By Brigitte Zumaya
Sweat-soaked and breathless, Brookhaven College martial arts students patiently stare into the mirrored walls at Sifu George Giatrakis’ gym, as he roars instructions in a mix of English and Cantonese. In the middle of the gym class, members practice their form, on the enormous pale green mat that covers most of the floor.
“He is 53 years old and still kicked my butt without breaking a sweat,” student Jared Hall said.
White Lions of Shaolin, located at the corner of the Farmers Branch Shopping Center where Josey Lane and Valley View Lane cross, is a school where Giatrakis teaches various styles of Kung Fu.
“Sifu” refers to a skilled teacher who runs a school. Giatrakis has been teaching Kung Fu self-defense classes at Brookhaven since 1990. He first began at Brookhaven as a dance professor, teaching jazz and tap classes.
In his early 20s, Giatrakis was outside his apartment complex with a former girlfriend. The two witnessed a shirtless male assaulting a woman at a neighboring apartment. The woman escaped and ran off.
Giatrakis said the assailant turned back and looked at Giatrakis’ girlfriend, who was staring. Giatrakis was behind his girlfriend trying to get her into the car. The man said, “Hey punk,” and jumped the fence toward Giatrakis. He stepped up and aggressively grabbed Giatrakis’ shirt. Giatrakis said he remained calm. Then he grabbed the guy back. Giatrakis said he thought back to some of his childhood training. He did not want to fight.
He tried to calm the assailant down. “The guy was cussing like a sailor and he was drugged. You could see it in his eyes,” Giatrakis said. Suddenly, the man was pulled off by one of his friends.
In that moment, Giatrakis said to himself, “No one is going to grab me like that again.” He took tae kwon do for the next five years. Giatrakis said he specifically wanted to achieve additional upper body strength, so he also practiced Kung Fu – known for its hand techniques.
Ever since that incident, Giatrakis said he was committed to train, learn more about martial arts and continue from where he left off as a child. “I didn’t like the feeling of not being able to control the situation,” Giatrakis said.
Jared Hall has been a student at White Lion of Shaolin for 15 years, and is now a Sihing – an instructor. It all began when Hall and his friend needed a physical education credit and took the self-defense class with Giatrakis. Hall said: “It just opened my eyes to so many different things. Just the way he teaches, the way he thinks about things, and it sucked me in. I have never had a thought of quitting since then.”
Hall said one tiny experience can change your whole life, and that class taught him a lot of things that his parents did not teach him. “Not only does he teach you how to defend yourself, but he teaches you how to live your life,” Hall said. “He applies concepts of Kung Fu to everyday life.”
“It’s very traditional. We bow to each other, you bow twice when you walk in,” student E. Jean Meeker said. “There is a lot of respect here.”
In August 2013, Meeker had a baby. She wanted to take a physical education class and decided to take the self-defense class. “Originally I was going to take a yoga class, but I waited too long to sign up,” Meeker said. While taking the class she noticed her knees, back and feet stopped hurting and she could pick up her baby with ease.
Giatrakis said he has been involved some sort of athletics since he was eight years old.
He took karate when he was 11. He said martial arts became his hobby. In Giatrakis’ teen years he played sports, but at 17 he said he took a tap class.
“As much as I enjoyed teaching dance, I would never really want to own a dance school,” Giatrakis said. “I didn’t want to deal with the leotards, recitals, the parents and the moms.” He said he continued his path with Kung Fu and received his black belt in 1992.
“Kung Fu is the ultimate investment in my future; it makes me stronger,” Meeker said.