When a pencak silat black belt throws a punch to an opponent’s groin, it doesn’t just look painful — it looks beautiful. The graceful Indonesian fighting discipline sure lives up to the name martial “art.” It’s been practiced in Southeast Asia since the sixth century, but you can try it a little closer to home.
What It Is: Traditionally used to battle outsiders, pencak silat is now being embraced by them. Over the past 40 years, the techniques culled from 800 various fighting styles from across the islands have been gaining popularity around the world as a way to stay in shape and hone self-defense skills. In the Washington area, classes have been available at the Indonesian Embassy since 1980 through the nonprofit Al-Azhar School of Pencak Silat, but Richard Subaran and Wona Sumantri opened Kliwon International Indonesian Martial Arts Center in Rockville in October to expose more people to pencak silat. “At the embassy, it’s pretty much been closed-doors and by referrals, so having our own studio allows us to open it up to the greater public,” Sumantri says.
Kliwon focuses on a form of pencak silat from Java that emphasizes rapid, fluid handwork and footwork. “[We’re] very circular in our movements as opposed to something like karate or tae kwon do, which is very linear — straight forward, straight backward,” Subaran says. Stances resemble how animals slink through the jungle and are often named after beasts, such as tigers and dragons.
Moves: The half-hour warm-up includes stretching (downward dog and cobra), strength building (push-ups and side planks) and cardio (kicks and punches combined with torso twists). For the next hour, the class divides up by experience level to practice positions and combine them into fighting sequences that students work on solo before attempting with a classmate. For example, keeping your arms level with your face to block punches, drop into a deep reverse lunge, shift your weight to the back leg and punch one fist up toward your adversary’s groin. Then immediately shift your weight forward so you can kick the back leg out and hook your knee around your enemy’s ankle as you simultaneously press the thigh with one forearm and push the kneecap with the other to bring him or her down.
Sparring becomes more complex — and brutal — as you advance. “You have to be very aware of where your body is,” says Julie Fisher, 20, a student at American University who’s taking pencak silat to earn a credit within the school’s health promotion program.
After a year of sharpening their skills, students start incorporating various weapons, including the kerambit (a curved blade made to look like a tiger’s craw), the toya (a stick that’s made for more than just walking) and the kipas (a dangerous fan).
Workout: Learning how to not get your butt kicked can really kick your butt. Even the instructor winced his way through some of the warm-up abs work at a recent class. The quick pace will have you panting, and the rapid transitions from squats to lunges leave you feeling more like a jellyfish than a wild predator. “Doing just lifting or sit-ups, you’re working certain muscles. The conditioning here is more all-around,” says Raphaël Shepard, 24, who has taken classes at the embassy, too.
Crowd: Although men and women of all abilities take the 90-minute class, everyone takes the lessons equally seriously. There’s no time for chitchat, just focusing on the task at hand. Everyone is barefoot, and most attendees wear the traditional uniform — loose-fitting red shirts and white pants — but that’s optional.
Lingo: Instructors mix in a few Bahasa Indonesian words to give commands. Students had better pick up quickly on “kiri,” which means left; “kanan,” which means right; and “pukulan,” which means punch.
Adult pencak silat classes ($109 for three per week per month or $199 for an unlimited monthlong pass) meet at Kliwon International Indonesian Martial Arts Center (1609 E. Gude Drive, Rockville) weekdays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 1:30 p.m. New students can sample a month of classes for free.