mothering bodies ~ adoption ~ alt.gender ~ parenting ~ work/life balance

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Ladies' Club

"Do you want to choke me first or should I choke you first?" I ask my partner Christi. I want her to choke me first so that I can escape her hold, bend her over by hyper-extending her wrist, and then flip kick her in the face. I like this combination because it quickly transforms me from a would-be victim to the empowered master of the situation. I believe that I could employ it effectively in a street situation if necessary, and I want to practice it now so that our instructor can evaluate my technique.

Choke-able Me
Photo: Brian Mayes
Christi and I are at Ladies Club, but we are not acting like ladies.

Instead, we are in a karate class of about a dozen female martial artists taught by Ms. Youngblood, a certified instructor and second-degree black belt in American Freestyle Karate. Ms. Youngblood donates her time to teach Ladies Club once a month in addition to our regular curriculum in a space generously provided by our studio. "Women's self care generally comes last," Ms. Youngblood explained to tonight's newcomers at the start of class. "They take care of their children, partners, jobs, and houses before themselves. That's why I started Ladies Club and why it's important to me not to charge you for it." If we need to, we can bring our children to play in the playroom while we train. Ms. Youngblood's goal is to remove any barriers to our self development.

In a culture that continues to largely devalue women, this class's name is ironic; its goal is subversive.

I won't lie: I enjoy the community of other working moms in Ladies Club like Anne and Mary who, like me, want (make that need) to exercise and get out of the house once in awhile. But these gatherings also give me something much more compelling. It's something to which I don't think many women in our society--at least in and before my generation--have historically had access. It's something that every eight-year-old boy in the country claims without conscious thought as his birthright, yet that Title IX legislation offers to girls. That something is a complex brand of empowerment built on physical strength, agility, skill, confidence, and the unmitigated gall to value our own needs.

It's very heady stuff.

Once, we spent an entire two-hour class learning how to fall safely. Imagine a group of grown women standing on a foam floor with their backs to a six-by-six pile of athletic mats eight inches thick. "Now!" Ms. Youngblood would yell, and we'd buckle our knees and wilt to the mats like tethered balloons losing their air. "Again!" At around the 90-minute mark, I had the epiphany that Ms. Youngblood was not trying to kill me and that, if I trusted the technique she had shown us, I could land without injury. Sure enough, to quote Woody from Toy Story, I was soon "falling with style." Now, when the middle schoolers in my class throw me, I know how to lessen my chance of injury when I hit the ground. I don't like falling and I'm certainly no expert at it, but I revel in the quiet power of having knowledge and ability to fall and then jump back up again, unfazed.

To an outsider, we may not have looked like a group of serious athletes in training.

But looks can be deceiving.

Tonight we are reviewing our beginner, intermediate, and advanced curricula in preparation for our belt promotion tests next week. Mary Beth is a grandmother with a lined face framed by soft brown bangs, librarian glasses, and wispy strands that have escaped from her short ponytail. Four or five months away from earning her black belt, Mary Beth is also a marathoner planning to run a 5K next Saturday morning and a 10-miler that evening. A nurse, she often explains the medical implications of the self defense techniques we practice. She spends a half hour beside me. We slowly step through Basic Kata I together, like synchronized mimes, until I learn not only the entire elegant form but also the shape we make on the ground--an "I"--as we block with fists down and then up, slink forward in C-steps, punch imaginary foes, and spin three-quarter turns with arms wrapped tightly around our ribs.

Several months ago, a new student, Naomi, attended a Ladies Club class. She was quiet, wary. Spiderweb tattoos inched out of her gi sleeves and neckline, across her neck and hands. We practiced blocks and punches to stop an attacker. "Any questions?" asked Ms. Youngblood.

Eyes on the ground, Naomi quietly asked, “What do you do when two guys jump you and they both have guns?”

Ms. Youngblood did not hesitate: "Give them whatever they want."

Naomi continued, “Because, you see, I was jumped by two guys and that’s why I moved here. Went out from the club to my car for cigarettes. It was parked in the ally.”

Ms. Youngblood replied that she had also been held up with a gun in another city. “I left and came here for a safer place to raise my family,” she explained.

“Can you protect them now that you’re a black belt?” Kelly asked.

Ms. Youngblood considered her answer: “Women are afraid to hurt somebody, but you’ve got to ask yourself every day whether you’re willing to do whatever you need to do to protect yourself and your family. For me, I will resist being removed from my family. Period.”

Ms. Youngblood's determination recalls the stark cultural gender disparity against which women continue to labor. In a nation in which one in four girls are sexually assaulted before the age of 22, most girls are taught to avoid assault rather than to fight attackers with skill or force. Instead, boys are taught to fight. As long as our culture equates athleticism, power, and aggression with masculinity, it simultaneously equates weakness with femininity. This paradigm situates the male as a predator of the female prey.

In Ladies Club, whether we consciously intend it or not, we subvert numerous cultural stereotypes and disparities of which gender is merely one. If, for example, you believe that all women cower under attack or that all black-belt martial artists are muscled men in their twenties, think again. Carla is a black belt and single mother of three grown children. Her wavy black hair, laugh lines, and long, narrow body belie the extent of her power. Despite the fact that she can't weigh more than 92 pounds soaking wet, Carla's words, tone, and stance radiate quiet strength. I have clacked escrima sticks with her and my sore knuckles can attest to the fact that she trains at full capacity. She is a real, live badass without a trace of pretense. She told Naomi that long-ago night, “I’ve got no problem taking down an attacker. If he’s trying to rape or kill me, then I’m justified in doing whatever I need to do to him to get away.” There's no doubt that Carla is confident, but it's an earned confidence. I would go for a midnight stroll on a minute's notice through the worst neighborhood with Carla and feel safe.

Kelly, a beginner, asked when we would get that kind of confidence. "It'll come," Ms. Youngblood assured her. "Everybody gets it in her own time."

Tonight, Christi taps the side of my thigh with her hand. She has attacked me again, but this time by punching at me. Naturally, I blocked her punch and grabbed her in a sleeper choke headlock from behind. I have successfully cut off her air supply, so she's asking me to release her.

The bodies of the martial artists with whom I train are as varied as the members of our national body. Among us, we have children, grandchildren, creaky knees, rent and mortgage payments, and belly paunches. Despite these differences, however, we share an awe for the powerful beauty of the art we practice. As much as we revel in the fluidly graceful dance of kata, we know that its movements can deflect an aggressor's force if needed. 

What does the determination not to fear look like? It's all around you: in your daughter, your coworker, your friend, neighbor, and grandmother. Do not take her for granted because she will resist being taken anywhere.