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Karate Instructor Dances Duet With Ballet Center


Amid the delicate hand gestures and pointed toes of Glendale Ballet Center students, Isaac Florentine executes movements of a different sort.

Clad in the traditional karate outfit, he moves around the dance floor on bare feet, with the upright posture a classical ballet dancer. Yet as his leg lifts to a 90-degree angle, his uncovered foot flexes to kick rather than pointe. For fourth-degree black belt, the object of this movement is protection rather than beauty.

"The big difference between this and ballet is that for ballet, the goal is aesthetics," said the momentarily seated Florentine, his toes curled against the hardwood floor like a ballerina en pointe. "In karate, the goal is self-defense."

This unusual pas de deux began after Florentine approached Glendale Ballet Center Director Marlys La Pari with the idea of asking her to add karate to her organization's curriculum.

La Pari agreed after only two meetings with Florentine.

"He was so eager to teach and I felt that the hours that he wanted would work out, so we just looked at the schedule and thought it would be fine," said La Pari.

"I was also aware of the parallels between dancing and karate," she said.

Before his arrival in Los Angeles in August, 1988, Florentine had been the chief instructor of a karate school and edited a martial arts magazine in his homeland, Israel.

Florentine garnered the Israeli national karate championship in 1980 and 1981. He went on to earn a degree in film from Tel Aviv University. His thesis project was a karate-inspired futuristic feature centered around a fictional Israeli police officer. Florentine came to the Los Angeles area in to pursue a career in directing.

He said he decided to continue teaching karate in Los Angeles because he missed teaching and wanted to keep active in the more classical elements of the martial art. He was drawn to the Glendale center because of its proximity to his Burbank residence.

"I was driving by one day and saw the words Ballet Center ," Florentine said. "I decided to give it a try."

The Glendale Ballet Center was Florentine's first, and only, site he considered for a studio. Florentine said he was drawn to its "perfect facilities, the floors, the mirrors, the space," and the "traditional" ideology of its founder, La Pari.

"She's tried to put together a studio in a pure way," said Florentine, 31. "I like the atmosphere here. It's serious, not commercial."

Florentine couldn't take on the commitment of his own studio, and wanted to remain independent of other instructors' teaching philosophies.

Florentine will teach Tuesday and Thursday evenings and La Pari will receive a percentage of the tuition fees in exchange for studio time.

Florentine is quick to emphasize the similarities in the classical instruction process between karate and dance.

The way to behave in a dojo, a karate school, "is the same way to behave in a dancing school," he said. "You start with warm-ups and then you go over the basics, again and again."

"Once you get the foundation solid, that's when you really develop the art," said Florentine. La Pari nodded her head in agreement.

La Pari added, "You need character from the beginning, because you have to discipline yourself to learn the balance, strength and coordination."

Florentine's classes will supplement a diverse repertory of classes at the Glendale Ballet Center; classical ballet, jazz, tap and flamenco. La Pari founded the center in 1973 on East Broadway and moved the organization to its current location on Glenoaks in 1981. She hopes to add ballroom dancing instruction to the center's program this year.

La Pari agreed to add karate to her school's curriculum in part from her son's experience with the art.

"He gained a lot of confidence from his karate classes," said La Pari. "It really changed his attitude, which was quite negative."

The art of karate and ballet diverge at the point of physical execution, said Florentine.

'In ballet the body is very straight and solid. In the martial arts, the body is very loose. Only at the moment of impact is the body stiff," Florentine said.

The dance element of San-Shin Kan , the form of karate which Florentine teaches, is derived from its instructive, rather than practical, origins.

Florentine said that San-Shin Kan began as a means of self-defense for Okinawa residents during the Japanese occupation in the early Seventh Century. Because native Okinawans were forbidden to carry weapons, they developed this form of karate as their only allowable means of personal protection. Hand chops were designed to smash the wooden chest plates of Samurai warriors. Fast kicks and punches were meant to evade, as well as disarm, these sword-wielding Japanese soldiers.

In order to disguise the learning process of San-Shin Kan from the Japanese, Okinawan instructors covered the self-defense element with dance-style movements, Florentine added.

"It didn't look like practical combat to the Japanese," he said.

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