On the ground floor of Trees Hall, students dressed in a mishmash of karate uniforms, T-shirts and multi-colored belts kick furiously into a punching bag without breaking concentration.
The blow of the kicks hitting the bags disrupts the fast-paced pop music pulsing through the room.
On the fringe of the larger group, two students work on their own. One punches and kicks a bag hanging from the ceiling. The other swings at the air, practicing blocks and hits against an invisible enemy.
For about 30 members of Pitt’s East West Martial Arts Club, it’s a regular Thursday evening practice. Since the ’80s, the East West club has been more than a sport for its members and instructors — it’s been a community and a way to relieve stress. While some may not compete, all seek balance and hone their mental and physical strength by learning the art of self-defense.
Though he’s never been in a fight, Joseph “Nino” Ronsivalle, the vice president of East West, said the practice isn’t about training for violent battle.
Ronsivalle focuses on martial arts’ core concepts, like self-determination and courtesy, which he carries through to his everyday life.
“I can force myself through things that I don’t want to do,” Ronsivalle said, dressed in his karategi, a traditional karate uniform. “I know I can do them because of martial arts.”
Members practice Tuesday and Thursday evenings with instructors adept in a variety of martial arts, such as taekwondo and kendo. The club focuses on karate, kobudo and jiu-jitsu styles, which all fall under budo — Japanese martial arts. Each fall, the members have the option to compete in several tournaments around the city.
Unlike the core belief of kobudo — that the proper use of weaponry creates peace — weapons are not necessary for karate or jiu-jitsu. Karate’s translation to “empty hand,” emphasizes an emptying of doubt and fear and all three practices encourage non-violence when possible.
“Any kind of negativity is driven out of here,” Kevin Sciullo, a 2015 Pitt graduate and a club instructor said. “As soon as they walk through the door, they push everything else aside.”
While the statistics for just how many people practice martial arts are unclear, a New York Times article from the ‘80s tied the rising popularity of martial arts at the time to celebrity names like Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee.
Today, many colleges offer self-defense classes — especially those targeted toward women — for students both on and off campus. The Pitt police will offer three SAFE self-defense classes in January.
“Everybody wants to learn a bit of self-protection skills,” said Curtis Smith, a Pitt police officer and faculty sponsor of the club.
Throughout Pittsburgh, there are more than 30 martial arts schools, and the club credits itself as one of more than six martial arts-based clubs on campus. Pitt also offers several one-credit, martial arts-based courses each fall and spring semester, such as Budo, Judo and Beginning Karate.
Konstanin Tourkov, a black belt in shotokan karate, was hunting around for a place to keep his skills fresh at Pitt a few years ago. He stopped by the multi-purpose room during a budo class, and accepted the instructor’s invitation to join immediately.
“I wasn’t able to find any other place to train because it was either out of the way or too expensive,” Tourkov said. “When I walked into the Trees room, it was a great fit.”
Since he found the club, Tourkov said he’s been able to turn to martial arts to relieve stress.
“You find a balance between physical and mental exercise,” Tourkov said. “This is your outlet.”
For others, like Sciullo, a fourth-degree black belt in taekwondo, martial arts is about individual expression. Sciullo found martial arts at a young age. His father, a life-long competitor, introduced him to the sport when Sciullo was 6 years old. In the practice, he found a vehicle for self-determination.
“I tried the team sports,” said Sciullo, but he found he preferred the individuality of martial arts.
Without a team to rely on or let down, Ronsivalle said a loss isn’t as detrimental in karate as it is in a team sport.
“I get to compete with myself,” said Ronsivalle, who started learning at the age of seven.
Other longtime participants and Thursday night regulars include Curtis Smith, a physical education instructor at Pitt who has been involved in martial arts for 40 years — since he was a wrestler for Brentwood High School in Long Island, New York.
Smith, who graduated from Pitt in 1976, holds a seventh-degree black belt in tai-ho jitsu, jiu-jitsu and karate-do. According to Smith, his early exposure to the arts makes him a sought-after instructor to train police officers in areas such as passive and active restraint and VIP protection.
He is also an expert on safety and self-defense and teaches physical training classes at Pitt such as Budo and Personal Defense.
“I’ve always been about the students and for the students,” Smith said. “We teach things that you will not see at a commercial venue.”
Smith created the well-known “Buy Yourself A Minute” method taught in his personal defense class, which focuses on teaching observational skills. At the end of his course, simulated scenarios on the streets in Oakland, like someone trying to steal a student’s bag, offers them the chance to use their skills.
Instructors and students said they’ve gained confidence from the club’s training that will stay with them after they walk out of the multi-purpose studio.
“People leave this room and they’re like, ‘I can get it done now,’” Sciullo said.