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Move over, aerobics. Step aside, spinning. Martial arts have been inching their way into the mainstream for years, but now they're bigger than ever thanks to recent chick-dominated fight flicks such as Reign of Assassins and the tremendously successful Kung Fu Hustle.

The 9-to-5 set are practicing their punches at posh health clubs, low budget kung-fu flicks are considered cult classics, and you can't even turn on your TV late at night without catching infomercials hawking bastardized martial art work-out videos.

Barbara GehringBarbara Gehring

Barbara Gehring

While traditionally in the United States martial arts have been dominated by men, a growing number of women are joining dojos and learning how to keep their adversaries in order. The International Martial Arts Association in Louisville says about 40 percent of its clientele are women.

"They are doctors, lawyers, executive of big companies," said Faye Madani, who runs the school with her husband. "It helps them to stay fit and to gain confidence."

Many are mothers who initially bring their children to the school, Madani said, and then decide to give it a try themselves when they see the benefits to female students.

Stacy Ruud, a first-degree black belt who studies at the Chinese Shao-Lin Center, said from her perspective it's still "just a male-dominated sport." She estimates there are about 10 guys to every woman at her school. But it all depends on the school: at the Colfax and Vine location of United Studios of Self-Defense, 19 out of 40 students are women - just about 50-50.

"The regular image that comes with martial arts is that it's a man's sport. It's not. It's a person's sport. It's a way to develop yourself as a person," said Tony Henkenberns, a first-degree black belt who teaches at the school.

Women Get Their Kicks

Michelle GroveMichelle Grove

Michelle Grove

There are many reasons why women become interested in martial arts. Many are the same reasons that attract men to martial arts: self-defense, self-confidence, or to becoming physically fit.

Melissa, who is one of the students at the United Studios of Self-Defense, says she initially was inspired to start learning Kung Fu because of philosophy presented on the old "Kung Fu" television series with David Carradine.

But once she started she found martial arts had many other benefits.

"I've been disabled from a combination of severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, from some things that happened to me back then. These classes have literally been bringing me back to life and I feel like they're saving my life! I feel that they're very empowering, especially for women, who perhaps need them the most."

Some martial arts teach methods of using the height and weight of an attacker against the attacker. These skills are excellent means for a small woman to defend herself against a larger opponent of either sex.

Cindy Kim YanCindy Kim Yan

Cindy Kim Yan

Still other women may be turning to martial arts because they admired characters in films such as Kill Bill or Chocolate, or want to be able to kick ass like Karate Girl.

Several webpages testify to the growing interest in women who can kick ass among both women and men.

The current ratio of women to men in martial arts classes depends upon the school and the instructor. Melissa, a student at United Studios of Self-Defense, said, "It varies, but from what I've seen [classes had] slightly more men than women. But when we had a woman teacher for awhile, there seemed to be more women, perhaps because of the role model aspect."

Michelle Grove, an instructor at Warrior Quest International (Kunoichijutsu, Ninjutsu and Bushijutsu) in Greenwood Village concurs. She says that women make up about 25% of the students at Warrior Quest, but the number of women is growing. Grove has taught at a number of martial arts schools over the years. In her experience the classes with women instructors always had more female students. "When they see a woman doing something, they say 'I can do this myself!'"

Nikki DehmNikki Dehm

Nikki Dehm

While some women might feel more comfortable with a woman instructor, most male instructors welcome women into their classes and some like Christophe Clark of Body Balance in Denver, specifically target classes at women.

How to Choose a Discipline and School

The term 'martial arts' is broad and encompasses many systems, esoteric and otherwise. Some such as t'ai chi ch'uan are designed to gather inner energy and induce a meditative state.

Some are fused with other arts such as the dance-like capoeira from Brazil, while others are utilized primarily for health and self defense like tae kwon do. With hundreds of styles to choose from, the decision of which martial art and particular school is right for you is not an endeavor to be conducted hastily.

"Really, you want to find the place you feel comfortable going to," said Ghassan Timani, state president of the U. S. Tae Kwon Do Union. "People usually just call up and want to compare rates, rather than, 'Is this a place I'd want to send my child to? ' Or, 'Is this a place I'd want to to come to myself? ' Unfortunately it takes a lot more research than just a phone call."

Some things to consider are: do you want to just learn to fight using just your body (such as with most karate) or would you like to learn how to use weapons (as with kung fu)? Are you interested in learning 'hard' techniques such as strikes and kicks, or 'soft' techniques, such as off-balancing and throwing? Are you drawn to the gracefulness and esoteric nature of t'ai chi or are you interested in just learning the no-nonsense kicks and punches such as in Thai kickboxing? Are you interested primarily in self defense or do you want to compete? Does signing the dotted line on a contract, as many studios prefer, intimidate you, or would you rather just take it month to month?

Brief Run Down on Martial Arts Disciplines


There are more than 1,000 styles of kung fu recognized. 'Style' refers to a particular school of martial practice, each with its own training methods, animal forms, techniques, and emphasis on attack and defense. According to some traditions, kung fu practitioners should not only study the forms, they must follow the Tao, or 'the way', to gain an understanding of philosophy and life. One who masters kung fu is considered foremost an artist, not a fighter.

There are many different theories of how and when kung fu began. Some say it came about as early as the Chou dynasty (1111-255 B. C.). Others say it was derived from yoga and then refined by Shoalin monks some 1,500 years ago in the Hunan Province of China. For the monks, kung fu was a way to protect their freedom, avoid conflict and cultivate the mind, body and spirit in tandem. The Wing Chun kung fu system was created by a women, Yim Wing Chun, during the Ching Dynasty, and was made famous in the West by Bruce Lee's movies and David Carradine's long running television series.

"The way of the intercepting fist"

Bruce Lee moved away from classical kung fu (labeling it "too flowery," "mysterious" and "abstract") and focused on creating his own comprehensive format, jeet kune do, that he never claimed was a new style, just a new way, integrating several disciplines. The foundation of jeet kune do - blocks, hand maneuvers and energy techniques - has its roots in Wing Chun. It also incorporates French fencing and American boxing. Before he died, Bruce Lee demanded all his three schools close down and no further study of the art be taught after six months. Despite his request, the World Jeet Kune Do Federation was later formed to provide some cohesion to "the style of no style."

"Supreme Ultimate Style"

Also called Chinese boxing, the "national art of China" has become popular in its own right in the West, and is now regarded as a way to treat anxiety, improve health of geriatric patients, and lower blood pressure. It is often considered to be one of three "soft exercises," the other two being yoga and Pilates. Though it could be debated, many believe t'ai chi was developed in the 13th century by a Taoist monk by the name of Chang Sang Feng.

There are several different forms of t'ai chi. The four most common are Chen, Wu, Sun (a modern style), and Yang, which includes the forms millions of Chinese folks get up and do every morning as part of their fitness regime.

"The art of kicking and punching"

Korean nationalism spurred the creation of a Tae Kwon Do 1955. Gen. Hong Hi Choi was primarily responsible for the creation of this new national art.

Tae kwon do is currently the world's most popular martial art, and there is no lack tae kwon do dojangs - of varying credibility - around Denver. One of the more 'physical' martial arts, tae kwon do became an Olympic exhibition sport in 1988 and a medaled sport in 2000.

TAE-BO Though many would hesitate to refer to Tae-Bo as a martial art, it is an amalgamation of tae kwon do, boxing and aerobics set to hip hop music. It is a high-intensity, cardiovascular exercise. Tae-Bo was invented by former karate and boxing champ and actor Billy Blanks. He opened his first Tae-Bo Studio in 1989 in Sherman Oaks, California. Tae-Bo has been taught in health clubs for a number of years, but its current enormous popularity stems from infomercials that promise you'll "lose weight, kick butt and feel great," or something like that.

"Gentle technique"

The roots of jujitsu are found in feudal Japan. It was developed by samurais as a way to control the populace by force without killing them. Like other Japanese martial arts, jujitsu is yielding. The opponent's energy is utilized and transformed in order to escape, throw, choke, take down, grapple or strangle the opponent. There is also use of joint locking techniques and atemi, or striking the nerves and organs. There is also use of small weaponry such as staffs and daggers. Today, jujitsu training can include defensive techniques against modern weaponry such as knifes, guns, clubs, and rifles.

"Soft Way"

Founded in 1882 by professor Jigoro Kano, judo is a commonly considered the sport version of jujitsu. Kano studied ancient jujitsu but found that with the invention of gunpowder the art of the samurais needed updating. Men's judo was introduced into the Olympic Games in 1964. Women's judo was first added to the Olympics as a full-medal discipline in 1992. Today in judo competition, there are less throws and more wrestling-like grappling.

"The gentle art"

Aikido is a Japanese system concentrated on a non-violent approach to defense. It was developed from jujitsu by Morihei Ueshiba early in the 20th century. Another yielding art, arm and wrist movements are used to deflect offensive moves rather than escalate a fight with more aggression. Because of its defensive nature, this is considered a good martial art for those of all ages, sizes and genders. This is the art Steven Seagal made famous in the west after he opened the Ten Shin Dojo in West Hollywood.

"The way of the empty hand"

Used in the United States as a generic term for all martial arts, there are many styles which fall under the term 'karate'. Most training includes three standard elements: basic techniques, such as blocking and punching, pre-established 'forms' which are imaginary confrontations involving several attackers, and sparring with an opponent. There is shorien ryu, and shotukan from Japan. There are the Okinawon styles of goju-ryu and uechiryu, and Korean tang soo do and hapkido, or 'the way of harmonious energy' which employs strikes and kicks as well the off-balancing and throwing techniques found in aikido. Kempo is an eclectic modern karate invented in the United States. There are also traditional Okinawin and Japanese styles of kempo.

"Thai Boxing"

Thai boxing, as it's commonly known, originated in medieval times in modern-day Thailand, where it remains the country's national sport. It differs from international boxing because in addition to punching, kicking, knee and elbow strikes are permitted. Fights are preceded by prayers. It has changed little from ancient times except that gloves were introduced about 50 years ago in lieu of horsehide straps and hemp sometimes dipped in resin and glass. Although some women love the rigorous workout Thai boxing gives them, the emphasis on sheer strength and "bone conditioning" exercises turns some off. That being said, there are women's kickboxing classes popping up everywhere that may be more suited to the feminine form.

"The art of the ninja"

Often seen as the most mysterious of the martial arts, ninjutsu was developed throughout several centuries. It was utilized by military spies in feudal Japan and is considered an alternative to direct combat. Ninjas rely on calculation, stealth and trickery over brute strength to achieve their goals. Ninjas receive training in many different fields including armed and unarmed combat, manufacture of poisons and explosives, wilderness survival methods, geography, meteorology, medicine, concealment tactics, and infiltration skills.

The weapons of the ninja are among the most deadly and tricky to use. The throwing star is outlawed in many U. S. states. Nunchakus (nunchucks) - two bo (sticks) connected by a chain - are both defensive and offensive. They can be used to entangle a blade or staff and disarm an attacker. Poison darts could be carried in the mouth to kill at close range or shot with a blowgun. Kunoichi, or female ninjas, would hide poisonous darts in their hair. They also used the tessen, a folding fan with an iron frame that sometimes had a sharp edge used to strike or cut an enemy.

The history of capoeira is perhaps the most obscure of all martial arts. It was developed by slaves from Angola, Congo and Mozambique who were brought to Brazil by the Portuguese. The most common theory is the slaves began to develop basic fighting techniques at night in the cramped sleeping quarters called the senzala. Independent villages established by escaped slaves between 1624 and 1654, when the Dutch attempted to overtake parts of Brazil, were integral to the development of the art. With the abolishment of slavery in Brazil in 1888, capoeiristas, marginalized from society, used their skills for crime. They ingenuously disguised the martial art as a dance during its suppression and it evolved into the eclectic, music-oriented art form it is today. In 1974 it was recognized as the national art of Brazil.

Kupigana Ngumi is an African martial art that, similar to Brazil's capoeira, utilizes dance-like movements. Denverites can take free classes on Wednesday nights at the Moyo Nguvu Cultural Arts Center, which is the only game in town if you want to learn this art.

Escrima is a form of Filipino stick fighting.

Penak-silat is an Indonesian type of kung fu that incorporates the use of daggers.

Brazilian jujitsu is another form of the Japanese martial art of the same name that has been modified by the famous Gracie family.

Kendo (fencing), kyudo (archery) and sumo (wrestling) are all sport forms of Japanese martial arts.

Mshindi Vita Saana (Ki-Swahili for "Champion War Art") was formed in the Philadelphia area in 1973. Based on African music and dance, it was designed to reestablish African martial arts in America and aid political and civil activists if necessary.

The southern Indian state of Kerala has its own acrobatic, animal form and weapons-based martial art called kalarippiyattuu which has dietary, behavioral and devotional demands similar to some classical yogas.

Model mugging is not a martial art, but it is worth mentioning as it is a defense system designed soley to help women fend off an attacker. It was developed in 1972 following the brutal attack of an accomplished female martial artist who found herself unable, with all her training, to fend off her attacker. In the class, situations are designed to simulate life-like attacks. Women practice full-force defense techniques on heavily padded mock attackers.

(Additional information is available from the rec.martial-arts FAQ and A Chronological History of the Martial Arts and Combative Sports)

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