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Balancing the Dojo

A few posts back, I mentioned how I've attained gender-balance in my dojo--nearly the same number of female as male students.  That may shift soon, as I just received a call from a mother with three boys, but I'm still thrilled with my percentage of female students. 

I've heard anecdotal reports that place the average male-female ratio at about 80:20 for martial arts, with 'softer' arts like Tai Chi having a more balanced ratio and 'harder' arts having a greater male-dominated imbalance.  Drawing from my own experience, I knew I was supposed to like the soft arts more, and I really tried to like them.  But when it came down to it, I wanted to take those softer techniques and apply them in a more...intense...setting, yet not one that was overtly "macho." 

I knew I couldn't be the only such female.  So when I started teaching, I made it a goal to balance my classes so every student--male, female, adult, child--would feel comfortable, challenged, and encouraged.  I've got a long way to go, and I'm constantly tweaking what I do, the language I use, and the methods I use to teach to better reach my goal.

Here are some cool things that have happened thus far: 

There is no "boys against girls" competition.  One gender doesn't need to prove itself stronger than the other.  I don't remember making a decision to avoid gender competition, nor do I recall stopping a competition the students started on their own.  That doesn't mean it never happens, but it's rare.  Come to think of it, it's the girls who have prompted it.  I'm guessing they have a need to test themselves against the traditionally "tougher" opponent.

The boys and men have learned to treat girls and women with true respect.  The "respect" usually afforded girls--being gentle and protective of their delicate little souls--is rather insulting on the mat.  True respect includes the presumption of competence, strength and skill.  Self-respect includes that same presumption, and the girls and women are relieved to find an atmosphere that expects it.

Boys and men don't get to 'tease' girls and women, and girls and women learn they don't need to verbally insult men in order to feel better or stronger.  Just as I wouldn't allow a boy to say girls are weak, I wouldn't allow a girl to say boys are dumb.  Or an adult woman to say men are self-centered, or stupid, or any of the other stereotypical insults usually couched as jokes.*

Both genders learn technique trumps strength, and power trumps force.  Muscular bulk means nothing if you don't know how to use it.  Success isn't about the body's appearance, but rather what the body can accomplish.

They learn that winning is an opportunity to teach and losing is an opportunity to learn.  The opponent's gender can't be used as an excuse for one's own poor performance, or as a detraction from one's excellent performance.

I'm certain my current composition of students has come about because my dojo's head instructor is female.  A certain amount of self-selection has happened.  (I've had parents tell me flat-out they'd rather sign elsewhere so their son will have a male role model.)  And adult women are more likely to sign on because a woman will be their teacher.

But there are specific teaching decisions I've made in the hope of erasing gender assumptions.  Language is part of it.  Discussing physical differences in the context of technique is another.  I also teach two or three ways to perform certain techniques so students can discover what works best for their body type.

I hit them and get hit by them, which teaches everyone the same lessons.  Striking is most effective when practiced with control rather than force.  Persistence matters.  Resiliance can catch your opponent off guard.  And while you can't control your opponent, you can certainly take control of the conflict.  Among the older students, men learn women can hit a lot harder than they thought, and women learn getting hit does hurt, but can be overcome.  (My students who are under the age of 12 don't seem to have any gender-based reluctance to hit each other.)

None of that matters so much as the central truth I make clear every class: it's acceptable to enjoy karate.  Y'see, the approved and assumed reason women and girls practice karate is to learn and improve their self-defense abilities.  On the other hand, it's assumed boys and men take karate because they enjoy it. 

But the truth is, karate is fun.  There is joy in learning a new physical skill, competing with friends, doing something difficult and doing it right.  My favorite in-class moments come when my students are fighting each other--and smiling with sheer enjoyment of the experience.  Girl or boy, woman or man--having a place that accepts, expects, and supports strengthening oneself just because is a great equalizer.

*I became extremely sensitive to this some years ago, after reading a parenting book that focused on boys.  One paragraph mentioned being careful about gender-specific insults--especially during divorces--that fathers might make in front of daughters, or mothers in front of sons.  If I were to say, "Men are such pigs!" in front of my son, what does that tell him about what I think he will become?  Why would he want to become something his mother will no longer love?


Blair MacGregor

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May 2017


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