By Max Bowen
A great teacher never stops learning.
It’s one of the tenants of North Attleborough’s Okinawan Shohei-Ryu, where the teachers are always testing themselves to achieve new ranks and skill sets. Last fall, Jean DeCosta, one of the instructors at the school, set a record by becoming the first woman in this style to earn 9th Dan, or black belt.
DeCosta began going to the school shortly after it opened in 1974 and has been there ever since. She achieved 8th Dan in 2010 and said it would be nine years before she can test for 10th Dan.
Tell me about the style of martial arts you study.
This is an Okinawan style. It’s a defensive style, so that means we’re more on defense. What we have is what a lot of other schools don’t have, we have something where we work a lot on our conditioning so we’re able to strengthen our insides as well as our outsides.
It’s a defensive style. We teach strictly—and this is especially for the kids—you walk away from a fight if you can, but it’s not as well known as say Kenpo or Tae Kwon Do or something like that. This is an Okinawan style, but it’s one of many, so there’s Goju-Ryu, Shohen-Ryu, anything with a Ryu, it means ‘style.’
George Matson brought it over to the states in the 1960s. It was ironic because he was over in Okinawa, and he was in the service and nobody wanted to teach him this style and Master Tamayose, who recently passed a couple of years ago, he talked some of the masters into teaching him and that’s how it got over here. George brought it back over here.
What was it like to achieving 9th Dan?
It was quite an honor. When you get up to 8th Dan, you have to do three katas. For 9th Dan it’s one kata, Sanseru, but they expect you over there for two to three weeks of intensive training. It doesn’t just stop here with Ed [the school’s founder] and I. Our teaching, our studying, continues on over there. So when we go over there we’re expected to do two two-hour classes a day. It’s two to three hours of good, hard training.
When did you learn that you had passed the test?
I didn’t know right away. There were some other board members who couldn’t make the test. I didn’t find out until a short time later. I knew I had done well, but I had a few injuries before we went over there. I wanted to go in January, but they recommended we go in October, but that time in between I had a few problems and so I didn’t feel at my strongest. I knew in my heart I had passed.
What happened on the day of the test?
For me, I’m very nervous. You want to do your best, make everyone proud and for me it’s stressful. For me, I do Sanchin [one of the katas] and Sanchin will calm me down and I get through the kata and then I’m a little better after that. It’s going up in front of the masters, the 8th and 9th and 10th degrees that you’ve worked out with intensively for three weeks over there.
It was nine years for me between grades. They’re not just giving any ranks out. I think they don’t want to water down the style. It’s a way of life when you get into it.
10th Dan is the highest you can go and that will be another nine years for me. Ed will be ready in one or two years and I would like to see him get his. He’s worked hard and he’s a great sensei [teacher] and it would be really good for him to do that.
I’ve never been to Okinawa. What’s it like?
It’s amazing, the people are wonderful. The people are so nice and the masters are so nice. It’s a small island, very pretty over there, beautiful beaches.
How long have you studied martial arts?
I started in Kenpo in 1974. I was in a woman’s class and all the women dropped out and he [the instructor] wouldn’t let me take the men’s class. I wound up in a school in Providence that was the same style and then I found out that Ed was opening up his dojo. We have been here for 45 years, it was 1974 he started the dojo. We were up in the Odd Fellows building until 1981 and then this location became available. It’s worked out well for us.
I think that our longevity speaks for itself. The training doesn’t stop with us, Ed’s still training. Ed’s been to Okinawa 10 or 12 times, I’ve been six times.
In addition to studying, you’re also an instructor. What do you get being a teacher?
I love working with the kids, especially the 6,7, and 8-year-olds. They are just out there and they’re not worried about anything, they’re just out there to learn. We have fun, we have great instructors who help us out. It sounds like a cliché, but we’re all a family.
Eighty percent of the people who come in nowadays, it’s focus. It’s focus and concentration. We’ve got a lot of kids we teach have ADHD or serious conditions, and we work with them and you see them start out and see them come up the road, and it’s the most gratifying thing and it makes you feel wonderful.
We have people that have started with us and now their grandkids are starting with us. It’s so cool to see the parents coming in with their kids.