Peter Loupakis works at Loupakis Karate Acrobatics school on 31st Street just North of the 30th Ave subway station. I spoke with him between two classes. The first was with a group of young kids. When I arrived they were learning to walk up a steeply slanting beam. “Let’s learn to climb the Matterhorn!” Peter called to them as they cautiously stepped up towards the highest end then jumped off with the help of guiding adult hands. Then as we finished speaking, the next class, a group of teenagers, was warming up in leaps and bounds around the room.
Peter was born in Greece. His father, Tony Loupakis, is a champion wrestler-turned acrobat, who began teaching Peter and his older brother Harry when they were one-and-a-half and three years old respectively. “We continued ever since. We moved here to the US when I was five. By then we had already started tours as a group,” says Peter. “We were called the Trio Loupakis.”
The trio was successful. The outside and inside walls of their gym, which they set up in 1973 in a former dance studio, are covered in a collage of newspaper clips and photos from their winning competitions. There are headlines like, “Man who rolls around on broken glass,” accompanied by a photo of Tony lying on glass shards with a weight on top of him.
Tony is now 77 but is still involved. “He’s inside the gym every day. He’s teaching classes. He’s not just the one in the office signing people up. He’s active and in there,” Peter says.
Tragically, Harry died in an accident in Greece in 2009. “He will always be a part of us,” says Peter. Tony and Peter have continued to perform. It seems that it is so integral to their lives it would be impossible to imagine them doing anything else. When I asked Peter at one point if he had a preference for teaching or performing he said, “it’s not really a question of preference any more. It’s what I do. I perform, I compete, I teach. This is it.”
In July, Tony and Peter won two first places at a competition in Las Vegas, one for a karate-based routine and one for acrobatic gymnastics. They are taking part in a regional competition in November. And they often take part in shows at weekends. Peter’s daughters, now 15 and 17, sometimes join in those too.
Peter says that it is unusual to provide martial arts and acrobatic gymnastics in one space, as they do at their gym. “Normally those don’t go together. But I think they should. They complement each other. You need similar skills. I like to say we take the best of different kinds of martial arts and acrobatics. Over the course of the years, teachers come to our gym: teachers of Kung Fu, Shotokan, Goju, different styles of martial arts. We’ve gleaned a little bit of the pie from everyone.”
The school is only open after school hours. “That’s one of the beauties of the job – I’m not here all day,” says Peter. Not that he is relaxing when he’s not at the gym: during the daytime he works as a physical education teacher in a school.
“Teaching is hard,” he says, “especially teaching children…it can be a little bit…taxing is the word! But it’s fun. And it’s never the same day at the office, ever. That keeps it exciting.”
When the school first started, around 80% of the students were Greek. Now it’s more like 10% or fewer Greek students, with the others reflecting Astoria’s diversity – sometimes with an upswing in one group or another. “For example, a Polish couple came in and brought their child. They go to a Polish school in the area so they tell all their friends and suddenly we have an influx of Polish people because of that.”
Peter now has eight or nine what he calls “grandkids” at the gym: kids whose parents he had taught when they were children. The gym takes students of all ages. “I’d like to say it’s fun for anyone. Anyone can learn. The ability is there. It’s a question of taking the time to learn to do it. Some people learn fast and you know they are naturals, but some people take longer. As long as you keep trying, you will get it.”