There are many reasons why people of all ages pursue karate. There are the parents sending children in the hope they will become more disciplined, or will burn off energy. Some students may belooking to improve self discipline. Others may simply want a fun form of exercise. And for some, acquiring self-defense skills is the appeal.
No matter the reason that they set foot in her dojo, Sensei Michelle Del Giorno of Epic Martial Arts East, based in Sag Harbor, says she hopes all students under her tutelage take something positive away from the experience. But she does not expect most of them to be there for what is the longest of long hauls in the sport — achieving a black belt.
In May, one of her students will do just that, becoming the first from the dojo to earn what is the highest honor in the sport. Pierson High School junior Emily Glass, 16, will earn her black belt on May 23, in front of family, friends and others from the karate community.
It’s the result of countless hours spent in the studio, for more than half of her life, starting when she was just 7 years old. Del Giorno acknowledged that it was not uncommon natural athleticism that brought Glass to this point, but rather the kind of traits that even the most physically talented students will need to call on if they expect to get to that level.
“It’s the training, the dedication, the perseverance — the whole philosophy of martial arts,” Del Giorno said when describing what allowed Glass to achieve the high level at such a young age. Getting there means a student has demonstrated characteristics that will serve them well throughout their whole life outside the dojo as well.
“You have tremendous self control, you’ve developed discipline, fortitude, and you’re in good physical condition,” said Del Giorno, who has had her black belt for more than 30 years. “You have mental focus, you can avoid danger, and you have confidence and self-esteem. You’re always aware of what’s going on around you. It’s almost like you have a sixth sense when you’re a black belt, and this is why it takes years.”
Glass got her start in karate when she was an elementary school student, after seeing a demonstration at school. She is the kind of kid who is always eager to try new things, but over the years, three activities have had staying power for her: karate, theater, and the Girl Scouts, in which she is currently working on her Gold Award, the highest rank that can be achieved in Girl Scouts.
Del Giorno describes Glass as unique in how “self-motivated” she has always been, while adding that her parents, Jen and Dan Glass, have always been supportive as well.
For her part, Glass said that achieving her black belt was a goal from early on. She loved the community aspect of the sport from the start, and wanted to follow in the footsteps of Del Giorno — who she refers to as like a “second mom” — and who was the first female in her dojo many years ago to receive her black belt.
The location for her black belt demonstration isn’t set yet, although Del Giorno said she expects it will be conducted outdoors because of COVID restrictions limiting the number of people who can be present in the dojo, which is already constrained because of size. On that day, Glass will perform over the course of three hours, demonstrating everything from basic punches and kicks to self defense moves against a partner, as well as board breaking, a crowd favorite. She will perform in front of Del Giorno as well as other black belt instructors, including Tony Peters from East Hampton.
Glass’s sparring partners — John Broich Jr., 20, and Thomas Schiavoni Jr, 16 — have been helpful and supportive as well, she said, and she likes how karate allows people of different ages and genders to build relationships and have fun together. She also likes the community-minded aspect of Epic Martial Arts, which has service requirements for four of the belts. Glass did a winter coat drive for Maureen’s Haven for her blue belt, and taught a karate class for young girls from the i-tri program for her purple belt.
Karate has also helped Glass navigate an ADHD diagnosis. It’s a condition that can make Glass feel like her mind is “going 50,000 miles per hour,” she said, adding that practicing karate helps her channel that energy and enhances her ability to concentrate.
“It’s definitely helped me build more confidence in myself, and has also helped me focus a lot,” she said. “With ADHD, it can be hard to focus sometimes, and karate helps with that.”
Glass’s mother said she’s “incredibly proud” of her daughter for sticking with a sport that is both physically and mentally challenging, adding that they didn’t have any specific expectations when she first expressed interest in karate a decade ago.
“We just supported her as long as she wanted to do it,” she said. “She’s really matured with it, and as she described, it’s been so helpful to her in so many ways in her life.”
Glass said she appreciated the support of her parents, and added that Del Giorno’s mentorship has been a powerful force in her life.
“She’s known me for 10 years now, and has helped me so much with my confidence,” she said. “She’s awesome.”
There is mutual admiration between the two. Del Giorno drove home the point of how difficult it is to achieve a black belt, estimating that only one out of 100 people who practice karate ever get to the that level, if that.
“She’s really different for a kid her age,” she said. “There are so many distractions today, and she’s been able to keep her focus on three really incredible activities. Her academics have improved tremendously as well, and she just told me she made the National Honor Society.
“She’s a really incredible kid,” Del Giorno added. “One in a lifetime, honestly.”