The good news: According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, the crime rate nationwide has hit a 30-year low. The bad news: Attempted rape is up. Realistically, females may have to learn to kick ass if they want a fighting chance.
“Women get intimidated and scared—when it comes time to bop someone, they can’t do it,” says Peggy Chau, director of Fighthouse, a 10,000-square-foot gym in Chelsea, where 14 different styles of martial arts are taught and the air resounds with grunts. Although a quickie self-defense course may expose you to a role-playing scenario in which you’ll be attacked, training in a combat style will give you the skills to counterattack. “Women learn faster; they’re more coordinated and flexible, and less egotistical,” says Chau, who’s a petite powerhouse herself, proving that with the proper training, the words “You fight like a girl,” aren’t necessarily an insult. Here’s a sampling of martial arts styles taught locally, bound to fit different personalities and needs.
“Straight to the point, no bullshit, no poetic movements,” says instructor Frank Colón of the Israeli street-fighting method krav maga, pronounced krahv magah—Hebrew for “contact combat.” It’s a no-rules, no-holds-barred approach that encourages practitioners to do whatever they must to fend off an assailant: knee the groin, gouge the eyes, punch the temples, or strike one (or many) of the body’s other vulnerable points, then finish the job as fast as possible without allowing the aggressor time to recover.
“It takes 10 seconds to choke you,” says Colón while digging his fingers into my throat, “so you’ll have three to get out.” Speed, strength, accuracy, and the ability to improvise and react immediately are key, since there are thousands of variables to every dangerous situation on the street—you never know how many attackers or weapons you may encounter, plus you’ll have to overcome your own fear. Increasingly popular with women, krav maga is tailored for the average person, combining psychological preparation, strong will, and physical skill. Even J.Lo trained in it to get back at (and kill) her abusive husband in the movie Enough (just watch the last 30 minutes; the rest of the film sucks). Downright brutal, dirty, and not for the squeamish, krav maga is especially suited for women with some pent-up aggression to get out. (Going through a rough divorce? Just got laid off? Boyfriend cheating on you?) Colón has his students wear groin protectors, since things tend to heat up fast. Expect to walk away with bruises and scratches—after a while you may even find yourself showing them off. Because of the short learning curve, the “don’t fuck with me” attitude develops instantaneously. While covering choke holds, headlocks, and other scenarios in which he climbs on top of the would-be victim as a rapist would, Colón always stresses that you should do whatever it takes to get out and live to talk about it.
More traditional girls may prefer wing tsun (or wing chun), a non-strength-oriented “soft” approach, which, according to legend, was created 300 years ago by a Buddhist nun in southern China. Based on Tao philosophy, it imagines a fighter who moves like a river flowing into the sea—flexible, spontaneous, and unstoppable. Students first learn to de-escalate a confrontation by putting up their hands and firmly saying, “I don’t want to fight”—this feels silly, but it’s worth a try. If it fails, you then go forward by advancing into the assailant offensively.
“Remember, you’re fighting the soldier, not the weapons,” says sifu (instructor) Milan Jevic, who stays calm even when he asks me to kick him; the goal is to disable the person, not concentrate on his fists or limbs. Stick to your opponent; don’t give him a chance to recover. If you’re up against someone stronger, use the laws of physics: Topple him with his own force by removing yourself from its path—not blocking—and simultaneously retaliate with the fewest movements necessary.
“Wing tsun is kung fu for lazy people,” says Brian Dusseau, who teaches a mostly female group in a private gym in Queens. “We don’t want to have to work.” Quick reflexes, coordination, relaxation, and power allow for swift motion without extreme effort. “Sure, it looks stupid,” admits Dusseau about classic movements like chain punches, which resemble the bare-knuckle stance old-time boxers like Jack Dempsey used. “But it works.” You’ll pick up a few Chinese words in the process. Terms like chi sao (“sticky hands”), siu-nim-tao (“the little idea”), and biu-tze (“thrusting fingers”) are part of the curriculum. Don’t be intimidated by the seemingly complicated poses, or turned off by the slow movements in the beginning. Various practical applications will follow. You’ll be flowing like—not in—a river in no time.
From Russia with devastating force comes Systema, an exceptionally clever fighting method that dates back centuries. Reserved for Spetsnaz (a/k/a the Russian Special Forces), the most exclusive military unit in the world, techniques are based on instinctual reactions and an individual’s strengths.
“It’s not a martial art you learn, it’s a martial art you’ve forgotten,” says Martin Wheeler, a senior student, who has the fluidity of a snake and can bring down opponents just by coming in close, not even touching them. Students are taught to clear their minds and let their bodies respond naturally. Like yoga and meditation, Systema stresses proper breathing and relaxation.
“You are being normal,” adds Wheeler matter-of-factly after an exhausting four-hour seminar at Fighthouse. Actually, it takes about three to four months of training to reach any kind of “normality.” But once you do, the approach can be deadly. The main principle behind this hand-to-hand combat style is called “the flying center of gravity,” in which the body sways up and down, letting the pelvis and shoulders spin on their axes, allowing the different appendages to move in various ways simultaneously, like the limbs of a marionette. Coupled with sliding footwork, it’s almost like dancing—but with painful locks thrown into the mix. Attacks are deflected with a series of ducks, weaves, and tangles while you concentrate on the other person’s weaker points and use his tension against him. It’s not uncommon for a student to free herself from a choke hold and counter her adversary with a painful hold without using brute strength or breaking a sweat—such simplicity almost looks fake and will make you feel like you’re in on a big secret. Apart from skill, Systema also promotes good moral character in a harmonious environment. Sure, you’ll be training with guys named Sergei who don camouflage pants and Systema T-shirts and train by doing one-handed push-ups, but that’s all part of the back-in-the-USSR setting.
Whatever style you choose, be careful. Using your martial arts skills may lead to arrest or a lawsuit if you overstep your boundaries. If you’re able to get away from an attacker, do so—fighting back should be a last resort. Always “be aware and avoid,” says Chau, and yell Fire! if someone assaults you. “When he’s shocked, he’ll let go of his grip for a second.” Sometimes that’s all it takes to get away. If you can slip in a swift kick to the groin first, so much the better.
Krav maga, Frank Colón Private instruction: 212-932-2437, prices vary. Group classes: John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 899 Tenth Avenue, 888-572-8624, kravmagainc.com, $20 per class. Wing tsun Studio Maestro, 48 West 68th Street, 212-439-4862, wtny.com, $20 per class. Systema Fighthouse, 122 West 27th Street, second floor, 212-807-9202, fighthouse.com, $125 per month (up to four classes weekly).