Nobody's going to mistake Jason Jones for a Power Ranger or a Ninja Turtle. But he can kick and scream and punch with the best of 'em.
And right now, the 7-year-old from Randallstown wants to show off. While his classmates wait patiently in line for their chance to perform a midair leg kick in front of their karate instructor, Jason jumps up and down, thrusts his leg in the air, shakes his head violently, spins around, and generally expends enough energy to light a medium-sized city.
Jason's enthusiasm is shared by hundreds of thousands of other children, who are fueling a nationwide martial arts boom. In the past decade, the number of karate students ages 14 and under has quadrupled to about 1 million, says George Anderson, president of the U.S.A. Karate Foundation.
"The increase has been really dramatic," Mr. Anderson says from the foundation's offices in Akron, Ohio. "In the last couple years, the increase has been 500 percent."
In Maryland, there's no shortage of places for kids to learn the martial arts, which include karate, kung fu, tai chi, tae kwon do and other disciplines. The Baltimore Yellow Pages alone lists more than 80 martial arts schools, and that doesn't include the YMCAs and parks and recreation departments that also teach them.
So what is it about these ancient Oriental disciplines that attracts so many youngsters? Some kids are trying to emulate their television heroes, some simply want to do what their friends do, others have parents desperate to instill some of the discipline and respect for authority so key to martial arts training.
But watching Jason in action reveals the real reason martial arts have become so popular among kids:
It's fun. Where else can a 7-year-old scream, kick the kid next to him, and be applauded for his effort? Where else can a kid actually have an adult urge him to hit somebody?
Not that karate schools teach their charges to attack other kids. Just the opposite -- children are reminded again and again that the martial arts are to be used only in self-defense. Ask Jason's schoolmates, 8-year-old Damian Smoot and 11-year-old Brandon Stokes, what they learn in class, and they complete each other's sentences.
"We learn discipline," Damian begins.
". . . and self-defense," Brandon finishes.
People aren't joining martial arts to become warriors anymore," says James France of Blue Dragon Tae Kwon Do (which differs from karate by placing more emphasis on high leg kicks) in Timonium, where 65 percent of students are age 13 or under.
Hitting is confined within the four walls of the classroom. The philosophy behind what they are doing -- the ancient codes of conduct, the importance of peace of mind -- is stressed even more than the moves themselves.
"The first thing I tell them is, if you misuse your training, we stop your training," says Joe Pelanzo, founder of the Ken Po Karate School in Pikesville, where Jason and about three dozen other pre-teens took to the mat on a recent Tuesday evening.
All of which is fine and good -- instructors are eager to teach the discipline of martial arts, and parents are glad to have their children learn it. There's no guarantee, though, that the kids will buy into it. But adults have a handful of powerful allies when it comes to interesting kids in the martial arts, and they go by the names Kimberly, Rocky, Billy, Aisha, Tommy and Adam.
Collectively known as the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, they are the latest in a line of martial arts heroes to spring from America's television screens -- a line that traces as far back as the Green Hornet and his faithful sidekick, Kato (Bruce Lee, who went on to become the first martial arts superstar) and proceeds through Kung Fu (David Carradine's Caine character had people all over the world calling each other "Grass hopper") and those pizza-loving reptiles, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
"The kids don't even have to have a TV in their home," says Mr. Pelanzo. "They all know who the Power Rangers are, who the Ninja Turtles are."
Karate schools couldn't pay for better recruiters.
Many kids are flocking to martial arts classes "because they want to be Power Rangers or something like that," says Lee Epperson, head instructor for Kim's Karate, with 21 schools and franchises in the Baltimore-Washington area. "That's what gets them going, gets them interested."
Even the smallest kids are into karate, though some of them have trouble understanding the concept of a choreographed confrontation. Witness a pair of preschoolers during a Ken Po karate "Turtles" class for beginners, their heads encased in protective headgear, circling each other cautiously, scoping out each other's weaknesses.
Well, not exactly. Actually, they're running around in circles trying to avoid each other, much to the amusement -- and lighthearted consternation -- of their instructors.
"Go guys, spar," instructor Chris Delrosario pleads. "Punch and kick, punch and kick."