Williamsburg Dojo instructor embarks on Southeast Asia martial arts pilgrimage

— There may be American instructors of the Southeast Asian martial art of silat who are more skilled or more experienced than Chris Robinson. But none is receiving more attention, or is perhaps as respected as the 50-year-old Honda sales manager that started Williamsburg Dojo martial arts training on Richmond Road near Norge.

The reverence that Robinson, a Yorktown native, garners globally led to an invitation to train and learn on a martial arts pilgrimage to Malaysia and Indonesia. He brought along his 37-year-old student, Noah Schiller, a NASA engineer.

Indonesia — specifically, on the large, tropical island of Sumatra — was Robinson's last scheduled visit before he returns home. At last check Friday afternoon, he had just arrived in the capital of Indonesia's West Sumatra province, Padang. For the duration of the journey, the Williamsburg Dojo Facebook page has acted as a compelling a travel blog with frequent posts from Robinson detailing most recently his excursion to remote parts of Indonesia that Americans are not known to visit.

"Silat is going to grow in the U.S.," Robinson said Feb. 28, the day before he left the Williamsburg dojo for Malaysia. "It's getting known around Hollywood, but as it grows, we'll probably be at the forefront."

Southeast Asians and others involved in martial arts around the world know Robinson's name in large part because of the videos Robinson posts to the Dojo Facebook page documenting the instruction of Williamsburg Dojo children, some as young as 4 years old. Silat is a brutal discipline and not usually taught to youth.

Robinson said silat is as significant to Southeast Asian martial arts culture as taekwondo is to Korea or karate to Japan.

According to New York-based firm Simmons Market Research, 18.1 million participated in some form of martial arts at least once last year, including 3.2 million children.

"We're doing a style that's not seen a whole lot in the U.S.," Robinson said. "A lot of people in Malaysia, Indonesia, England, Spain — even in the U.S. — some of the guys are like, 'Can we come to your kids class?'"

They are not just laying it on thick for Robinson. They mean they want to come to Williamsburg. And they have.

World-renowned Steven Benitez, a 47-year-old that resides in England, has trained the likes of Tom Cruise and Wesley Snipes, and organized part of Robinson's trip that included training with Benitez' elderly teacher.

Benitez has visited the Williamsburg Dojo to teach. So has Cecep Arif Rahman, an Indonesia action star and silat master who appeared in "The Raid 2" and made a cameo in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

Carol Marley and Kevin Edwards join Robinson as Williamsburg Dojo instructors.

Marley, a 51-year-old James City County native, is a passionate self-defense advocate, who teaches the Warrior Women self-defense class and assists with teaching the STACT Safe Kids program. She has trained with Robinson for the last nine years and met him by chance while looking for a self-defense class.

Marley credits Robinson, and his wife, Mary, for inspiring her. Marley said she owes her new-found beach volleyball and competitive running hobbies to Chris. She ran her first half marathon last year.

"He has a wonderful, supportive family including his wife, Mary," Marley said. "He treats everyone with the utmost respect. And when you come into the dojo, you are treated like family. He says often that he is the least important person in the dojo. It's his job to raise leaders so the dojo will continue to run with or without him."

Robinson had to cap the Williamsburg Dojo training for children at 30, although initially he was skeptical about teaching youngsters. He learned they trained even harder than adults. Parents have the option of dropping their children off for training, but most of them usually stick around to watch the dynamic martial art.

The children learn animal postures and their accompanying drills.

"All of their postures are designed for self-defense, no attacking," Robinson said.

Movie nights often end in the students piling on top of their teacher and Mary acts as the dojo mom.

"I just love it," Mary said. "The kids bring so much joy. To see them progress — they pick up things so quick. It's just remarkable."

Yet, the destructive aspect of silat initially intrigued Robinson, who has trained in martial arts since he was 10 and learned silat 12 years ago. He has earned 14 belts in varying disciplines and while at the dojo, pointed to a certificate on a wall, noting the ninja license he obtained by training with a Richmond-based teacher.

"One of my teachers was always like, 'My grandfather had more heads in the village than anybody, so they left my family alone.' So I had to ask him, 'What does that mean?' Well, when they do battle, they take the heads and they put them on the house."

Robinson used his martial arts background to found STACT: Specialized Tactical and Combat Training. With STACT, he teaches people affiliated with the military or police. His Southeast Asian admirers also expressed a desire to learn STACT, another key component of the trip that placed Robinson in a quasi-ambassadorial capacity for the U.S.

Before he embarked, Robinson, wondered about the reception he would receive in predominantly Hindu and Muslim populations as a self-described compassionate and conservative Christian. "For me, it's a big experience to go over there and say, 'Hey man, I'm an American white guy from Virginia. And I don't want to kill you. I don't hate you.'"

Robinson believes his attraction to martial arts stems from an inherent desire for the "little guy" to be able to shield itself from the bully or predator. He hopes his students will never have to use their defense tactics in the real world, but the inclination to protect is a prerequisite for his martial arts classes.

Robinson said, "You're a little bit safer because I'm around you."

Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-298-5830.

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