Kickboxing Like a Girl: To learn to bash and slam, we're told to envision fluffing and clearing -- should I object?

PAULA SPAN'S BOOK, "When the Time Comes," about adult children and aging parents, will be published in June.
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By Paula Span
Sunday, December 28, 2008

About 15 of us have shown up for the 9 a.m. cardio class at the Total Workout this Thursday, all of us women, most of us middle-age, many of us apparently having trouble with our right hooks.

So Jan, the eclectic fitness instructor who likes to mix these kickboxing moves with aerobics routines, yoga poses and dance steps, suggests a mental image: "Think of clearing off the top of a dresser."

Okay. I pivot, sweep my tensed arm and fist to the left, and picture jewelry, makeup and crystal atomizers of Eternity by Calvin Klein, all toppling onto the floor with a satisfying smash.

Jan approves. "That's it!"

We continue to clear dresser tops, as I wonder: Is this what martial artists really focus on as they practice their punches? Aren't kickboxers more likely to envision a right hook slamming into the side of a guy's face?

I shouldn't be surprised by the approach. Jan is peace-loving and metaphorically inclined; during warm-ups, she regularly exhorts us to reach for "the sun" and then bow to "the earth" when someone more prosaic might urge stretching toward the acoustic tile "ceiling" and touching "the floor." She uses the word blessings more frequently in an hour-long class than I do in six weeks.

It's right in character when she shows us supposed boxers how to position our fists in front of our chins -- it's like holding a cellphone in each hand, she explains, and talking into both at once.

Then we practice a move that involves bringing a knee sharply upward. At some gyms, I'd wager that the object of this gesture is to thrust said knee into painful, immobilizing contact with an opponent's groin. Not here. "You're outside doing yardwork," Jan announces as the Pussycat Dolls blare from the speakers. "And you're breaking branches over your knee. Forcefully! So forcefully the neighbors are starting to look at you funny."

I'll bet they are. While we practice jabs and kicks, we rarely envision actually hurting anyone, or fighting an opponent at all. Clint Eastwood would puke; so would Hilary Swank. So, I'm sure, would DragonAngel981, who posted on the International Fitness Association's Web site a combo he dubbed the Guillotine Crippler. Use it defensively, not in competition, he warned, "because it can cause permanent paralysis, or, sometimes, DEATH."

Ordinarily, I might object to the way this form of exercise is being gendered, as a sociologist might say. We've seen plenty of aggressive women: women boxers (they're lobbying for Olympics inclusion in 2012) and wrestlers (they joined the Games four years ago in Greece), women fighting in the military. Do we still have to adapt our fitness routines to tender sensibilities? It feels a little silly.

Yet I don't really object, I confess, to kickboxing for sissies. I want a strong body, but Hulk Hogan is not among my role models. I don't want to cause anyone bodily harm, let alone permanent paralysis or "DEATH." The world needs more powerful, assertive women, but one thing it doesn't need is more violence, not even imaginary violence. Especially not at 9 in the morning. (It probably doesn't need the Pussycat Dolls, either, but that's another column.)

Jan knows her audience. I doubt my classmates have much taste for brutal imagery, either. The one time I heard her refer to a back kick making contact with someone's kneecap, it sounded jarring, bloodthirsty.

Once, at a long-ago self-defense workshop, I learned that when walking on darkened streets alone, I should hold my car keys poking outward between my fingers, like brass knuckles with points, and be ready to shove them into an assailant's eye. Even if I felt endangered, I wondered at the time, could I really make myself do something like that? I still wonder.

But at the Total Workout, I'm not in danger, and I don't have much to prove except that I can keep moving, despite the passing years and the occasional twinge in my right hip. I prefer other elements of the class, but if Jan thinks kickboxing will improve our reflexes and balance, fine by me. My sister boxers, several in knee braces or wrapped ankles, keep slugging away, too. To keep moving takes a certain amount of oomph in itself.

"Uppercut," Jan announces, and I wait to hear what unthreatening, girlie analogy she will come up with to help us properly execute this punch. We're raising swollen, stuck windows on a humid day? Or -- forcefully! -- fluffing up pillows?

Well, so what? We may sound like over-domesticated wimps, but we don't really care. We are getting stronger.


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