Boca Raton, FL - LaVallee's USA Black Belt Champions
I've been training at LaVallee's Boca Raton location under Sensei Ian Hewitt for about 4 months, now. I started there essentially as a newcomer to martial arts. After watching 6 months of blackbelt candidate classes, I was eager to begin with this school. Before I started training there, I found Bullshido in search of reviews of the school, which I found none. By writing this, I think some sort of karmic circle will close.
The style is self-labeled MMA, combining elements of Muay Thai, Kenpo, Hisardut, and Jiu-Jitsu. Yes, this means your belt isn't portable to schools outside of the LaVallee system.
Today, LaVallee's has 12 locations: 8 in upstate New York and 4 in southeast Florida, including the headquarters which is co-located with Kyoshi Steve LaVallee's other enterprise, Martial Arts University International. I believe that all the dojos share the same curriculum and atmosphere, but I only currently train at the Boca Raton location, so your experience may vary with other locations.
If you happen to regularly travel between upstate New York and southeast Florida, your membership is respected at all of the dojos. It is encouraged to visit the other dojos if you have the opportunity. Advanced belts will travel to other dojos as part of their continued training.
The Boca Raton location does not currently have a fight team, though other LaVallee's dojos do; I think it's primarily due to the fact that this dojo is in Boca Raton. That I know of, LaVallee's as a system has had two recent ring wins - first, Sensei Kim Andrello won a WKA title; the other, more recent, eludes me for the moment, but I will update this review when I have the information. Also, I recall a newspaper article a few years ago about a lady that fought off a mugging with her LaVallee's training. I'm uncertain as to whether or not these qualify as proving the system's efficacy; certainly, there are those that would argue both sides. Combined with a free trial and months of watching their best perform, it was more than enough for me, given my current martial arts goals: fitness, confidence and ability to act in a defensive manner, and someday to step into an amateur ring/cage.
There are two different curriculums for children: L'il Champions and BBC Juniors. The L'il Champions program focuses on developing good habits and basic be-a-good-kid behavior in 3-6 year olds. There is no black belt awarded in this curriculum, but there is a belt progression. Advancement isn't automatic or guaranteed, but generally occurs at periodic intervals. There is anecdotal evidence of demotions, though I've only seen a belt taken away once, and it was only for the duration of class.
The kids work calisthenics, basic strikes and blocks derived from both Muay Thai and Kenpo, Stranger Danger and bully defense/escape scenarios, and generally be cute and make the adults laugh. Strikes are practiced in demonstration/shadowboxing format generally, and occasionally on targets held by adults/instructors. There is no sparring at this level. Weapons practice is limited to miniature foam nunchaku as kata/demonstration.
BBC (Black Belt Champion) Juniors can be entered directly by enrolling as a new student (ages 6 and up) or by graduating from the L'il Champion program. L'il Champions that have moved up will keep their L'il Champion belt instead of switching to a new white belt; then, they'll test for yellow along with the new enrolled white belts when it's their turn. Juniors follow the same general curriculum as the adults; the division is primarily for reasons of size and schedule, from what I can tell.
There are three divisions of adult classes along belt-level lines. Basic adults covers white to orange; within basic, there are the introductory students who do calisthenics and basic striking/blocking, and the BBC adults, whose regimen also includes kata, weapons, and sparring. Elite covers adults purple to black belt. Four days a week, the adult classes are split along these divisions, with alternating times to accommodate scheduling; Fridays and Saturdays, all adults train together. As of this review, Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays are what I call "technique," days; Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays I call "sparring," days.
A typical technique-day class starts with a 3-5 minute jog around the dojo. Then, 15-20 minutes of calisthenics and shadowboxing, followed by a 3-5 minute stretching period during which there is frequently a brief motivational talk along the lines of Kyoshi's message of the week, followed by 10-15 minutes of bag-work or resistant drills (Hisardut, et al.). Everyone plays uke and tori. Sensei Hewitt is a believer in aliveness, and requires students to display intensity and a realistic level of resistance without sacrificing safety. The remainder of technique-day class is usually Kenpo katas, or more resistance drills.
A typical sparring-day class also starts with a brisk jog, followed by a slightly shortened warm-up period of calisthenics and stretching. We'll take 2-3 minutes to gear up. Safety gear consists of foot pads, shin pads, rib guard, mouthpiece, headgear, sparring gloves, and cups for the guys. Sparring starts with fast, light-touch partner drilling of combinations. We'll usually work 2 or 3 combinations for a few minutes, then pair off for 2-3 minute rounds for the remainder of class.
Belt advancement is not a guarantee. As I understand it, the shortest possible time to achieve black belt is about 5 years.
All students start with nunchaku as their first weapon. As proficiency is achieved, new weapons are added - kamas, bo, and bokken are the ones I've seen practiced. As far as I can tell, all weapons are practiced as kata / demonstration only.
The atmosphere is outstanding. There's never drama, that I've observed. Everyone is always friendly, fired-up, and ready to learn. You couldn't ask for a friendlier place to train. It's a very family-friendly environment, and there are literally entire families that train simultaneously.
At the Boca Raton dojo, the average adult age is probably about 30. There are some singles there, too, if that's your kick, but it's definitely not The Dating Game. Training at Lavallee's is a lifestyle, not a gym where you go to try and lose a few pounds before a wedding or vacation.
Class size varies daily. I've seen as few as 6, and as many as 32. You may attend any or all of your eligible classes (6 in the week), and there's usually time and space between classes to practice on your own or to seek out individual instruction from Sensei, the other instructors, or any of the more advanced belts. It's not uncommon to see Sensei roll or spar with whoever challenges him during these in-between times.
The dojo is probably 3200 square feet, with about 700 square feet for changing rooms and restrooms, and about 300 square feet of administrative space, and another 400 square feet of "audience," space, and 1800 square feet of wall-to-wall permanent mats in an approximately 40x40 square. One long wall is mirrors. The facility is in the 5th Avenue Shops, a nice, well-lit retail area in a good neighborhood that contains a number of restaurants, a CVS pharmacy, and a Publix grocery store. There are two Wavemasters, two tot-sized Wavemasters, plenty of Muay Thai pads, targets, and body shields in good condition. There's usually a few loaners with regards to pads, headgear, and nunchaku (this is also known as the lost and found bin).
Tuition starts at around $1600 for the year and goes up based on shorter intervals (and down based on longer intervals) Of course, there are free trials, and there are enrollment specials frequently. Tuition includes your first gi and a "team t-shirt." There are no belt testing fees, but they do require a contract. Your gear bag will run about $450, which includes the bag, all the safety gear I mentioned above, bag gloves, another gi, and few other sundries. The gear is brand name stuff - RevGear and Century. I shopped the items in the bag online before I committed to purchase; the price difference for the entire bag was negligible.
Seems kind of expensive and contract-heavy for a gym that you yourself give only a 5 on striking and a 4 on grappling. Almost sounds like you're more in it to be part of a club with a good atmosphere than for the actual training elements. But, if you're happy, you're happy.
Rating the school a 5 on striking is because I was trying to follow the guidelines in the instructions - since 6/7 on striking specifically mentions local/regional competition, I can't honestly rate it that high. I believe that it may actually rate a 7, but, well, this is Bullshido - somebody would have tried to call me on it, and I would have had no basis to argue.
Originally Posted by RWaggs
It does seem expensive - value is more than just what you get from instruction, though.
In Boca Raton, generally speaking, everything is more expensive compared to the rest of the world. For me, right now, it works out to around $8 per hour. That doesn't seem too bad, to me, especially considering the other value I derive.
For me, it is conveniently located. Sure, I could drive 30+ minutes out of my way to get to ATT Coconut Creek (and then drive 40+ minutes home), but then I wouldn't be able to train as often. Besides which, even though ATT is supposedly the gold standard in MMA training, they have left a bad taste in my mouth (below).
I could go to one of several ATT satellites/McDojos, but I've previously found the people at one location to be real jerks - sure, I'm probably throwing out the baby with the bathwater, but I'm pretty sure nobody from LaVallee's is going to threaten unprovoked physical violence against me after they trespass on my property. With ATT, I have no assurance that won't happen again.
I could go to one of a dozen kiddie TKD places around here, but the training wouldn't be as good. Ditto for the guy that I know who claims to be a bujinkan instructor. Ditto for the chunners I know who always seem to have broken fingers.
Instead, I go to LaVallee's. I think the extra money is worth it.
In Boca Raton, generally speaking, everything is more expensive compared to the rest of the world.
Some of those ATT satellites are really good.
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