Lifelong passion leads to career for local man

Martial arts instructor Dean Smith volunteers at the Lutheran Service Society (LSS) center in Bellevue, teaching a weekly tai chi class to help seniors improve balance and muscle tone. Pictured above, Smith answers questions after class from students Marie Reber and Don Walsh. Photo by Connie Rankin for The Citizen

A quote from Confucius tells us, "Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life."

It is a philosophy with which Dean Smith of Ben Avon wholeheartedly agrees, and he stands as a living example of its truth.

"My hobby and my life's passion is my job," he says.

Especially during the last five months, which is how long it's been since Smith opened his martial arts school, the Dojo, on North Balph Avenue in Bellevue.

He acknowledges that many would say that today's economy has created a tough environment for starting a new business, but the Dojo is the natural culmination of nearly 30 years of practicing and teaching martial arts.

Beginning as a 10-year-old, the 37-year-old Northgate graduate and Bellevue native earned black belts in karate and Tae Kwon Do as early as 1988, and became certified as a martial arts instructor in 1990.

Although his passion for the martial arts first centered on competition, it has involved into a love of teaching his own style of mixed martial arts.

"That's my gift," he says of teaching. "I'm dedicated to providing the best martial arts instruction available anywhere."

His instruction spans all age groups and individual goals, from children to senior citizens, from those interested in competition to people trying to stay in shape, to those who want to protect themselves.

His students will walk away with more than just the technical knowledge of martial arts.

With children, he says, the key often is to challenge and encourage them just enough to build the self esteem and discipline that will turn into respect not only for themselves, but for the world around them. Each child has his own needs, and his own key to unlocking those enviable qualities.

"That's where the magic is, when you know what they need," Smith says.

At the other end of the spectrum are the elderly, who risk severe injury from falls and are vulnerable to crime because of their frailness. For them, the answer is tai chi training that mixes in what Smith calls "self protection" rather than self defense, a more assertive knowledge of techniques that could save them from assault, even if it's just by giving them the air of confidence that makes them appear to be less of an easy target for criminals.

He currently volunteers at the Lutheran Service Society (LSS) center in Bellevue, where his tai chi class for seniors is breaking attendance records.

"It's only an hour a week, but I look forward to it," Smith says.

Back at the Dojo, course offerings continue to grow to offer opportunities for all ages and fitness levels.

Looking to stay in shape? Smith recommends fitness kickboxing, which combines elements of traditional boxing and kickboxing in a non-contact work-out.

"It's the best exercise out there," Smith says, noting that "the simplicity of the class" lets students of all abilities "slip right in."

Need to battle the effects of stress in a quieter way? The Dojo now offers a special yoga class, in which instructor Erin Commendator teaches her own "So Hum" style of yoga. A free, 75-minute seminar on Saturday, Aug. 15, 9:30-10:45 a.m., will give prospective students of all experience levels the chance to try out the new class.

Want to be able to defend yourself? Another free seminar, on Saturday, Aug. 22, 1-2 p.m., will teach self protection and knife defense. The seminar will feature long-time training partner Paul Zeak, who operates his own martial arts school and who Smith credits with inspiring him to open the Dojo.

He and Zeak also are teaming up to start a mixed martial arts fight team that will train and compete in the full-contact sport.

Smith's plans for the Dojo continue to grow, with ideas already on the drawing board for future seminars and classes.

The Dojo is located at 2 N. Balph Ave., second floor, in Bellevue. For information about classes or to register for the free, upcoming seminars, call (412)277-6302.

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