very communal, somewhat familial atmosphere within the class. Because everyone teaches everyone else, and each individual has their own unique teaching style, you can always find someone that you work well with.
Unlike many other traditional schools, you do not spend a great majority of your time simply drilling techniques in a fixed position. You start off learning your initial stances, how to throw a basic punch, and after that are moved onto very basic self-defense against a variety of realistic grabs. Beginners also spend a fair amount of time working on moving around while in a stance, something that many arts ignore. Much emphasis is put on maintaining balance and overall body structure while advancing, retreating, evading, or throwing a technique.
While there are certainly forms taught in each style, the emphasis is placed on using them to refine technique, and understanding the applications that lie within.
Students spend much time drilling various striking combinations back and forth at each other, simultaneously learning the offensive and defensive components. You learn about the importance of using your opponent's energy to fuel your own movements, and about chaining techniques together in a long, flowing series of strikes rather than simply throwing random, disconnected punches and kicks.
Basic self-defense against grabs and knife attacks are revisited frequently, with students learning more complex and damaging defenses as they advance. There are many techniques that involve traps, locks, and takedowns, and defense while on the ground is a portion of the curriculum, although obviously not as thorough as it would be in a pure grappling school.
While sparring is not part of the early curriculum (although it does occur in the more Advanced classes and is fairly rough stuff), even beginners have to learn to use techniques "on the fly" through situations called "triangles." In these exercises, two or sometimes three other students, usually more advanced than you, will surround you and randomly attack you. You start out just defending against basic grabs, but as you advance they will throw in knife attacks, punches, kicks, and so forth. The idea is to force you to be able to recognize a threat and respond with the appropriate counterattack in a split second. It's excellent for developing reflexes and reaction time.
There are weapons taught at the school, depending on your chosen style, using forms as well as two-man drills. While there is certainly emphasis placed on real use of the weapon, and its place within the historical and traditional context of the art, there is also a fair amount of focus directed at using the study of weapons to enhance your empty hand techniques.
There are testing fees (small ones), but no other random hidden charges. The school is self-paced and is not a belt mill, and in my experience so far you don't get offered the chance to test unless Sifu genuinely believes you're ready to move on.
No school is perfect, and there are some drawbacks.
The school is located near downtown Ft. Worth, which makes it semi-inconvenient for Dallas students who wish to attend, since they have a long commute. There was a Dallas branch for Mantis taught by one of Sifu Cottrell's senior students, but it has since closed down and most of its students now make the long drive out to the main school. There is still an affiliated Wing Chun school in the Dallas area, though.
While it doesn't have some of the most tip-top, brand new equipment in the universe, it has the things that it really needs (mats, pads for punching and kicking practice, practice weapons, etc.). The actual school definitely leans more towards functional rather than appearance.
Probably the biggest drawback is also arguably one of the school's strengths: its teaching system. While you will spend time being instructed and practicing with pretty much everyone else that's senior to you on a fairly regular basis, just through random chance you may frequently end up with someone whose teaching style doesn't really jive with you. This can be frustrating for a student, especially a newer one, if they always seem to be paired with an instructor who just doesn't explain things in a manner they understand. However, if you are mature and assertive enough to simply explain the difficulty you're having, that person will usually either find a way to adjust or simply work to get you paired up with a more compatible instructor.
The only other potential negative is simply class length. For the advanced students (which is generally people past their 3rd test), you're in class for 3 1/2 hours twice a week, not counting drive time. This basically kills two whole evenings. For those who are very dedicated to the martial arts, this is no big deal, but for other people, or simply those who have erratic schedules, it can make things difficult. You can certainly choose to just come to the later class where you work on newer material for your rank, but in my experience you end up missing out on the enriching process of instructing, as well as the frequent chance to gain additional insight into older material by watching and listening to Sifu Cottrell and the other more advanced students while they are working with lower ranking individuals.
Authentic Kung Fu is a fantastic school for someone wanting to learn a traditional Chinese art, but also interested in a focus on real-world defense applications, all while in a friendly, fun atmosphere.