This studio teaches more than martial arts – it provides lessons in both self-discipline and self-assurance to its students.
By Elizabeth Egan | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Martial arts, like kung fu, has never been about the belts for Chris Heintzman of Seven Star Kung Fu Academy. It’s about self-discipline.
“We aren’t a belt factory, and we don’t just churn out belts,” says Chris, the “sifu,” or teacher, at the academy. “To advance, you really have to work hard, and it takes time. When the kids get that belt, it really means something, and they know they earned it.”
As a 13-year-old growing up in Detroit, movies inspired Chris to imitate martial arts moves. He would fight with other kids at school, but after joining martial arts classes, his self-discipline and self- confidence improved – and he stopped getting into trouble.
Chris, who has a bachelor’s degree in finance from Michigan State University, studied and competed in several different forms of martial arts. He first opened a gym in 2010 in Fayetteville, where he studied with Grand Master David Chin, head of the Tibetan Hop Gar system. Chris now teaches this form of martial arts at Seven Star.
Leslie Heintzman, Chris’ wife and a teacher at Seven Star, says her husband was teaching members of the military, but deployments were disruptive. The Chapel Hill- based couple opened a fitness school three years ago in the Chatham Crossing Shopping Center. Students from ages 4 to 85 take classes in Chinese mixed martial arts, kung fu, tai chi, kickboxing, qi gong, submission grappling for adults and more.
The Heintzmans’ two sons, Dag, 13, and Maximus, 9, are enrolled in lessons at the gym, and sometimes help out with classes alongside other advanced students. The gym has grown into a kind of extended family. “Our other instructor, Jolon Spachtholz, is a really kind and funny guy,” Chris says. “Everyone at the gym loves him. He has been with me for over 20 years and has become like another son to me and Leslie.”
Chris wants to focus on continuing to build that community, so trial classes are offered to interested students. “I never want to force people to take classes or be like a car salesman,” he says. “I want them to take classes because they connect with instructors, and it’s something they really want to do. I’ve had kids who come into their first class crying because they don’t want to do it, and then by the time their parents come to get them, they’re laughing and smiling and say they can’t wait to come back.”
Leslie is the friendly face welcoming students to the “kwoon,” or training hall. Though she didn’t grow up with martial arts, she regularly takes kickboxing and tai chi classes at the gym and provides instruction when needed. Students call her “simo,” meaning teacher-mother, which is a term of respect for the wife of the sifu. She’s also a baker and sells her Sari Sari Sweets at the Carrboro Farmers Market.
Leslie was adopted from the Philippines and grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, where she was one of only a few Asian children at her school. “The other day I was thinking about how, my whole life, people always assumed I did martial arts because I was Asian and I always got mad about it, and now I’m married to a Caucasian martial artist,” she says, laughing. “It was just a full circle moment.”
Leslie encourages all women, especially young girls, to take classes to help build confidence and, if needed, to protect themselves.
“There’s a difference between thinking you can protect yourself and actually having the ability to defend yourself,” she says. “Having those skills in your body, even if you only do martial arts for a year, you still have that muscle memory, and your body knows what it’s like to fight.”
Chris echoes the sentiment. “Martial arts is beneficial for kids for so many reasons, like improving self-confidence and self-discipline, especially as many are returning to in-person school for the first time in over a year and may be worried about making friends or a variety of things,” he says. “Martial arts can make them more self-assured.”