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In 1982, two boys dragged 54-year-old, five-foot Gabriella Van Battenberg to a Prospect Park alcove and tried to rape her. She narrowly escaped. A year later, while riding the subway, she was attacked again. "I had three or four chains around my neck and the guy came and grabbed them," she recalls. But by that time Van Battenberg had started training in the Korean martial art HapKiDo the lone woman in her class and she fought back. "He kept holding tight, so I nailed him straight in the pubic area with a kick," says Van Battenberg, now a 70-year-old black belt sporting a shaved head. "I never looked back."
New York women are always looking back, sideways, even twice when they walk the Bowery or cross the Brooklyn Bridge at 3 a.m. The city's murder and robbery rates may have plunged by half in the past four years, but sexual assault figures have dipped just 13 percent ask any woman you know, the fear of attack hasn't lifted a bit. But as with Van Battenberg, the response from a new generation of women may be shifting from flight to fight.
In recent months, major city dojos have seen a huge spike in the number of women registrants, and most now attest that at least half of their students are female. The influx should come as no surprise: buff and brutal heroines like Buffy, Xena, Nikita, and Tomb Raider's Lara Croft are everywhere. And while Michelle Yeoh kicks tail with fierce precision on the big screen, and Madonna spends most of her time in some advanced inverted Crow position no longer maintaining her bionic form with weight machines, but with a rigorous diet of Eastern philosophy and yoga women are seeking out new methods of holistic empowerment.
This isn't just another stop on the style circuit, like the Yoga-for-the-Rich-and-Famous Jivamukti center or Crunch, say the new members. The current martial arts trend is a hybrid: the serenity of the recent bloodless yoga revolution mixed with the demolition mentality of the '80s self-defense movement. Sophia Chang of the Shaolin Temple believes women's attraction to martial arts is largely a yearning to fill the spiritual hollow that has grown in the last several decades. Bumrushing their way up professional ladders, women have lost track of their bodies: "We're all up in our heads nowadays," says Chang.
The real matriarch of the movement lived 300 years ago. Victor Kan, who teaches Wing Chun kung fu (the same style Bruce Lee studied), explained that his martial-art form was developed by a Cantonese woman named Yim Wing Chun in 17th-century China. During the fall of the Ching Dynasty she escaped with her father to the temple of Ng Mui (Wu Mei), an abbess and kung fu dynamo. Wing Chun's beauty attracted the attention of the local bully, who tried to force her to marry him with persistent threats. She trained under Ng Mui, challenged the rogue to a duel and roundly stomped him.
Given what Wing Chun could do against all odds in 17th-century China, you have to wonder about the matriarchs of the future. Model Muggers workshops (which are now defunct) equipped their students with a dose of killer instinct and "I'm worth defending" psychobabble. But they didn't offer women an enduring lifestyle, or the emphasis on philosophy and spiritual fitness that the yoga craze has since made integral to workout regimens.
Rosie Perez may have started studying kung fu for vanity reasons, but the discipline and spirituality keep her coming back. "I got tired of the gym and the personal trainers, but I still wanted to look good," she admits, sitting lotus-fashion in her temple's meditation room. "After the first week I felt so focused. I've tried to stop all the BS in my life to avoid negative chi. And it's incredible for stress relief, which I've really needed since I started producing. You're here for two hours kicking ass emotionally and physically, and thinking of nothing else. Already I walk around feeling a lot more empowered."
Beyond brute force and the trend factor, most of the women interviewed emphasize the emotional and spiritual benefits of their training. One signed up for karate after a cruel divorce, another because of weight gain, another because of an "image problem." Lisa Limb started studying HapKiDo at New York Martial Arts Center partly because she thought a violent revolution could result from social conditions such as poverty, injustice, and discrimination, and she needed to be physically and spiritually prepared. "I learned, through the long process of training, that the revolution was in fact going on inside not outside of me."
According to her instructor, Master Herbert, the main reason more than three-quarters of the top-ranking students at his school are female is that women display more endurance in training and more exacting technique since they can't generally depend on physical strength. There's also the threat of violence: "If guys were living in a war-torn country, they'd probably train the same way, too."
But however spiritually empowered and skilled in martial arts techniques ("kata") women are becoming, they may still not be equipped to fight the war on the streets. Zosia Gorbaty, an instructor of Zujitsu who also works at a rape crisis center, argues that a lot of women martial artists have the illusion that they're going to be able to kick and punch their way out of conflict. "That's just not realistic. You could be perfectly fluent in kata and not have a clue what to do with an armed attacker." Sensei John of Reebok Sports Club/NY sees martial arts as a way to "reverse the negative social conditioning" that makes women timid and self-loathing. "I teach people to conquer fear," he says.