New martial arts school offers classes to people with Parkinson's disease

Groton — For more than a year, Arthur Blair searched for a place to teach karate again — even offering his services for free.

No one would take him.

Blair lives in the Groton Regency and has Parkinson’s disease. Even though he founded and ran his own karate school for 20 years, he repeatedly was turned away, he said.

Then Rosangela Leopoldino opened Araxa Martial Arts in Groton in November. It offers karate, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, kickboxing, yoga and a specialty class which begins in January: Rock Steady Boxing, geared specifically toward people with Parkinson’s.

Leopoldino, whose mother has Parkinson's disease, heard about the program and traveled to the Midwest to take the training. She said she was amazed at what she saw.

“Some of these people couldn’t hold a glass before (because) they were shaking so much,” Leopoldino said. “And now they are eating and drinking themselves. It’s an amazing thing.”

Parkinson’s is a chronic disease in which nerve cells malfunction or die, causing tremors, stiffness, slow movement or balance problems.

“In recent years, there’s been a lot more awareness of how important it is for people with Parkinson’s disease to keep moving, however you choose to do it,” said Donna Weissman, who runs the Southeastern Connecticut Parkinson’s Disease Support Group. Of boxing she said, “What they’ve found is it helps with (patients’) balance, and just punching the bag is kind of releasing frustration, but it’s also moving your arms and gaining strength.”

Although Rock Steady Boxing is gaining momentum nationwide, few local studios offer it. Araxa Martial Arts is one of four places in Connecticut affiliated with the program, according to its website.

Another specialty class in the region is “Dance for Parkinson’s Disease,” offered every Wednesday at Connecticut College for people with Parkinson’s and their caregivers. Programs geared specifically toward Parkinson’s lessen the isolation that often comes with the disease, Weissman said.

“Maybe they used to go to the gym, but now they don’t because they feel self-conscious,” she said. “This environment is very freeing, because you’re with people who have the same issues.”

Leopoldino hopes her business will contribute to the community where she lives. She immigrated to the United States in 1984 to escape poverty in Brazil, and started her new life with $20, she said.

She taught physical education for a semester at Shelton College in Cape May, N.J., then worked in the hotel industry for 12 years after the college closed. During that time, she also enrolled in and graduated from Cornell University's school of hotel administration.

Leopoldino retired from the hotel business nine years ago and moved to Groton, she said. But she was bored after retirement, she said. So she applied to the U.S. Postal Service and went back to work.

She delivers mail in town from 7:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. five days a week and probably will keep doing that for another five years, she said. She opens her studio in the evenings during the weekdays: from 4:30 to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 9 to 11 a.m. on Saturdays. She plans to open on Sundays for free to first responders only.

When she heard about Arthur Blair, she called the Groton Regency. He doesn’t drive, so she picked him up and brought him to her studio.

“It’s a beautiful place,” said Blair, 55. “It’s top of the line. I hope this really goes good for her.”

Blair was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 40. The studio he once owned, now Green Hill Martial Arts in Killingworth, is run by his former students.

Blair can’t teach Rock Steady Boxing because he’s not certified in the program, Leopoldino said. But the class allows volunteers to serve as “corners” and assist those who are taking the class, so he can help, she said.

Blair sees it as a win-win for both of them. Maybe he can teach a different class in the future, he said. “I’m glad to be part of anything that would get me back on the mat again as far as some kind of teaching ability, even if it’s (doing) directly what she wants me to do,” he said.

“I’m trying to get my life back together, and this will surely help.”

d.straszheim@theday.com

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