"Ki Aup! Ki Aup! Ki Aup!"
For the very first time in her life, Helen Garfinkel, 67, was yelling what sounded like "Key Up! Key Up! Key Up!" -- the Korean words that are intended to increase the force of a person's blow in the ancient martial art of tae kwon do.
Garfinkel had her gray hair pinned up, her eyeglasses in place and her shoes off. She was standing barefoot on the auditorium stage at Leisure World, the Montgomery County retirement community where she lives, learning the basics of tae kwon do.
"Punch and yell!" shouted instructor Tom Thompson, 38, a fourth-degree black belt.
Garfinkel, a retired businesswoman with two grandchildren, followed Thompson's directions, punching and yelling her way through a series of offensive and defensive techniques.
"What I like is the exercise, using the arms and legs," said Garfinkel, who came to the demonstration directly from her yoga class.
Garfinkel is among a hardy band of Washington area senior citizens trying the blocking, kicking and other movements that are part of tae kwon do and that can be used in self-defense or just to feel healthier and happier.
When a 10-week course in tae kwon do was offered last spring at the Holiday Park Multiservice Senior Center in Wheaton, about 30 persons ranging in age from 63 to 76 signed up, according to director Judy Houseknecht. She said 12 of them qualified by the end of the course for their yellow belts, the second of the seven steps toward the black belt.
The tae kwon do seminar at Holiday Park and the more recent demonstration at Leisure World were conducted by instructors from World Classic Martial Arts, one of several local tae kwon do studios.
Studio instructors are working with the National Council on Aging, a Washington-based advocacy group, to develop a tae kwon do program for senior citizens who work at the council, according to studio spokeswoman Rosemarie Woodbridge.
The Leisure World demonstration in late September attracted about 25 senior citizens. Three of them, including Garfinkel, climbed up on the stage to work out with instructors on the beginning forms of tae kwon do.
Kathryn Thompson, 70, a slender woman with strawberry-colored hair, "felt wonderful" afterward.
"It gives you a sense of self-esteem and confidence because you seem to be accomplishing something, and you are in control of your body," said Thompson, whose exercise already includes bowling once a week.
The third woman willing to attempt tae kwon do was Jean Arret, 68. "I watched my daughter get her black belt when she was 20, but I never tried it myself until now," Arret said.
She said she went home from the demonstration and called her daughter. "I said, 'Marcia, why didn't you insist that I take this course with you?' And she said she had insisted, 'but you weren't interested at the time.' "
Allen Cannon, a fourth-degree black belt dressed in the traditional tae kwon do costume of loose-fitting white shirt and pants, helped instruct at Leisure World. Cannon, 54, relies on his workouts to control his weight and to stay healthy.
The former office worker described himself as a chain-smoking fat man when he took early retirement from his desk job with the District government in 1977. Thanks to regular tae kwon do exercise, he quit smoking and reduced his weight by about 70 pounds, from 245 pounds to 174 now.
Cannon also has learned to break boards with his hands and his feet.
At least some of the time.
In the Leisure World demonstration, some boards did not break when he yelled and kicked them.
"Sometimes you get the board and sometimes the board gets you," instructor Thompson told the audience.
Senior citizens watching the demonstration admitted that they were impressed with what they saw although they don't necessarily aspire to mastering all of it.
"Breaking the boards is very dramatic," Garfinkel said. "But it isn't for people our age. Let's be realistic."