Definition of Success

Story by Kat Mabry

Photos by Lorrie Reyes & Jose Romero

L.A. actor finds his passion teaching self-defense

Photo: Jose Romero


Update May 31, 2012: David Tadman did not practice martial arts with Bruce Lee as stated in “Definition of Success”. David Tadman is a Bruce Lee historian.


With small hands resting just below perfectly tied ranking belts, on black gi pants, they stand in a straight line, side-by-side and barefoot. The 12-year-old students are still, quiet and focused, with all eyes on Sensei John.

Upstairs in the Rising Lotus Yoga studio on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks every Thursday afternoon, five youths are learning to be confident, stand up for themselves and to speak in their own voice. More importantly, they’re learning respect.

It’s a normal session for martial arts instructor John Tague and “his kids” as he affectionately refers to this group of karate students, most of whom he has been with for about eight years.

“Every single one of these kids are exceptional, just as far as being people, and I think that karate had a lot to do with that,” says John. “In this room, everybody is the same there’s no difference between us.”

The art Tague teaches his kids comes from a Japanese combat system. The form was first used in Okinawa, where peasants relied on farming tools and their bare hands to defend themselves against invading forces. They had to develop their own fighting styles because Okinawa was constantly being threatened by China and Japanese royalty, John says.

John has taught youths from 4 to 15, both boys and girls, and he has provided private sessions to children with special needs, including bipolar disorders, autism and Asperger’s syndrome. He’s had no formal training, but he’s patient and talks to them like he would any other student.

The dojo, which trains red belts and exclusive black belt students, requires an invitation, respect and punctuality. Shoes must always be left at the door.

Two of his advanced students are testing for black belts before summer. Will Jones is the oldest student in the class at 14. Will has stuck with his lessons and improved greatly over time, John says.  The other student testing is Oliver Mancini.

Olin Hernandez, the only girl in the class, has already passed her black belt test. She isn’t treated differently than the boys. In fact, they think she’s pretty good. The only obvious visible differences during class are that the 12-year-old’s sparring equipment is pink and not blue or black like the others.

“Girls that walk around scared and feeling like they’re a victim, they’re the ones that usually have incidents where they get attacked,” says John. “I think that confidence is the thing that women develop most in this.”

John has been the only martial arts instructor to teach at the yoga studio since he and his wife, Claire Hartley, opened it six years ago. Both actors, the New York couple moved to Los Angeles originally so John could pursue his career, but ended up finding something more fulfilling and against what most consider the Hollywood actor’s stereotype.

“We’ve always pursued what we really want to do and we’ve never compromised on that,” says Claire. “Especially for John, to say to him you can’t do what you love because it’s not bringing in enough money—the amount of inner, spiritual sacrifice that takes, it’s just not worth it.”

John’s love for martial arts started in New York, before the couple met at the T. Schreiber Studio where they took acting classes.  One of the first pieces of advice he got from his agent was that if he wanted to compete in the business he would have to get into better shape.

“I hated gyms. Lifting weights wasn’t my thing,” John says.

That’s when he came across a karate studio, and thought it would be a good alternative. John studied on and off for 10 years to get his black belt, training in different styles in New York and continued studying after moving to Los Angeles.

“I’ve been teaching for five years in this location and I do it for them,” says John. “I wish I could rely on this as my only source of income, but it’s more about that I enjoy doing this for these kids.”

When the couple married in 2004, Tague wasn’t sure if he wanted children, which is funny now considering it might just be his greatest achievement, says Claire.

“I will always think that John’s biggest success is how he is as a father, and it was the most unexpected thing for him,” says Claire. “That child calls me daddy so many times thorough out the day and I think she will be the most creative legacy he leaves behind.”

John grew up in a small town outside Manhattan. Surrounded by his parent’s high-powered Wall Street execs, lawyers and doctor friends he was turned off by worldly success, and he rebelled at an early age.

“He’s an actor, he’s a musician, but karate’s his love. He has to be able to express himself in that way,” says Claire. “You only have a certain amount of time on this planet and I think that the majority of how you spend your day has to fulfill you in some way.”

John never teaches his students anything that he doesn’t feel that they’re 100 percent ready to accomplish.

“I get excited when I see it click with the kids, because it’s more than just beating people up,” says Tague. “When they’re into it, I’m into it.”

When Hartley first agreed to put their 4-year-old daughter, Nova, into John’s class, her confidence was a concern. She was the last one of several students that John agreed to start that young. One year later, Nova just tested for her orange belt in March and passed.

“I was really glad that she was starting karate because I thought it would give her that voice,” says Claire. “Even if she didn’t know quite why or how to use it, she would sort of build up that ‘no.’”

Nova isn’t John’s only prized pupil who has used the lessons taught in class and applied them to situations at school. Max Tadman was another student John started teaching at 4. That was eight years ago.

“Max gets picked on a lot because he’s biracial and there’s still a lot of racism in the world,” says David Tadman, who’s practiced martial arts with Bruce Lee, and who encouraged his son to give it a try.

Max’s experience as a first-degree black belt has given him a sense of accomplishment, says David. If he sees someone fall, he’ll stop what he’s doing and try to help him or her up.

“Most 12-year-olds just let people pick on them so I have to stand up for them,” says Max. “Don’t start it, end it. That’s what my Sensei says.”

John plans to continue teaching in one form or another, until he’s no longer able to. But just like anything else, work is work, and there are days that he doesn’t feel like teaching. You can get burned out on everything after a while, he says.

“Would I like the house on the hill and the car and all that? It’d be cool, but it’s not going to make me happy,” says John. “This makes me happy.”

Claire says that her husband’s contribution to the world has to do with purpose and integrity. Whatever he’s doing has to be something of worth that he’s leaving behind.

“I’ve always wanted to be respected as an artist. The music, acting, martial arts, all are fulfilling my desire and the lines are blurred for me—I don’t distinguish one from the other,” says John. “I guess I just want to be remembered as somebody who had value in people’s lives.”

Photos by Lorrie Reyes & Jose Romero