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NK sensei teaches focus and respect to produce karate kids

October 17, 2011

Special to the Standard

NORTH KINGSTOWN – Robert Benner, 23, who once considered a career in law because he enjoys “the philosophical aspects” became, instead, a third-degree black belt martial artist using philosophy to shape and mold little kids.
He is the owner – with partner Mike Bennett, an accountant with deep family ties to the community – of Narragansett Bay Budokai, a studio (or dojo) that will celebrate its grand opening Oct. 24. The Boston Neck Road establishment’s big event will feature karate demonstrations, a free introductory fitness class, refreshments and a bevy of special offers for new members.
It is the first venture into business for the former Bishop Hendricken student who graduated from Narragansett High School, and attended college in Pennsylvania and at CCRI before finishing with an associate’s degree in political science from the University of Rhode Island.
Benner began his own martial arts training at age four and, by 12, was a black belt. He switched to Kenpo and now specializes in an Okinawan style of karate called Matsubayashi-Ryu.
“Having my own dojo is a dream come true,” he says. “From the time I was little, I always said ‘I can’t wait till I’m a sensei [teacher.]’ It’s my first venture in business; I wasn’t even aware of building permits.”
He signed the lease Sept. 8 and has been working with town officials ever since to create an ideal space for training a variety of students.
He’ll be offering teen and adult karate as well as fitness programs focusing on cardio and non-contact boxing and kickboxing. There is also something new called “karate body”, a workout program similar to exercise boot camps but also including karate.
Cardio fitness is for youth and adults; each class can accommodate 15. He describes kick-boxing and boxing as training in the same way as a fighter but only for an hour a week instead of 12 hours a day.
In his class, he says, it’s “Bounce, jab, jab, jab; work up a sweat.”
Benner believes karate is an excellent survival tool, especially in emergencies.
“It helps you become aware of your surroundings,” he notes. “Everybody assumes it’s just kicking and punching; it’s not.”
His true expertise – what seems a natural gift – is working with small children. They begin at age 3 to 6 as Little Dragons and Super Dragons. He’ll be offering an after-school program across Boston Neck Road at the North Kingstown Daycare and Pre-School, and is talking with Hamilton Elementary School about a before-school program. Hidden Hills Early Learning Center, in Exeter, wants him to work with their students, too.
“I don’t work with children under three because their motor skills are still developing,” he explains. “At that age, it’s more about learning how to listen, focusing, socialization skills, discipline. I create an atmosphere where they can enjoy themselves and make friends but there’s no jumping and running.”
He previously led after-school programs at schools in Exeter and West Kingston.
“I think making a connection is what it’s all about,” he says. “I’m a big kid myself. I think the kids like me because I’m relatable. I believe you can’t teach discipline through yelling and being tough.
“It’s not Sparta; we’re not building an army of six year olds.”
Benner says his message is that you can be “goofy and funny but also disciplined and respectful. Discipline is wanting to do the right thing, not being forced.”
His school has six stated principles he considers vital to building character: compassion, strength, unity, patience, progress and persistence.
For more information call 294-2800, email or go to

Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at

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