SIOUX CITY | In constant motion, John S. Potash punched the air while doing a series of intricate sidekicks.
"Imagine you're choreographing a fight against an opponent who is not really there," the sixth-degree black belt master said, instructing students inside a studio at Dr. Robert E. Dunker Student Center at Western Iowa Tech Community College. "That's what you do in taekwondo when you're always moving and thinking ahead."
Potash's students aren't the kids you'd typically find in a beginner's martial arts class. Indeed, the ages of the students ranged from 18 to 70.
If truth be told, the instructor wasn't someone you'd expect to be heading up the class either.
"I'm 68 years old," Potash explained. "I've been studying the martial arts for the past 35 years and teaching it for nearly 30 years."
Growing up in Sioux City, Potash said his dad always warned him to never start a fight.
That is, until a bully picked a fight with him in junior high school.
"I didn't know what my dad would say after I fought a bully," Potash recalled years later. "Dad was OK. He didn't want me to instigate a fight but being able to protect myself from a bully was fine by him."
A desire to protect himself was always in the back of Potash's mind. It certainly was when he became a martial arts student at age 33. Subsequently, he began teaching at martial arts studios throughout Sioux City for more than three decades.
Since 2012, he's taught self defense and taekwondo classes at WITCC as well as a Taekwondo for Seniors class for the college's Institute for Lifelong Learning.
A Korean martial art that emphasizes jumping, punching and fast kicking techniques, taekwondo also combines elements of Japanese karate as well as forms of Chinese martial arts.
Potash said taekwondo is a great form of mild exercise that challenges the mind as well as the body. More importantly, students can move at their own pace.
"We all have our own limitations," he admitted. "But anyone at any age can benefit from taekwondo."
Maria Williams may never become a martial arts master but the 65-year-old woman simply wanted a new challenge after retiring from a career as a teacher for the Sergeant Bluff-Luton Community School District.
"I loved being a teacher," she said at the start of Potash's class. "Now, I enjoy being a student again."
Dennis Nitz, a semi-retired neurosurgeon, spent a lifetime staying fit through exercise and weight training. At age 70, he decided to give taekwondo a try.
"Taekwondo is a excellent way to improve flexibility, strength, balance, coordination and memory," the Sioux Cityan said. "That's important as we age."
While Nitz and Williams are on their way in earning yellow belts, Potash has already helped Katlyn Arthur earn hers.
"I used to participate in every sport," the 18-year-old WITCC audio engineering student and Latimer, Iowa, native said. "But I thought taekwondo, with all of its moves, seemed sorta funny to me."
This attitude changed after Arthur started taking classes from Potash.
"Taekwondo is really challenging," she said "(Potash) makes it fun."
However, it you ask Potash, he'd prefer to become superfluous to the class.
"Every martial arts instructor want to keep the focus on his students," he said. "Gradually, I want to be inconsequential to their advancement."
But don't tell Potash that he's teaching students to fight. Instead, he's arming them with the confidence that comes from being able to protect themselves without resorting to violence.
For his pupils, they'll also be learning the tenets of taekwondo, which includes courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self control and indomitable spirit.
These tenets have become a way of life for Potash.
"I don't know exactly what a typical 68-year-old man should be doing with his life," he said. "All I know is what this 68-year-old man is doing with his life."
As his students study by themselves, Potash doesn't seem inconsequential to his class. Instead, he's more like a role model for staying healthy through a love for martial arts.
"I will be kicking and punching until I die," he said. "It may be in a wheelchair, but I'll still be kicking."
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