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Keys to Victory

Professional pianist excels in the art of Filipino stick fighting

Stephan Reed

For Dean Marcellana, the martial arts are more about philosophy than the fight.

For 21 years, Marcellana – also a professional pianist – has practiced the art of Filipino stick fighting, also known as Eskrima and Arnis. This knowledge has allowed him to teach various self-defense classes in his home city of Grandview Heights and walk with a sense of confidence, knowing he can defend himself if necessary.

“My main goal is to promote peace – for yourself, for your family,” he says. “Peace isn’t the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with conflict. You make situations work for you, whether you’re in the best part of town or the worst. If you’re in a potential altercation with someone, and if you have to go, you go hard. If you can walk away, then you walk away.”

Rhythmic motions and the use of weapons act as a signature for Marcellana’s combat specialty.

“Eskrima is the most logical form of dirty street fighting,” he says. “It’s all about one-upping your opponent and making sure that, if someone comes at you, they’re not going to come back at you again.”

This sentiment is passed on through the lessons he teaches. Instead of going for a knockout blow to an aggressor’s head, he says, target a foundation area, such as the foot or a knee. Keeping distance from an attacker is important, but these target areas can be easily reached when using a household item-turned-weapon, such as a frying pan.

“Even if (the attacker is), hypothetically, on something, like bath salts, you can take out the foundation,” Marcellana says. “It may not be felt, but the person will not be able to come at you. I was taught that 12 pounds of force per square inch is enough to knock the knee out of place. I don’t know the complete accuracy of that, but you can easily take out a knee.”

While his knowledge of self-defense is great, his ability to avoid physical confrontation is even greater.

“Honestly, I’ve never been in a serious physical altercation, and I hope it stays that way,” Marcellana says. “Things can go wrong within seconds during a fight. I’ve had students who work in the prison system and law enforcement agencies. They have stories in which they had to resort to physical combat, and they couldn’t risk pulling out a firearm.”

Throughout his career, Marcellana has won competitions at the Arnold Sports Festival as well as at the Battle of Columbus, part of the World Martial Arts Games, but he insists those accolades can be deceiving.

“Everyone has their medals and trophies,” he says. “You have to separate sport and real life. My grandmaster, one of the deadliest people I know, was only 5’3” and was a decorated war veteran. He never won a tournament. All his battle was legitimate. He had to take lives to save his own in World War II.”

A trophy room full of medals becomes empty if you cannot defend yourself in real-life scenarios, he says.

“An award is just a piece of hardware,” Marcellana says. “It doesn’t define who you are or what you’re capable of. Just because you won a fight doesn’t mean you’re going to come out and survive some severe situations. There’s the game, and then there’s life.”

The combat specialist respects both the philosophies of the fighting style and its history.

During the Spanish occupation of the Filipino islands, the conquistadors were met with a resistance movement by the native people. The Spanish called the unfamiliar way of fighting “Eskrima,” meaning “skirmish.”

“During the Spanish Inquisition, they tried to ban the martial arts,” Marcellana says. “The invaders burned the books. They didn’t want (the natives) to have a connection to their past identity. But then the Filipino natives made up these dances that were actually combat training. And they had costumes with elaborate designs; that was their alphabet. They were disguising literature for the martial arts.”

His piano-playing career started when he was 9 living in Delano, Calif., while his Eskrima endeavors began after his undergraduate years at the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music in Stockton, Calif.  

“I knew there was a large martial arts community there,” Marcellana says. “At the time, I was taking a classical Chinese/Japanese style of fighting that translates to ‘the hand of the beautiful spirit.’ My sensei said, ‘Dean, you’re Filipino. Have you talked to any of the other Filipinos here?’ That was my introduction.”

The one-two punch of physical motion and music keeps Marcellana’s spirits high. When one area is neglected, he feels the effects throughout other parts of his life.

“The two go hand in hand,” he says. “If I feel physically relaxed, it’s easier for me to create. If something is raining down on me or affecting me emotionally, I feel tight physically. I’m not able to be as free or as loose while sparring or teaching.”

A freelance musician, Marcellana primarily performs on the piano and keyboard solo and in groups. He attended the Boston Conservatory, where he met his now-wife, Jennifer, who is a Grandview native. The couple have two children.

“I truly want to teach my family to grow and learn,” he says. “I want them to find their own way to empowerment.”

Dean Marcellana teaches Filipino martial arts at Columbus Health Works on West Fifth Avenue. For private self-defense or Eskrima classes, email

Stephan Reed is a contributing writer. Feedback welcome at gbishop@cityscenemediagroup.

Views: 91

Comment by Eric Primm on January 30, 2015 at 2:30pm

“Peace isn’t the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with conflict." I like this idea.

Thanks for posting.

Comment by terry joven on January 30, 2015 at 3:48pm

Thanks Eric...that was one of the sayings handwritten on the wall of Leo's basement!

Comment by Michael Cardenas on February 5, 2015 at 7:36pm

What a great article, I would like to meet Stephan one day, he sounds like a humble warrior. Thanks for sharing.

Comment by terry joven on February 6, 2015 at 10:46am

Thanks Master Michael for the great comments...Dean still has family here in Stockton, so he does come and train with the guys when he gets a chance!...See you at Mace I think GM Art is going to let me present again!


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