Standing in a room filled with every sort of strange apparatus, tumbling coach Mircea Badulescu lists a few of his accomplishments.
“I judged two Olympics, 14 World Championships, five European Championships, three World Cups and five World University Games, just to mention a few of them. I speak five languages. I’ve visited 26 countries. I have friends all over the world.”
His classroom, located on the first floor of Robertson Gym, was once a basketball court. Now, after two and half decades of work, the state-of-the-art gymnastics facility stands as a tribute to Badulescu’s devotion to UCSB. But he isn’t alone in Rob Gym. A floor above, another long-running class is underway: ballroom dancing
For the past 25 plus years the instructors of these popular half-credit exercise classes, dance sensei Kenji Ota and tumbling coach Badulescu, have employed their considerable talents at UCSB to establish well rounded and respected gymnastics, martial arts and dance programs.
Both men operate classes out of Rob Gym, where Badulescu teaches elementary through advanced tumbling and Ota provides lessons on Latin and ballroom dancing for all levels. The classes are open to UCSB students, and are graded on a pass/fail basis for a half-unit of course credit. However, a recent decision by the UCSB administration has scheduled the Exercise and Sports Studies Dept. to cease offering a minor by Fall 2010, which throws the continued existence of these exercise courses into jeopardy.
Administrators haven’t confirmed whether the entire department — which provides students the rare opportunity to take classes with experts such as Ota and Badulescu — will close by next year, but it is quite possible, they say.
With Age Comes Wisdom
While the two men do not see each other often aside from friendly passing exchanges at Rob Gym, their presence on the ESS Dept. staff links them as two of the most experienced physical educators in the area.
At 86 and 73 years old, respectively, Ota and Badulescu are some of the oldest physical educators still working at UCSB. Despite his years, Ota teaches his classes how to dance firsthand with a slightly shuffling, but elegant step and a strong, stern voice. He’s got quite a lively sense of humor, too; when demonstrating how to properly hold a woman in dance position, Ota is quick to reprimand any ungentlemanly movement.
“If your hand is in the wrong place, I’ll kick your ass.”
Badulescu, who is constantly told that he looks 20 years younger than his actual age, is fit enough to spot students or easily catch them if they fall out of difficult maneuvers. The trick to his vigor, he said, is to go to the gym and exercise to keep a balanced body and mind.
Michael Hinrichs, a second-year computer science major who is in his second quarter of tumbling class with Badulescu, said the instructor’s physique startled him.
“My first intuition was that [Badulescu] was 50 [years old], then somebody told me he was much older,” Hinrichs said. “I thought that was nuts! He’s so ripped — he’s stronger than I am!”
In their time here, ESS Director head John Spaventa estimates each man has taught around 1,000 students per year. And those are the students they have taught at UCSB alone — Badulescu had been an elite gymnastics coach, training world-class gymnasts for 25 years prior to his arrival at UCSB in 1984, while Ota began instructing students in dance, aikido and judo from his dojo in Goleta in 1964. Needless to say, according to Jim Romeo, a Sports Management Advisor with ESS, Ota and Badulescu have been educating youths and students in the key aspects of controlled, elegant movement for decades.
“They are two very unique individuals,” Romeo said. “The first thing that comes to mind is that the importance of what they do is reflected in the nature of what they do: physical activity, movement, exercise.”
What’s more, both Ota and Badulescu have received numerous international awards and distinctions for their skills in their fields as coaches, judges, pioneers and competitors.
Flight from Romania
In 1980, Mircea Badulescu was head coach of the Romanian men’s national gymnastic team, competing in the America Cup in New York. Just before the end of the competition he took a taxi to a friend’s house and purposefully missed his flight back to Moscow, effectively defecting from Romania. Badulescu left his home country for the U.S., he said, because of the difficulties living under the regime at the time.
“It was socialism,” Badulescu said. “I couldn’t travel with my wife and son in West Europe. [Ironically], now when you look back, they have capitalism.”
He became head coach of UCSB’s gymnastic team in 1984 after spending several years working in private gymnastic clubs in New York. At the time, UCSB’s gymnastic team competed against other universities around the nation, although the team was discontinued in 2002 due to budget matters and a lack of state competition.
The day that they disbanded his team was a sad one, Badulescu said, because it meant the loss of the successful, organized team he had created.
“It was criminal cutting the program,” Badulescu. “It almost killed me when they did it.”
After the team was done, the school kept Badulescu on as the coach of a varsity gymnastic club, which lasted only another two years. With no team left to coach, Badulescu stuck around to teach the popular tumbling classes that he runs to this day.
Prior to his defection, Badulescu had been the head coach of the Romanian national gymnastics team for 11 years and a coach in private Romanian sports clubs for the 10 years before. Under his direction, Romanian athletes Danut Grecu and Nicolae Oprescu won a total of 19 gold, silver and bronze medals at the Olympics, World Championships, World University Games and the European Championships. According to the UCSB Athletics Dept., Badulescu coached his Romanian team members to more than 100 national titles as well.
In addition, Badulescu earned a reputation for himself as an elite gymnastics judge of international competitions from 1970 to 1980, and again in 1993.
Badulescu also competed on the Romanian national men’s team on three occasions, but stopped after a shoulder injury.
In the early years running UCSB’s gymnastics program, Badulescu had to retrofit a basketball court in Rob Gym to serve as a state-of-the-art tumbling and exercise room.
The process of turning the old court into the high-performance gym it is today wasn’t easy, Badulescu said.
“When I entered the gym on my first day, my knees were cut out from under me,” he said. “It had Flintstone-era apparatus.”
In those first few years getting the room into shape, he even had to single-handedly climb up the walls to disassemble and carry down the basketball hoops. Also, Badulescu said, there was a wall portioning the gym that he was finally given permission to demolish, coincidentally, on the same day that the Berlin Wall came down. Several years later, Badulescu and his athletes raised $40,000 to dig a foam pit into the floor of his tumbling room.
If you ask, Badulescu will proudly lift the edge of the mat from the pit to show you the names sprayed on the cement beneath, acknowledging everyone who donated.
Not only do Ota and Badulescu have rich experiences from their decades at UCSB, but the two men have incredible stories of success, hard work, love and loss.
Ota, a Japanese-American, was born and raised in nearby Lompoc, but was subjected to a shock during World War II when he and his family were sent to an internment camp at the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona. There, Kenji met his future wife, Miye, who began to teach him how to dance. While the two didn’t say much about their time at Gila River, they stressed that it was a part of their lives they don’t need to be concerned over any more.
“Just after the war, they put us right out of high school, right into concentration camps,” Miye said. “My brothers volunteered to go to war out of camp to prove that we were loyal Americans. Because of the war and because we’re Japanese, we had to prove ourselves and it wasn’t easy. But we don’t let these things bother us.”
Now 91, Miye is an energetic, lively spirit. She continues to teach social dance to youths several times a week with the help of her husband, who she affectionately calls “sensei.”
After three years in the WWII internment camp, Kenji and Miye made their way to Philadelphia, PA, where they were married in 1944. Several years later, the Otas had returned to California and had saved enough from Kenji’s work in a factory to buy a plot of land on Magnolia Avenue in Goleta. The Otas, with family and friends, built a beauty saloon for Miye on the lot. For the next 20 years, Kenji worked in a machine shop and as a farm hand while he taught aikido and judo. Eventually, they were able to switch to teaching dance and martial arts full time.
During these decades, Kenji and Miye made weekly drives to a dance school in Los Angeles, where they quickly rose to the top. Kenji became the first man in the U.S. to win the Triple Gold Star and Gold Bar, the highest Arthur Murray student credentials. By 1964, Kenji had gained a reputation for his skills as a dance instructor, and he was hired to work for UCSB. The rest is history.
Now, on any given day of the week you can find 30 or so students tumbling through a gymnastics routine with Mircea Badulescu in the heavily padded room on the first floor of Rob Gym. What’s more, you can climb a set of stairs and probably find anywhere from 30 to 80 additional college students upstairs dancing the tango, waltz, foxtrot, or a number of other Latin and ballroom dances with Sensei Ota.
Neal Erickson, a fifth-year SBCC student who grew up in Goleta, started taking aikido and dance lessons with Sensei Ota as a teenager. Now, Erickson teaches a dance class at the Otas’ dojo on Magnolia Avenue once a week.
Ota’s dance classes have been such a success for the past 40 years, Erickson said, because they are structured to allow students to become involved or serve as a teaching assistant, which promotes interest.
“What’s the most important thing you’ve learned at UCSB?” Ota is known to ask. “Social Dancing. I teach you how to learn with discipline, to learn to meet people with confidence.”
The classical training one can receive from the likes of Ota and Badulescu, Erickson said, is important today, though rare.
“College kids these days are assholes,” Erickson said. “They could use a bit of class and a bit of charm. It’s a good thing to have, etiquette.”