Women in the Martial Arts

What do Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, and Bruce Lee have in common (besides being your boyfriend's idols)? Alongside the gawky Karate Kid, these men have single-handedly (and footed-ly) brought martial arts to the silver screen and to the forefront of western popular culture. But while male martial artists were having a heyday in Hollywood, female martial arts instructors have quietly joined their mates at the head of the classroom."Martial arts are not male dominated sports anymore," says Karen Marallo, a Karate instructor and third degree black belt who co-owns the Vermont Martial Arts Academy in Rutland with her husband. Marallo, who has studied martial arts for the past 23 years, was first inspired to pursue her childhood curiosity in these sports after watching a class taken by her future husband."It was just so incredible, the whole mind set of people in this class amazed me," Marallo says. "Everybody moves in such unison and the energy level of the class just draws you in ... And I thought -- 'I want it.'"Originally used as a means of protection by warriors and monks in the Orient (and subsequently excluded to women), martial arts have transformed into an extracurricular sport since migrating to the United States. Still, the stereotype persists that many martial arts are only for the aggressive (read "men") or those in need of self defense (read "women"). Women martial arts instructors are the first to tell you neither is true. Although "defense" skills are inherent in every martial art, many women are inspired to train not for protection, but to learn principals of self defense and increase self-knowledge which students and instructors both say translate into self-assurance, physical, mental, and spiritual well-being, and peace of mind."I found that [learning martial arts] was one of the best things I ever did for myself, in terms of self discovery," says Janet Makaris, a Tai Chi instructor who co-owns Vermont Kung Fu Academy in Essex Junction with her husband. "You really get to know yourself, your limitations and your effect on people. You learn who you are and what it is you want to defend, [and] the better you know yourself, the less likely you will need to defend yourself."While the principals and the benefits of the different martial arts are similar, the distinct philosophies and physicality of each appeal to women individually.Makaris attributes the popularity of her Tai Chi classes with women to its, soft, slow movements. "Other types of martial arts cater more to a dynamic expression of energy, but Tai Chi is more a gathering," Makaris says. "There is not any hard physical contact and you're not going to get winded unless by choice."Watching one of Makaris' classes is like watching a room full of lethargic mimes. Students learning an initial sequence of movements roll, toss and mold an invisible "ball of energy" in their own hands, rocking from heel to toe in a series of slow steps to follow the motion of this energy. Makaris engages both the mind and body using vivid mental images to describe Tai Chi's flowing movements: sweeping her arm at mid-waist to "stroke a wild African lion," pulling her hand down next to her thigh to "pat the little dog," touching the ball of her foot lightly to the floor like a cat. Soft oriental music, a half-lit room and Makaris'' hushed voice help disperse tension, and one hour later her students bow out visibly relaxed.Traditionally, Tai Chi has appealed to adults looking for a laid back way to well being, and the more aggressive martial arts have attracted children. But perhaps in retaliation to the soccer Mom syndrome, many women have followed their kids into these classrooms."I came at TaeKwon-Do basically for the exercise, and if I could go with my family that was beneficial," says Judy Marschke, who co-owns Marschke's TaeKwon-Do in South Burlington. "I think that was one of the reasons why it was so long term in my life." Fourteen years and three black belt levels have passed since Judy Marschke began studying TaeKwon-Do alongside her husband, son and daughter. Now, nearly 80 percent of the clientele taught by Marschke and her husband at their center are women, many of whom also found martial arts met their dual desire to exercise and become more involved in their children's lives."This wouldn't' be half as fun if I was doing it without Renee," says Cheryl Rubin, who regularly attends Marschke's Saturday morning sessions with her 11 year old daughter. Where Tai Chi is slow and silent, TaeKwon-Do is assertive and audible, and mother and daughter shadow each other through a pattern of kicks and punches, accenting each movement with a shout expression their personal energy. Although Renee's sister prefers prancing in pointe shoes and opted out of the class, Renee and her mother are committed to earning their black belts together. "We really work as a team," Rubin says.So while it may be some time before Van Damme succumbs on-screen to a black-belt bearing woman, those smitten with the martial arts do not need a movie idol to inspire them."It's a way of life," Marallo says. "That's why I do it. It's a way of life."

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