WHEN STARS LIKE MEG RYAN AND GLENN CLOSE WANTED THEIR KIDS TO gain self-esteem, THEY SIGNED them UP AT ONE OF THE FASTEST-GROWING self-defense SCHOOLS IN L.A.

The Tiny Tigers are queuing up at Dawn Barnes' Karate Kids Inc. studio in Santa Monica for their noon class in martial arts. Mothers casually sip on frosty cappuccinos or chat in the breezy lounge. Their young sons, each dressed in a white uniform called a gi, are focused and intense as they prepare for their lesson.

This isn't a class for would-be Chuck Norrises or Jackie Chans, smashing two-by-fours or learning techniques on how to maim an opponent. It's a kinder, gentler kind of martial arts studio.

"Our focus is not on fighting," says the black-belted Barnes. "We never use our skills to hurt people. We want people to be strong inside. My program is love-based, not fear-based."

Barnes' holistic approach to the martial arts appears to be one reason why many Hollywood stars have sent their children to be trained at the studio over the years. Among the stars whose children have attended the school are Glenn Close, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Meg Ryan, Rob Reiner, Michelle Pfeiffer and Oliver Stone. Barnes doesn't release the names of current star kids for security reasons.

"I treat them as parents and not stars, and they like that," Barnes said. "Their kids are like any other kids."

Casual atmosphere

Unlike many Los Angeles-area grammar and high schools that cater to the children of celebrities, the parents of her students avoid turning their kids' lessons into pitch sessions to make deals. Nor do they try to pull rank on other parents, or ask for special attention, Barnes said.

Indeed, the mother of a well-known movie star's child dropped her son off at the noon session and easily blended into conversations with other mothers while waiting for the session to end.

Parents and students give high marks to Barnes and other instructors.

Four-year-old Ben Cane said he is taking the class to learn "respect" for others. But his mother, Karen Cane, said it also has built his confidence and sense of self-esteem.

"I don't want my son to learn to fight," said Chris Gard, whose 5-year-old son Sean is taking the class. "I want him to learn to focus and develop positive attributes."

Barnes opened her school in 1995 and has caught the wave of change in martial arts training for young people. In the past, most martial arts instructors were former members of the military who taught their students techniques to help them survive combat.

"But you can't use the same tactics with kids," said Tim McCarthy, editor of Martial Arts World, an Orlando, Fla.-based magazine. "You are not trying to create warriors, but are trying to build character in children. You use a different philosophy to help them focus and concentrate and show respect for others without the harshness of a military school."

As a result, more women have entered the martial arts field, and trainers have started concentrating less on combat than on building self-esteem.

Barnes began her career in karate in 1984 when she enrolled her two sons at the Beverly Hills Karate Academy. Before long she had joined them, drawing upon her athleticism as a ballerina and professional stuntwoman to become a black belt herself.

Eventually, she became an instructor and head of the children's program at the Beverly Hills school.

From 1988 until she founded her own studio in 1995 with the help of a $30,000 loan, she taught at karate schools on the Westside. When she started, she had one instructor, herself. Today she has seven.

Along the way, revenues have jumped from $80,000 in 1995 to $200,000 last year, and Barnes estimates they will jump to $450,000 this year. Barnes has been averaging 20 percent growth each quarter.

Karate Kids began with 50 students and now has more than 300. The current dojo, or studio, on Seventh Street in Santa Monica has 4,000 square feet of space. Barnes is planning to relocate to a new 12,000-square-foot studio where she anticipates taking on 1,000 students.

Video, TV deals

Barnes is also turning to multimedia, having just released her first video, "Dawn Barnes Karate Kids," which is one of the few instructional tapes available for children rather than adults. She is also developing a TV series for children based on her concepts.

Fees at Karate Kids, where classes last 45 minutes and take place seven days a week, average about $125 per month. A 13-week session costs $221 for one class a week, and $338 for two classes a week. A half-hour private lesson costs $40.

Fueled by the "Karate Kid" movies, TV shows like the "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers" and the import of martial arts films from Hong Kong, the world of karate schools has become highly competitive. Martial arts experts estimate that there are 1,000 schools in Los Angeles and Orange counties, with 300 on the Westside of Los Angeles alone.

Martial Arts World's McCarthy, however, said he has seen a leveling off recently, as many studios have been forced to close. This, he said, stems from poor business judgments by many of the owners, who are better instructors than business people.

Barnes agreed. A lot of schools, she said, like to keep their books themselves, instead of using an accountant to scrutinize the bottom line. This is a mistake, she said.

"There are a lot of good instructors out there," Barnes said, "but they are not good at business. It takes both to be successful. You need to have a balance."

Spotlight

Karate Kids Inc.

Year Founded: 1995

Revenues in 1995: $80,000

Revenues in 1999: $250,000

Revenues in 2000: $450,000 (projected)

Employees in 1995: 2

Employees in 2000: 7

Goals: To expand into a larger facility, produce a how-to video series for children and a TV show for children

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.