People show up at Dennis Dereje’s kung fu school for a variety of reasons. Some come to Addis Kung Fu Academy because they want a new, interesting kind of workout. Some come because they want to learn to fight, to practice self-defense. Some are just interested in a martial art that has become famous through movies.
Dereje doesn’t mind what brings people through the door. He just wants people to understand that what they expect might be a lot different from what they get. He talks about the body and mind as a machine – a machine that needs to be understood.
“Imagine if people were actually trained to understand their machine, so that they
don’t take it out on other people,” he says. “It extends your awareness and makes you the most aware person.” A good student, he says, “has to be a person who’s willing to change, not a person that’s unwilling to change. So many people are not centered.”
Dereje grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – hence the name of his school – and his early interest in kung fu was first sparked the way it often is for young boys – by the films of Bruce Lee and other kung fu action heroes. But there were obstacles in front of him that most kids wanting to learn a new discipline don’t have. Ethiopia was then a dictatorship, and disciplines such as kung fu were banned.
“By that time, all martial arts were abandoned,” he says. “You could not teach anything in a group that could possibly overthrow the government.”
Young Dennis would watch bootleg movies and learn the moves. His uncle also knew kung fu – and knew a teacher who gave lessons in secret. By 14, Dereje was getting strong and doing kung fu drills. With his uncle, he was also building his own Shaolin temple on land outside the city that his father farmed. He didn’t know exactly what a Shaolin temple looked like, so he copied what he’d seen in the movies. “Whatever I saw in Drunken Master and Shaolin Temple, I created in that space,” he says.
In the end though, he didn’t get much use out of the homemade temple. The Ethiopian Civil War was raging, teenage boys were being drafted into the military, and Dereje’s family wanted to get him out of the country. They bought him a ticket to the United States. For the first time, he was able to formally study various martial arts styles. The kid who learned from bootleg videotapes is today an instructor who has traveled to Taiwan to study with kung fu masters including grandmaster Wei Lun Huang; Dereje himself has qualified as a chief judge for the International Chinese Martial Arts Championship.
After several moves around the US, Dereje settled in South Florida, where he set up his school. Sid Goldberg first worked with Dereje five years ago, after receiving a Father’s Day gift of a complimentary session from his daughter, who had been been working with him for several years.
Goldberg went in thinking he was going to get a brisk, physically challenging workout. He was not expecting the journey to be so much about his mind.
“So much of our time, we’re with our family and we’re thinking about going to work on Monday and the horrors of what’s at work,” he says. But he has a new mental clarity now, to go with greater physical health. “My goal is to be healthy and be able to participate in my family experiences. I’ve got four children; I’m going to have grandchildren.”
Humans living in the wealthy western world live in ways that are convenient but not natural; to succeed with Dereje, students must make their minds work in ways they might not be accustomed to.
“We don’t have to remember things; we have external tools,” Dereje says. “Then you try to learn this, but you forget.”
It’s practice. Time. Remembering. There’s no app for perfecting what you learned in
class, there’s only doing it again.
“We used to live in a time when everything was done by human brain and human body,” Dereje says. “If you understand that knowledge today, you’ve living in heaven on earth.”
During the day, Goldberg works as a trial attorney. It can be hard, stressful work. He’s in his 60s, but he feels younger now.
“I’m against all these young bucks, these macho guys,” he says. “And (Dereje) showed
me to use energy in your favor and use other people’s force against them.”
Not long ago, Goldberg was talking to a guy at the office who struck him as a prime heart attack candidate.
“I told him I was going to save his life,” Goldberg says. He told him he had to try Addis. And he told him how he had to approach it.
“I said, ‘You can’t have ego,’ Goldberg says. “‘If you put your ego aside and go with it, you can learn so much.’”
Dereje has seen so many students who have money, who have comfort, but who have forgotten how to learn and remember. More than any difficult move or high-flying kick, that’s the gift Dereje can give them.
“They’ve been through the world, they’ve seen everything, and what they couldn’t control was themselves,” he says. “I always say, I’m not the person giving you anything. I’m just going to teach you how to learn.”