By Babette Herrmann -- Today correspondent
PALA, Calif. - When the tiny tots enter Pam Belgarde's tae kwon do class, they are full of laughter and energy, and ready for play.
But when Belgarde, Chippewa, makes a motion to start class, the students, ages 4 - 6, settle down as they try to focus on her instruction. She teaches the Korean martial art to two classes twice a week, and recently added an adult class.
Standing at attention, the adorable lot says ''Choong-Hyo,'' a Korean greeting, to their instructor and one another. In English it translates to filial piety, loyalty and respect, just a few of the principles taught in her class.
Since the young students are ineligible for a gym membership, it cost a mere $5 per class.
''This is a nice, relaxed atmosphere and doesn't cost a fortune,'' said Zoe Huber, Luiseno, and the parent of two students, Tommy, 4, and Catherine, 5.
After the tiny tots meet, it's time for children age 7 and up to practice more advanced skills.
Belgarde, physical activities specialist for Rincon Indian Health Council Inc. in Valley Center, is always on the lookout for creative ways to involve Native people in fitness activities.
She has a black belt in tae kwon do, and in January was asked by IHC and the Pala Fitness Center if she was willing to teach tae kwon do after work.
Fueled by her own passion for fitness, Belgarde took on the challenge.
''Indian country really struggles with obesity, diabetes and heart disease, so this is part of a prevention program,'' she said. ''Offering tae kwon do is just another option to get people moving.''
The Pala Fitness Center is about a half-hour drive northwest of IHC. After surveys were sent out to the community, asking what kind of services tribal members wanted, tae kwon do came out on top.
Through her own creativity she came up with the name 4Kicks Tae Kwon Do. She designed the eye-catching logo, which features the Korean um-yang (known as the yin-yang in Chinese, it is representative of the merging of duality), feathers and four colors, similar to the medicine wheel.
Within the circle, the words ''spirit,'' ''heart,'' ''mind'' and ''body'' tie into tae kwon do's holistic approach to the individual.
''I think if Native people look at it they'll get it and be able to see the Native symbolism to the number four,'' she said.
Belgarde said that the principles of tae kwon do also parallel widely held Native beliefs. For example, all students must memorize the tenets of tae kwon do: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit.
''It's not just about kicking butt, it's really about kicking butt in life,'' she said. ''I hope that I am not just teaching them physically, but emotionally, mentally and spiritually as well.''
At the end of each of her classes, she has the students engage in a highly aerobic activity, which she calls ''camouflage fitness.'' The tiny tots place multiple clothespins on their clothing and chase one another around to see who can catch the most. As for her older students, they utilize the jumping bands, also called Chinese jump-rope.
''They have so much fun they don't realize how much exercise they're getting out of it,'' she said.
The current class tested for a belt color change in April in Lakewood at the Lakewood Black Belt Center. They were tested by Grandmaster Jong Oh Chung, 9th Dan. Chung's son, Master Arnold Chung, owns the school. Before a student can reach black belt status, there are varying belt colors, which indicate advancement in technique; usually, the darker the belt, the higher the rank.
4Kicks student Briana Barajas, 8, earned her yellow belt at the recent ceremony and was awarded for excellent attendance and a good attitude. She has been attending classes since January, and has aspirations to earn a black belt someday. ''Everyone is nice to one another and helps each other out,'' she said.
Belgarde's son, Maurice Smith, 11, Dine'/Chippewa, recently earned his purple belt. Altogether, he's been practicing tae kwon do for one year. He has noticed small improvements to all areas of his life. ''I have more agility and speed, and I enjoy it because I get to spend time with my friends,'' he said.
After achieving a black belt, some students go into Dan ranking, which there are nine to 10 levels of mastery, depending on the organization. 4Kicks is affiliated with the World Tae Kwon Do Federation.
Respect and acknowledgement are paramount in the world of tae kwon do. Belgarde, 46, got her start in tae kwon do in 1979 while living in North Dakota, and earned her black belt in 1987 under Grandmaster Moo Yong Yun.