Black Belt Theater

Meet David Schaeman: Montecito fourth-grader, stage actor and karate kid. And he’s just getting started…

David Schaeman recently played the lead in Montecito Union School’s production of “High School Musical.” Most kids might be self-conscious about what their friends think when they are up on stage acting, singing and dancing, but David isn’t nervous at all. That might be because David, who is 10 years old, recently passed his black belt test in hapkido, a Korean martial art.

Four years ago while living in Palo Alto, 5-year-old David began asking his family about taking martial arts lessons. His parents held his requests at bay until they moved to Santa Barbara, where none of his new friends were taking martial arts.

“We thought he would drop it,” says Jessica Schaeman, David’s mother. “But he kept asking so we signed him up at Martial Arts Family Fitness on Gutierrez Street. We thought it would be a phase, and that he would move on to something else.”

But then David met Michael Turner, a junior high student and fellow hapkido pupil whom he began to emulate. As David gained each new belt, his parents gave him the option to stop martial arts, but their son would have nothing of it. Hapkido soon became the focal point of his life, taking precedence over play dates and birthday parties.

“Once there was a birthday slumber party and David’s belt test happened to be the same evening,” Jessica recalls. “After he tested we drove to the birthday party and arrived late. Games had been played, presents were opened, and the cake cut. His friends said, ‘You missed everything!’ David turned to me and said, ‘Mom, my friends just don’t get it.’”

Sensei Austin Curtis, a black belt teacher at Martial Arts Family Fitness, was immediately impressed with David’s drive.

“He was in the kids hapkido class that I was teaching for over two years, and one day he came up to me smiling and said ‘Sir, I am going to start going to the adult classes.’ I saw that fire in his eyes,” Curtis explains. “It wasn't long before he was assisting me in teaching the kids classes. He is such an encouragement for the other kids.”

David’s parents realized early on that he had talent for hapkido, but they were totally unprepared for his next interest – playing a part in the play “High School Musical.”

“David came home from school one day and said, ‘I want to try out for a play,’” Jessica recalls. “It was through the Adderley School and most of the girls were doing it; there weren’t many boys involved. This was on a Monday and I thought he would forget about it by the end of the week.”

But David didn’t. Every day he asked his mother whether he could go out for the play. In order to try out, he had to sing a song.

“Here is a kid that before October 2006 never sang,” Jessica says. “Something inside of him said he could do it.”

Performing in the play was not only a growing experience for David, but also for his mother and father, Michael Schaeman.

“This was a lesson to us as parents – you can put them in activities, but sometimes the kids will take the lead and put themselves into things they like to do,” Jessica says.

The Montecito Union production of “High School Musical” came at a time when David had an important milestone in his karate training: Studying to pass the black belt test, something that isn’t to be taken lightly.

“There are twelve belt tests before the black belt test itself,” Sensei Curtis explains. “With an average of eighteen to twenty hours of training between each of them, plus the time to prepare for the black belt test itself, I would estimate that David trained about three hundred class hours prior to testing – that is some serious commitment for a young man his age. His commitment to training enabled him to test earlier than a number of adults who had been candidates for a long time.”

There are also other requirements, such as regular cardio workouts, and a reading and writing requirement. The book David had to study was about a samurai warrior's personal history and philosophy, a ready assignment that was, of course, supplemental to his regular school workload.

David passed the black belt test, a two- to three-hour test of mental and physical strength, on March 17. He also played the lead in four performances of High School Musical at Montecito Union on March 21 and 22, the culmination of an emotional week just before spring break vacation.

“It has been the most challenging thing I have ever done and the most rewarding,” David said at the time. “It was really hard to make all the sacrifices that were needed to successfully pass my black belt test and to put on a great performance for the musical. I'm glad spring break is starting.”

David’s parents say martial arts classes and getting his black belt have helped him develop confidence to accomplish things he might otherwise have not had the courage to do, like the singing, acting and dancing involved in trying out for a play.

“I hope that getting his black belt is really just the beginning of what David accomplishes,” says Curtis. “He is one of the few kids I have met who has the ability to see in himself what most cannot – his own potential.”