Karate students play "Ninja Tag" in a circle.

When a Karate Dojo Becomes "Home"

When you think about a karate dojo, you may imagine a stereotype like Rex Kwon Do from the hilarious film Napoleon Dynamite.

Bravado. Get tough. Tower over your students. "Bow to your sensei!"

Though Rex in the film is the caricature of a domineering sensei, he also represents our culture's tendency towards power.

Not so for Sensei Sheri Angwin.

"Sensei Sheri," as her students affectionately call her, is intimidating (she can easily kick over my head). She also commands an earned-respect from her pupils.

But her dojo is no Rex Kwon Do.

Sesnei Sheri kneels, smiles, and motions toward her students.

Stepping into her dojo feels like a paradigm shift from our hurried culture in America. Things slow down here, and people face one another out of respect. It's a sanctuary for fun and disciplined martial arts.

It feels like family.

Dojo Rhythm

Ingram's Karate Center has several locations in the Tampa Bay area. The Carrollwood dojo sits between restaurants and store fronts. Its unassuming exterior betrays the serious and fun karate within.

The dojo itself, a large rectangular room with a red and black padded floor, hosts students of all ages.

Before the class tonight, a fun energy pervades the room: students laugh and chat about school, older students offer quick hugs to their shorter counterparts, and the teen sensei catch up with the kids they will be teaching.

Sensei Sheri calls them to attention, and the shift happens. The students hurry to line up shoulder-to-shoulder in order of rank. She walks to the front of the dojo, smiling at her students. A high-ranking student calls out a Japanese command, and everyone—sensei and student—bow toward each other.

Female student bows at end of kata.

Tonight, the advanced class of brown and black belts practice their kata, which are traditional sequences of attacks and defensive moves.

During the kata, Sensei Sheri emphasizes her high expectations for her students, letting them know their footing and stances must be flawless and self-corrected.

She calls out a command in Japanese and waits for the students to move into position. She watches them and then pauses. After a few seconds, one or two students fix their footing and the class moves on.

This rhythm of enjoyment and reverence for the martial art flows throughout the evening.

Dojo Apprentices

Instead of a singular sensei overwhelming the room, Sensei Sheri's protégés weave among the younger students, offering help and guidance. These other sensei are older teens and young adults who have studied under Sheri. "I've literally known them since they were babies. They're like family," Sheri shares with me later that evening.

Teen sensei motivates a student during pushups.
Teen sensei motivates a student during pushups.

"Braden, left foot," Sensei Evan Melendez says during practice. The younger student, without losing his forward focus, shifted his footing ever so slightly.

This bond and trust between the students and their teen sensei are a testament to the years Sheri has poured into her pupils. They emulate her, not out of fear or necessity, but because they are part of the family.

Teen sensei helps a female student with hand position during kata.
Sensei Camryn Lopez helps a younger student with form.

Sensei Sheri takes great pride in her older students. "They are all people who started karate when they were little kids."

Sheri then reflects on her years as a teacher. "I feel sorry for teachers that only get their kids for a year…You get to really mold kids more than any other kind of teacher because karate is life long."

Dojo Family

Earlier in the evening, Sensei Sheri took a moment to talk with the parents. After a few minutes of catching up, she shared how a student's grandparent had a major heart issue, rendering it impossible for the student to make it to class. She asked the families to pray for them, and then she looked into who could offer the student a lift each week. "I would do it," she said, "but I will be teaching class at the time [the grandson] gets out of school."

By the end of the night, one parent had already worked out the details for driving the student.

This foundation of community and family repeats itself throughout the evening as I watch the students and sensei work hard and play hard together.

Erin Fox, the mom of a black belt student, shares with me, "From day one, we felt a sense of community and value at Ingram’s…Maddie has always described Ingram’s as 'home.' Ingram’s has become like family to us over the years. We have a sense of belonging here, and Maddie really loves the fact that she can be part of this family for years to come."

Female karate student practices kata, arm extended with hand up-turned.
Student Maddie Fox practicing kata during class.

Maddie has practiced karate for six years at Ingram's. Though she is involved with other sports, Ingram's has stuck for the long haul. They feel the dojo makes a difference in the students' lives by "developing young people as a whole not just as martial artists, but as great human beings."

From day one, we felt a sense of community and value at Ingram’s.

Another parent, Christina Araujo, feels the same: "I think it's pretty special that you have a dojo with sensei who were once students at Ingram's themselves. Who are so dedicated not just to the craft but to organization that they've stayed with…for over 10 to 15 years. That to me speaks volumes on the impact they have on the community."

Her son earned his black belt in September.

This dedication to their students is evident in small interactions. Throughout practice Sensei Sheri peppers-in encouragement. "Boys, you know you've been working so hard that you are totally going to be ready for black belt testing in May," she says to a couple of brown belts.

Jonathan, a brown belt student, had missed his black belt testing in September due to being sick. Sheri layers encouragement into his training: "I feel so bad you missed your black belt testing. But you know, I am also so happy for you...your karate has improved so much since then!"

The student smiles and continues working at his kata.

Dojo Balance

The students take their kata seriously, holding their gazes as they practice each movement.

The students are practicing traditional Isshinryu kata, all of which are designed for black belt-level mastery. Their tradition does not have junior kata.

"You know, it's hard to teach young people traditional styles," Sheri admits, "but I have spent my life figuring out how to make this fun." She wants the karate to be "fun, but also real."

One way Sheri has achieved this is through extra activities. Ingram's karate lessons incorporate play and team-building with each lesson.

Tonight's game: Ninja Tag!

Students play "Ninja Tag" with teen sensei in a circle.
Students and sensei taking turns during "Ninja Tag."

They circle up and stand in exaggerated ninja poses. Each player makes a single, quick movement, attempting to strike their neighbor's arm. If a player's arm is struck, they must hold that arm behind their back. Once both arms are struck, they are out of the game.

The students crack-up as they miss wildly, graze their friend's hand, or find themselves in a ridiculous position. The teen sensei get in the action as well.

After declaring a winner, the students line up. They grin, chat, and then bow together to close the night.

Dojo Future

After class, Sensei Sheri invites me to her office to talk about the dojo. Weapons, decor, and motivational quotes adorn her walls.

Close-up on inspirational sign and palmetto cross on Sensei Sheri's wall.
A glimpse into Sensei Sheri's office.

I take the opportunity to ask about the future of Ingram's Karate. She expresses how she loves what she has built and she how did not have an interest in grand expansions.

"As much as I love karate, it's not everything to me," Sheri said. "I love my family."

For her, "balance" in life is key. She then elaborates on the business of the dojo: "If it was bigger and if it was eating me, it would be all I could do."

Dojo Legacy

Sheri began her karate journey 38 years ago. Her parents, John and Cindy Ingram, had started the dojo in a rec center in the late 70's.

They studied under Master Harold Mitchum, who had studied under Isshinryu's creator, Master Shimabuku.

As I listen to Sheri explain the tapestry of their history, I realize how much of karate blends into their everyday life.

Once you're an Ingram, you're an Ingram for life.

As a younger student, she remembers Master Harold Mitchum visiting her family, even spending time with them on Christmas. "He ended up becoming like family to us."

Master Mitchum passed away from an illness in 2016.

Sheri, along with her business partner Jennifer Davenport, carry on their legacy right here in the Tampa Bay area.

The families at Ingram's Karate feel a part of this legacy as well.

Parent Christina Araujo admits, "Once you're an Ingram, you're an Ingram for life."

Story and photos by Jordan Hopkins. All photos taken with written permission by students and parents.

This article was updated on October 26, 2020

Jordan Hopkins

Jordan is a freelance content writer and educator. He is passionate about serving others and amplifying their narratives through quality writing. You can find him hanging with his family, fishing, playing guitar, and grinding the best beans for his morning coffee.