One night in 2013, I was sitting on the A train in Brooklyn, headed to Bed-Stuy to visit a friend. It wasn’t late, around 8pm, but only two other men were in the same car. One walked directly toward me and sat down close to my left side. He put his mouth up to my ear and whispered something disgusting and explicit that, partially, I can’t remember, but also that I don’t want to repeat. I froze up like a mannequin; my heart beat fast. The other man further away didn’t seem suspicious of our encounter and did nothing.
Somehow, I found it within me to say, with some firmness (or what I imagined to be firm): “Please get away from me.” Maybe I didn’t say please, but I remember not wanting to upset him. Regardless of what it really sounded like, I recognized that my life was in his hands when I said it. Time suspended. I can see the tan floor and blue seats of that crappy subway car clear as day.
Miraculously, he listened. He got up and moved away. At the next stop, I got off or moved to the next car. But I had learned a couple of things quickly: Though I’d lived in the city for five years, I had been ignorantly and very luckily shielded from harm. I also realized that, if things had taken a different turn, I had no idea what he was really capable of, nor how to defend myself against an attack. So when I saw recently that the newly-opened Unlimited Martial Arts in Williamsburg was offering free self defense classes to women one Saturday, I signed up.
Generally speaking, I’m pretty open to new things: Meeting new people, tasting new foods, traveling to foreign places, jumping off of high ledges, into water, even though I’m terrified of heights; but I say this only to give the following statement more weight: When I showed up to the UMA gym that Saturday morning for the purposes of learning to defend myself against a row of muscle-y male instructors who—furthermore—were there just to help me, I was suddenly very uncomfortable. The idea of having to use my own body against their physically dominating presences made me feel weak and highly vulnerable, even though, intellectually, I knew I was even safer in that space than I was almost anywhere else, simply by virtue of being a woman in public. Feeling how uncomfortable I was at the hypothetical prospect of having to defend myself, I felt just how much I needed what they were there to teach.
Before class, dozens of women stood barefoot on the matted floor. I spotted a powerful woman both shorter and all around smaller than me; she looked like a single, perfected muscle, and her frame burst with potential energy capable of unleashing itself in the form of a decisive take-down of anyone who stepped unwantedly in her path, at a moment’s notice. Her name was Kristen Cabildo, the lone female instructor at UMA.
“A situation happened in my family, a close relative was a survivor of a brutal attack,” Cabildo told me later over the phone. “And so I grew up in a family that was very afraid for women, and I had a lot of fear that something similar would happen to me, that I would be attacked by a stranger, or even someone I knew.” That fear stayed with Cabildo as she grew up and then went to college—so much so that it became crippling, and held her back from living a free life. Attempting to take control of the situation, she began to practice martial arts. “It really allowed me to connect to my body and have better body awareness and gave me good tools,” Cabildo explained. It was so effective that she was able to take solo trips around the world. “I had the confidence to live my life in this male dominated world, and know that I have rights over my body, and that my voice matters.”
While I have been lucky to not feel held back out of a fear of physical violence, it was easy for me—as I think it is for every woman—to relate to feeling objectified, devalued, disrespected, or not being taken seriously because of anatomy. The more time I’ve spent really trying to tally the number of times I have been sexually mistreated by men—again, this is true for almost every other woman I’ve spoken to about this—the more memories surface, even if, at the time, they hadn’t seemed overtly wrong. And in those moment’s I wish I had had better tools to put an end to that behavior, rather than to tell myself that it was all basically ok, or to default to freezing up and doing nothing.
Inside of the UMA gym, a row of powerful male instructors in their all-black UMA instructor shirts stood in front of the room of female students. But in the center of the instructors stood Kristen, the ringleader, who took us through a series of warmups before teaching the punches and kicks and jabs that we would practice on the male instructors. These moves would be effective, she promised, despite how small you were in comparison.
As we squatted and jumped and lunged, the male instructors stood off to the side and watched. Admittedly, I told Kristen later, this blatant separation—men on one side, women on the other—felt uncomfortable. “It is slightly uncomfortable to have men versus women, but that’s the point,” said Cabildo. In order to gain a sense of self possession in the face of a male attacker, we have to learn the confidence to access our physical strength in those particularly charged moments. Yet she conceded, “We have to be sensitive—some of these women could have had traumatic experiences.” And so when they do demonstrate a self-defense method wherein a man has to, potentially, “mount” a woman, the UMA instructors strive to teach them how to derail that scenario while being exceptionally sensitive to their pasts.
After our warmups, Kristen demonstrated sequences on the male instructors, who wore protective gloves and pads, that would in a real life scenario be able to take them down. First, a three-part move: a kick to the nuts, a jab to the eye, a blow to the ear; next, it was two thumbs to the eye sockets, two inner elbows to the upper head, and a final knee to the head. “The tools we teach you go for those soft spots that are on everybody,” Cabildo simplified. How obvious, I thought: a baby can take down a grown man if her finger stabs his eyeball in just the right spot. We just have to be aware of those parts that can incapacitate when they are compromised, regardless of the raw strength of the person who delivers the blow.
Afterward, we lined up to face our hypothetical attackers. Even the idea of being present in that combative engagement—even though I knew these men were there to help me protect myself—put me outside of my comfort zone as I approached the first instructor whose (protected) genital region I was supposed to kick. But the more I practiced, the less I saw the man, and the more it became about tapping into my own strength, finding my own bearings, and valuing my own protection above all else. Plus, it was pretty fun to pretend to kick the nuts of a creep, as retribution for all the times I’d been subtly or more overtly violated by a man.
Later I asked Cabildo: even before we encounter those unsettling moments, like mine in the subway, or a sudden-unwanted advance, what can we do to be safer in general as we walk through the city, and to keep them from materializing? First things first, she said, don’t do something we all do all the time: wear headphones. We have to be alert with all of our senses. Second, know your neighborhood, and the places that are open 24 hours and can serve as a retreat if need be. Finally, if anything seems out of place—if someone is walking funnily, or something looks suspicious—do yourself a favor and walk in the other direction. And most importantly, trust your gut: maybe nothing is wrong, but nothing is lost if you are. “That’s your cue to get in a cab, or take the longer way home,” Cabildo concluded.
UMA is the project of Phil Cruz and Anthony Fontana, who have a combined 40 years of experience in mixed martial arts, and whose focus in opening the school was “inclusivity and positivity rather than ego and intimidation.” And so Cabildo said they recruit feminist instructors who will be “friends and allies” to women, and advocates among other men to foster healthier domestic relationships, and combat wider-societal aggressions toward women. Sadly, this seemed incredibly novel to me. But also, until that practice is even remotely more widely spread—until men start preaching better behavior to other men, especially among peers and their own friends—UMA provides a non-intimidating environment, with male allies, for women to take back ownership, and safety, of our own bodies.
Cabildo told me UMA’s preferred style is Jeet Kune Do, better known as the style of street fighting made iconic by Bruce Lee. The idea behind that, she explained, was to teach students how to fight any opponent they might meet on the street. “But you’re basically learning how to defeat a boxer or a kick boxer,” she summarized, and, on a higher level, she added, it’s also a form of self expression.
Ultimately, Cabildo explained, “You wanna create the most amount of damage with the minimum amount of effort in order to create space to run.” After just one class, I knew I was better equipped than I had ever been to do just that. The next time a man approaches me in the subway—and it will happen, in some form, somewhere—I hope I won’t freeze. I’ll be able to recall, instead, how to deescalate that next moment of danger, and keep myself safe.
Unlimited Martial Arts is located at 171 Meeker Ave., Brooklyn, NY. UMABrooklyn.com. 718-218-7515.
Photos by Sasha Turrentine