Virtual classes, on-demand videos kept Ara’s martial arts studio afloat

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SILER CITY — Practicing martial arts is inherently known as an in-person activity, since sparring with and learning from instructors and other pupils is a core aspect of mastering any fighting art form.

From having your form corrected in real-time to understanding new moves through demonstrations and repetition, in-person instruction allows students of all ages to learn in environments tailored to their skillsets and interests, where they can focus on nothing but honing their abilities.

But as the COVID-19 pandemic raged on last year, most martial arts studios across the country — including Siler City’s A.F.E. Taekwondo Fitness Academy — were forced to step away from training in-studio and shift to an entirely new location: students’ homes.

“During the pandemic, we kept all of our students doing virtual classes,” Antonio Ara, owner of Siler City’s A.F.E. Taekwondo Fitness Academy, told the News + Record. “I have a virtual class platform and we’d make videos and try to keep students busy training.”

Taekwondo has been a part of Ara’s life for 38 years, his journey starting when he was just 9 years old still living in Cancun, Mexico.

In nearly four decades in the sport — nearly three as a competitor and business owner — he’s won plenty of competitions, qualified for the Mexican Olympic Trials in taekwondo at the age of 18 and built up one of Chatham County’s most notable martial arts studios in A.F.E. TKD.

However, despite his wide range of experience combined with his deep love for taekwondo, nothing could prepare him for the coronavirus pandemic. It consistently tested his studio’s ability to retain members, create revenue and foster the sense of community he’s been building for nearly a decade in Siler City.

“During all of that, I would spend hours in the dojo making videos,” Ara said. “(My daughter) offered virtual classes online every Sunday. … Keeping the people interested, that’s the biggest challenge and we spent a lot of hours, time, to try and make it happen.”

Even with no in-person classes, the cost of an A.F.E. TKD membership remained the same price to soften the revenue-losing blow of those canceling their memberships.

Before the pandemic, Ara said his studio had upwards of 150 students attending classes as his business continued to grow, but last year, that number dropped anywhere from 50-85% at a given time, with the number of active memberships falling to as low as 20-30 students in total at its worst.

“We didn’t make any videos (before the pandemic), but I decided to do it because I wanted to keep the business,” Ara said. “I had to do something because the people didn’t want to pay (without classes) … and they (were) canceling (their memberships), so I couldn’t support my family and I couldn’t support the business. I made that decision (to go virtual) because I had to do something to keep my program going.”

On top of live virtual classes and pre-recorded videos, students had access to occasional one-on-one, private in-person sessions with Ara with social distancing guidelines in place that they might have taken once a week, with the rest of their week taking place online.

While it wasn’t the most ideal situation for such a hands-on sport, it scratched the taekwondo itch that some students had, allowed Ara to keep the lights on and provided students with a way to continue their martial arts journey inside of their homes.

It also kept some of Ara’s students busy and gave them a sense of belonging during such a difficult time, one where isolation was commonplace.

“To be honest about the pandemic, a lot of people have been feeling depressed, especially a lot of kids,” Ara said. “So one of the main reasons I kept my program was because a parent might say, ‘What am I going to do with my son? What am I going to do with my daughter?’ and I’d say, ‘I’m here for you.’”

By March of this year, A.F.E. TKD had re-opened its doors for in-person classes — COVID-19 guidelines still in place — giving Ara a chance to rebuild the success that his business saw pre-pandemic.

Video production and virtual classes effectively stopped once the studio re-opened, but new (or returning) students still have access to all of the online content produced during A.F.E. TKD’s shutdown, allowing students to remain online for now if they’re still uncomfortable with coming into the studio.

Ara said his student count — a mix of returning and brand new members — is gradually increasing, with more and more showing up each month, but some months are more consistent than others. Like the rest of the country, he isn’t out of uncertain territory just yet.

“All the work that I did is still available for everybody, so they can do physical or they can do online,” Ara said. “Right now, I live day-by-day, work hard every single day. Whatever happens is going to happen. … I do my best every single day to keep my students, to do things for the community. That’s what I’m focused on.”

A.F.E. TKD, which opened in Siler City in 2014, is one of the county’s largest martial arts studios, offering taekwondo for a variety of skill levels and age groups, kickboxing, personal workout training and indoor soccer.

One of Ara’s selling points is his commitment to getting his students into more local, national and even international competitions, with plans to take a group to Las Vegas for the USA Taekwondo Grand Prix in 2022, an event that could pave the way for some of his students to make it to the U.S. Olympic Trials in taekwondo for the 2024 Summer Games in France.

He’s no stranger to important competitions or hardcore training, having taken 18 competitors to the 2021 North Carolina BODYARMOR State Games this past January, where his team took home 22 gold medals, seven silver medals and two bronze medals.

“Like I tell all of my students: if you train, it doesn’t matter what color belt you are, it’s just how much effort you put on the mat, how much you’re training,” Ara said. “If you’re training hard, you’ll get better. I have a strategy when I teach them because I know them, I know how I can put them at the next level … and I’ve been seeing improvement.”

As things begin to return to normal for Ara’s studio — which includes an important belt testing ceremony on Saturday, Aug. 28 — he continues to reinforce the importance of getting involved in martial arts, especially at a young age, and encourages anyone interested in taking taekwondo to give it a shot. He even offers a free trial class for any prospective students to test the waters before becoming a member.

“It’s not just about the kicking and punching, it’s about the life skills that you learn through the process,” Ara said. “They can do (typical sports like soccer), but that’s temporary. You do one, two, three months, then it’s over. Here, we’re creating habits, to train your body and mind. That’s a lot of benefits. … I’m still encouraged that this program is one of the best programs in town.”

Ara’s daughter and primary assistant, Eli, who’s 14 years old and has been involved in taekwondo since she was 2, agrees.

“I like that I’m teaching (the kids) how to defend themselves, so I know they’re going to be safe,” Eli said. “I just love the kids. ... Once they get used to coming here, they start to have more confidence because it takes confidence to even get on the mat.”

For more information about taking classes at A.F.E. Taekwondo Fitness Academy, visit its website at www.afetkd.com or call 919-799-7500. Tuition for the taekwondo program starts at $99/month.

Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at vhensley@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.

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