Interview with Kenpo Karate Pioneer Dennis Tosten: Kenpo Karate in Philadelphia

Beginning his Kenpo Karate career in 1967, Dennis Tosten soaked up what he learned from a myriad of martial arts, stretching from jujutsu to arnis and kung fu. Taking what he learned, he and his wife, Sharon, heads their Amerikick schools throughout the East Coast of America. Today, Tosten took some time to discuss Kenpo Karate’s history in the Philadelphia area.

 

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Tosten Sensei and thank you for taking some time to talk about Kenpo Karate in the Philadelphia area!

Dennis Tosten: It’s my pleasure!

MAYTT: At the age of thirteen, you began training in martial arts, the first being jujutsu. What drew you to training in the martial arts and has that same reason continued to motivate your training or have there been other factors that keep you inspired?

Dennis_Tosten
Dennis Tosten at one of his Amerikick Studios. Source: Amerikickwarminster.com

DT: There were some bullies that I stood up to and they fought dirty, hitting in the genitals and sorts. By the end of the fight, I was bleeding. I was just humiliated and decided I wanted to do something about it. My very first art that I study, combat judo/jujutsu system that’s taught to the Army Rangers and I was taught by an Army Ranger who decided to work with teenagers. I studied that for several years and then I discovered at the YMCA over here to have a style of jujutsu, Buruku style jujutsu and I studied there for a couple years. Then one day, I walked into a new school. I had to take one bus to get to one corner, then take another bus to the YMCA. When I got off the one bus and got ready for the other bus, I noticed there was a karate school over there. I remember standing in the window and looking at the phone number upside down and writing that number down or memorizing it. I called the school the next day and I got set up for an interview. That was a Tracy Karate school. Immediately they put me as a helper. I was a janitor first, let’s be honest [Laughs], because I really couldn’t afford lessons and. Then after about a month as a helper and two years later, I had the opportunity to join that school. And decades later, you know, my instructor was retiring, I had an opportunity to buy the school and I did. And that was the genesis of me and Kenpo Karate.

MAYTT: At the time you began training, how did the general public view martial arts? Was there a stigma that surrounded them? From your perspective, do you feel the public’s view on martial arts has changed or adapted since then?

DT: Well, back in 1967, you have to understand that in Philadelphia, there were not many martial art schools at all. I can tell you there were like five of them, and one was outside the city, in Jenkintown, and that came later. When I got involved, there was a Shotokan Club that Teruyuki Okazaki started. There was another Shotokan club down in Germantown, Philadelphia. There was a Korean school, Munson Park, in Center City, Philadelphia. There was another taekwondo school that I forget the name of. That’s what I’m talking about, there were not that many schools back then; only four or five schools in the area back in that time. At the YMCAs, there were separate programs as well and two different instructors would teach different things. The YMCA that I went to in Northeast Philadelphia, you only one that offered jujutsu. I don’t think the other ones had martial arts at all.

MAYTT: After training for a time in jujutsu, you moved onto American Kenpo Karate. How did you come across Kenpo and what led you to the decision to make Kenpo your next art? Did you find that your background in jujutsu helped you when first starting to learn Kenpo?

DT: Here’s a good story: when I walked into the Kenpo school at the top of the boulevard, and I met the instructor, Ray Klingenberg. He asked if I had training before. I said I had five years of training in judo before. he then asked, “Hey, what would you do if a guy grabbed your lapels?” He then proceeded to grab my heavy water coloroid jacket. I did a judo/jujutsu throw but didn’t really throw him. After that, he said, “This is what we do in Kenpo,” and he proceeded to perform the first move of a technique called Komodo Grab, where you pin the hand, step back, and do a rising stiff arm to break the guy’s arms. Then he followed up, of course, not hitting me, but his first move was so abrupt and so quick, that he ripped my coloroid jacket right up the back, from the neck down to about the middle of the jacket. I said to myself, “I don’t know what the hell I just saw, but I want to learn it!” And that’s how I got involved with Kenpo.

My jujutsu background did not help me with the techniques, but it did help me with the discipline. The only thing that I brought on from jujutsu were the fall techniques: back fall, side fall, roll fall, stuff like that. Those falls aren’t really taught in the initial Kenpo system. However, the falling techniques came in handy when there was a take down.

To be honest with you, it was night and day; Kenpo’s such a radically different system, especially the sparring part.

MAYTT: That’s something you don’t hear anymore with people starting martial arts today! At the time, what was the Kenpo Karate scene like comparatively speaking to other martial arts in the Philadelphia area? Who were some of the more well-known practitioners in the region? Was Philadelphia considered a major hub for Kenpo or was it primarily small clubs?

DT: Well, like I said before, there were only about four or five martial arts schools in and around Philadelphia and no one knew what Kenpo was. Ray Klingenberg, my instructor, was one of them. He brought over another instructor from the West Coast, Dennis Nackord; he was a big founder of Kenpo in the Philadelphia area and one of my early instructors. There was another guy who joined right around the time I started Kenpo named Michael Donovan, who got out of the Green Berets. He was originally a jungle combat instructor. He and I are still friends today; I just talked with him last week. [Laughs] He started a small chain of schools up in Canada, but he’s cutting back now, doing a part-time job now and enjoying retirement. He’s seventy-five and again, one of the early pioneers in Kenpo in Philadelphia. He opened up a school in Pittsburgh too. So those are some of the early people in the martial arts in Philadelphia.

MAYTT: In your many years of training and teaching Kenpo Karate in the Philadelphia area, how have you seen the Kenpo community grow and change? Has it evolved in your opinion or do you feel it still holds true to the art’s core teachings and traditions? Is there anyone you feel who is making an impression or impact in the Philadelphia Kenpo community?

DT: The art of Kenpo is strong in Philadelphia, traditionally. The improvements I see involves tournament fighting and sparring, across the board. I think the creative kata and weapons kata are brilliant in Kenpo. I think that the knowledge of Kenpo, the people I know, work with it, and teach and train it, are all adding to the art.

There’s a group here in Philadelphia called the Kenpo Brotherhood, run by Dan Meck and Sibora Chan. They are definitely bringing the level of Kenpo up across the board, but in the United States and in the world. They have a Zoom conference every Saturday and they invite instructors from all over the world. They go over one technique and they’ll have viewpoints from six or seven different instructors around the world. It helps and even though I earned my black belt in February of 1972, I’m still learning!

MAYTT: By the age of eighteen, you purchased and began running a martial arts school in Northern Philadelphia, founding the American Karate Studios. What influenced you to make such a decision to go out on your own and make a business of it?

DT: When I graduated from a community college, I really wanted to follow my passions, and I did. I wanted to get involved with the martial arts and I never got away from it.

Shortly after getting my black belt, my instructor Ray Klingenberg wanted to move to Atlanta, Georgia and I had an opportunity to buy the school and I never looked back.

To give a little background, we were all Al Tracy schools, and we had a major problem with Tracy and we broke away, and I’m not going to get into that here, however, the Kenpo Brotherhood has that documented there. Anyway, I opened up the school called American Karate Studios, and anyone can use that name because the term “America” cannot be trademarked. Several decades ago, I decided to change the name. My wife, Sharon, came up with the name Amerikick Karate Studios and that’s what we stayed with.

MAYTT: Very interesting start! Throughout your fifty years of training, you had the opportunity to train in several different martial systems, including Krav Maga, kung fu, ninjutsu, judo, arnis, and bando. What drew you to pursue these arts and do you feel they have greatly influenced your individual Kenpo Karate style? If so, how?

DT: I got my black belt in Modern Arnis from Remy Presas before he died, to the seventh degree black belt in his system. Arnis is wonderful and it fits right into Kenpo. It really compliments it very well. I think Kenpo and arnis are like two sides of the same coin, and I think Kenpo and Shotokan are two sides of the same coin. There is a Korean art that I forget the name of, but I have not studied that, but

I also got a black belt taekwondo, and got involved in Hogan Sparring, which has some different rules and format. I won nine state championships, in kata, creative kata, and sparring. I went onto nationals and took a bronze in sparring. That helped me develop my kicks and helped me focus on my legwork. Taekwondo really taught me to use my leg because that’s how they score in sparring. They don’t use punches to score; they really don’t count. I have to win by landing more kicks on your opponent.

MAYTT: Additionally, you simultaneously trained in Shotokan Karate while still training in Kenpo. As you were studying, did you find any of the movements from Shotokan similar to those in Kenpo? Did Shotokan help you better understand Kenpo or vice versa? Were there parallels in the training and the philosophies?

DT: I got a black belt in Shotokan. I did that because I wanted to further my perfection of the kata. They are so strong and so sharp with their kata. I loved Shotokan for the purity of the art.

In Shotokan and Kenpo, they are very similar. The best way to describe it is in a Japanese word called shibumi, which means effortless perfection – just doing something without thinking or without reflecting. It also had the discipline and internal focus of character I think are one the main things I learned from Shotokan. I also had an amazing instructor at Shotokan; he always taught me to never settle for good, settle for perfection. That brought up my martial arts to another level.

The basics are also phenomenal. Learning the basics of Shotokan and you get them down; you’re going to be really strong and consistent.

To sum up: the footwork, stance work, power, focus, concentration, kiai, the energy at the right spot at the correct time are very important and were very important to my understanding of Kenpo.

MAYTT: For over thirty years of your martial arts journey, you competed in many state and national tournaments of different styles. What aspect of competition attracted you to that portion of the martial arts?

DT: To be honest with you, I competed in all three divisions: weapons, kata, and kumite; I loved all three. I also competed in weapons as well, winning a lot of titles. I enjoyed the beauty of kata and learning new kata. The judges, most of them didn’t judge Kenpo kata – they just didn’t know what to look for. Now, they have a separate division, called Kenpo Division, where you could enter and do your traditional Kenpo forms.

I trained in kung fu for a while, and when kata started to get into the creative aspect, that training really helped. I studied several styles of kung fu Sun Moon Fist Kung Fu and Shaolin Kung Fu. When the creative aspects of kata came up, I started to use their kata: the tiger, the crane, the leopard set, and the bug set. I did really well. In fact, the first tournament that I won, I got disqualified in sparring, but I took first place in kata. I was a green belt at the time and felt I should stay with kata a little bit more. To this day, I really enjoyed the kata.

MAYTT: Who would you say helped you grow in competition sparring?

DT: Again, back in the 1960s, in karate, either Japanese or Korean styles, everything was off the back leg – all the moves were done off the back leg. In Kenpo, I learned how to do kicks, punches, backhands, and so forth off of the front leg. That really opened up a whole new world of sparring me.

Back in the 1970s – I think in 1972 – myself and another instructor from Philadelphia named Mark Steiner, we were the first two black belts promoted by World Champion Joe Lewis. He brought a lot to my sparring and still does. His theories back then are still relevant today: controlling the distance, timing, off angles, stuff like that. He was a real big help and helped me move up to the top-three tournament sparrer for three decades before I retired.

MAYTT: It’s amazing to see that progression of using more of the front leg, rather than solely the back leg, in competition. Now, it seems like everyone can use both legs instead of just one.

DT: Yes. Now, all they use is the front leg in the tournaments that I run. I run the Amerikick Internationals at the Philadelphia Convention Center every year. It’s a two-day event and attracts thousands of people and competitors from around the world. Whether they are from Mexico, Canary Islands, England, or Ireland, the front hand and front leg are the primary weapons – that’s where most of the points are being scored.

Back in the day, using the front hand and foot was kind of unfair to the other styles, because I would go in and beat these guys using my front leg, especially the Joe Lewis sidekick. I had a friendly sparring match with a Shotokan guy where he tried to figure out what I hit him with. He didn’t want to learn it [Laugh], but he wanted to see what I did, analyze it, so he can better defend against it the next time.

MAYTT: What would you say are the benefits to participating in competition? Are there aspects of the training that can only be obtained by competing in your opinion? Based on your experience, is competition something you recommend your students participate in?

DT: We have an Amerikick team at the local, national, and international level. The international team goes to places like Italy, Germany, and England. Me personally, I find training for a competition brings you to a new level of excellence.

We present competitions to the students as “Do you want to compete and win at a local, national, or international level?” If it’s local, then its this amount of training they have to put in to balance that out. If it’s the national level, then they really need to put a lot more time in to balance out that scale of training, but we are putting in a lot more training, knowledge, and work into it.

It also teaches two things, depending on the individual. First, they can walk away with a negative attitude, saying to themselves that my kata was better, the judges didn’t know what they were looking at, and so forth. Second, they can walk away with an attitude where they are trying to figure out why they lost – what was it that the other person did, what did I do, and so forth. To give a personal example, when I lost, I asked myself why did the other guy beat me and what do I need to do to beat me? I made a game plan for the next time I train for competition and take it up to another level.

What it comes down to is the individual. It’s just like school; if someone wants to go to a specific college, then they put in the extra work and go on to the next level and become lawyers and doctors. What’s your desire and how much work are you willing to put in to achieve that level?

We hold Amerikick tournaments four times a year, open to only Amerikick students, and it’s broken down into belt divisions so it’s fair to those who enter. The competitors get to decide from these little tournaments how they want to proceed with their competition career. It’s a good way for the student to get involved to see for themselves what their skill level is and what they want to do and accomplish.

MAYTT: Your Amerikick franchise has twenty-three locations, mainly centered around the Northeast region of America. How did the idea of franchise your dojo and system of Kenpo come about? Was there something not present in either the immediate Kenpo/martial arts community that you sought to offer?

DT: At one time, I had three schools. I was training managers and salesmen for these schools, I’m teaching, my wife had a baby girl, and bills began to pile up. I sold one of the schools and then somebody else gave us a school – back to three now. Then I sold that school to one of my instructors and at the same time, someone else was going out of business, and we got their school. Back up to three, we sold two schools so we can just manage the one. Then my wife opened up another school and then we sold that. In the process of doing that, we gave our instructors an opportunity to run their own schools. There were a lot of other instructors coming up through the ranks that also wanted to open a school too. From there, we did more of a marketing/association thing than a franchise. It turned into a franchise but it kind of happened out of circumstance. It wasn’t something that we preplanned or anything at a certain time. It just happened organically.

The black belts that we sold the schools to were happy and doing what they loved. A couple of their black belts wanted to move on and open up their own schools, and we started to help them out in acquiring locations and such. Now, we have a whole program from A to Z, form getting a location, to the lease, to the landlords, to everything – the whole nine yards. My wife, Sharon, was a major help in this. I can’t take all the credit.

MAYTT: I see. In your years of training in Kenpo Karate, you had the opportunity to train under the art’s founder, Edmund Parker. What do you think Master Parker would say about American Kenpo Karate as it is today? Has it evolved like he would have hoped?

DT: I really enjoyed training under him very much. I learned a lot from him, and I learned a lot of concepts and theories. At that time in his life, that’s what he was into, making sure you understood the principles and concepts, mostly through technique.

I think he’d be happy with its progress. He was happy with the people he promoted. However, one or two people, when he passed away, moved on, got big heads, and became grand masters overnight. Right now, I think if he was alive today, he’d be happy with where Kenpo is currently at.

Now, Kenpo is stronger and more known. Back in 1972, I didn’t know, and most people didn’t know what Kenpo was. It evolved and there are many Kenpo schools now and a lot of them are very high quality. There are some that are not, but generally, they are of high quality.

MAYTT: That’s good to hear that a founder would be happy with how the art evolved since his death. Given the recent effects of COVID-19, how do you see Amerikick and other martial arts schools reemerging from this pandemic? What steps have you taken to maintain training for your students and schools? Has the virtual format been a successful avenue for Amerikick?

DT: For us, yes. The idea is to keep the attention of our students. Most schools are having hard times. We are reopened and are having full classes right now. Many karate schools and many other businesses that I know are going out of business, closing their doors, and giving up. What we learned is to better use Zoom classes. We can have our students in the summer, who in the summer may miss classes due to vacation, can join classes through Zoom so they don’t miss what’s being taught and still continue to learn. What we say is when you’re served lemons, make limoncello [Laughs]

MAYTT: With that in mind, how do you think Kenpo will survive if such social distancing practices continue? Would there be a need at all for physical schools and if not, can a training environment centered around an all virtual format really produce competent and effective martial arts practitioners in your opinion?

DT: No. You need the one-on-one, hands-on teaching, especially if you are a gifted student who wants to go into more advanced levels of training and/or competition. No, nothing settles for the real deal, at all.

Are we going to survive after all of this, yes. We are a strong group and we have everything in place right now. Things are working out right now. The school is coming back strong.

MAYTT: In 2011, you published Practical Insights, a Kenpo manual that encompasses and conveys what you have learned and researched over the many years of your martial arts journey. What was the publishing experience like for you? Was it something you enjoyed and are there any plans for a second book and, if so, what topics would you foresee yourself covering?

DT: I enjoyed the experience. It was something I wanted to do. I was in the hospital for a while and I started to write some notes down. From there, I began writing the book and it was a fun experience and I really enjoyed it. I was able to go to different Amerikick schools from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York and pick a chapter and say, “This is what we are going to be working on.” I enjoyed the experience tremendously.

My wife and I travel internationally, and I always bring a copy of the book, because wherever I go, I always visit a local karate school to train or teach. I went down to South Africa for a Kenpo school, and I gave them a copy of my book and they love it and get all excited! [Laughs] I do that everywhere I go.

The second book is written already. All the photos are taken except for the last four chapters. Once I get the images done, that will probably be out in September or October. It’s called Sparring Science and it’s everything I learned about sparring from great instructors from Bill Wallace, Joe Lewis, and a bunch of other guys that I had the pleasure and opportunity to work with. There are explanations on footwork, timing, distance, and stuff like that. That’s a great book and I’m really excited to get that done.

MAYTT: Final question, Sensei. With over fifty years of training, teaching, and running martial arts schools, what advice would you give to someone wanting to start a Kenpo school today?

DT: Do your homework. There’s so much involved. People think, just like opening a restaurant, boom, you open the doors and they walk in. You have to have everything all lined up; everything from how to negotiate a lease and look for the things that the landlord will put in here to screw you – they’re always looking out for themselves. You’ve got to know your territory; what’s a reasonable rate and you’ve got to know contract law.

MAYTT: Thank you for the insight in Kenpo Karate history!

DT: You’re very welcome!

 

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