When 10-year-old Tiffany Zwicker arrived at the martial arts studio where she has studied for two years, two young boys in karate suits rushed up and bowed meekly.
At 72 pounds and 4-foot-8, the freckle-faced fifth-grader from Encino inspires respect. Recently, she became the youngest girl to attain a black belt in karate, the martial arts' highest symbol of proficiency, at her Tarzana karate studio.
"She cuts through boards like butter," said her trainer, Steve Clark of Tarzana. "She's devastating."
The distinction came to her in only two years--two months earlier than the studio's previous record set a year ago by a 17-year-old Tarzana youth.
Most of the studio's students have to work at least three years before receiving a black belt, if they achieve that level, said Dennis Ichikawa, owner of Tarzana Karate Studio.
Tradition has it that black belts must pass along their skills, so Tiffany returned recently to teach at the studio where she had been attending six classes a week. Not only did boys bow, but her peers addressed her as "Miss Zwicker."
In a demonstration that opened the class, she crashed through pine boards with elbows, feet and hands, sometimes tumbling out of assaults in a routine of cartwheels and dive rolls that have become her trademark.
The climax came when she demonstrated the flying side kick, a technique developed so warriors could jump over a horse and puncture the armor of a mounted opponent.
Her blonde hair flying, Tiffany bolted over two children and sent a bare foot crashing through two pine boards with a thundering, "Aye-yah."
Although obtaining a black belt so young is unusual, it is impossible to determine exactly how rare Tiffany's accomplishment is, said Jim Coleman, executive editor of Black Belt Magazine, a nationwide publication based in Burbank.
No Universal Standard
There is no universally accepted standard for earning black belts, Coleman said. "Each school has a different technique and a different examining system. It's hard to pin down who's the youngest, the best."
A black belt culminates a rainbow of belts--white, yellow, purple, orange, blue, green, red--that each normally take three months to achieve at Ichikawa's studio.
Martial arts masters say receiving a black belt marks only the beginning of a karate career because there are 10 levels of proficiency that can be attained beyond that.
Tiffany, a straight-A student, had two years of gymnastics lessons before she and her 13-year-old brother, Seth, put on toeboks , or karate uniforms, for the first time in August, 1985.
Now Seth is a green belt--four steps behind his sister--at a different studio. A younger sister, Lindsay, 6, has begun studying in courses that Tiffany helps teach.
To supply the three karate kids, the Zwicker family makes bulk purchases of pine planks. At the two hardware stores frequented by Tiffany's father, Bennett Zwicker, "They say, 'Oh, yeah. You're the karate family,' " he said.