Dounia Bredes ’11 is trapped in a jiu-jitsu hold on the floor of the Berkeley College Common Room. Self-defense instructor Diana Adams ’01 sits on Bredes’ abdomen, pressing her petite torso to the floor and pinning her shoulders in an effort to immobilize her. Bredes is paralyzed and powerless — it seems like there is no escape.
But stealthily wrapping her foot around Adams’ ankle, Bredes knows what to do. She jerks one hip upwards, lurching Adams off balance. Bredes writhes her waist out from between Adams’ legs and with one powerful thrust rolls on top of Adams’ body. Now, Bredes is the one in control.
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“Excellent!” Adams yells from beneath Bredes. As Adams untangles out of the lock, she calls out to the rest of the class, “You don’t have to have mad martial-arts skills. You don’t have to be all ‘Charlie’s Angels.’ You just have to fight like a tiger and use everything you’ve got.”
Bredes and nine other female Yale students practiced this “shrimping drill,” among others, during a self-defense workshop led by Davenport alumna Adams and sponsored by the Women’s Leadership Initiative on Saturday afternoon. Despite the downward trend in crime on-campus reported this fall, Part I crimes — murder, rape, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and motor-vehicle theft — in the city so far this year were up 7 percent as of the end of June, according to the New Haven Police Department. Many participants who signed up for the workshop said their growing interest in personal safety was in reaction to a greater awareness of crime and sexual assault on campus.
Throughout Adams’ workshop, WLI Co-President Isabel Chen ’10 said she learned that self-defense is 90 percent preemption — being aware of surroundings, walking with confidence late at night and establishing safe comfort zones in public.
Chen said she was always “terrified” of New Haven streets, and her fear increased with each campuswide security e-mail that recounted the details of a particular criminal occurrence.
Girls at Yale have become increasingly aware of the risks of crime on New Haven streets at night, Chen said. Her friends who live in Swing Space pack up their books in Bass Library long before the 1:45 a.m. closing time, she explained, in order to avoid walking home at a late hour.
Although Chen said she wished the workshop included more time to practice physical moves — instead of non-physical skills such as learning how to yell instead of squeal — she said she feels much more empowered to safely escape from a potential attacker on the street.
But the program is more than just a crash course on punching techniques. Participants said the self-defense workshop encouraged them to build confidence, independence and self-assuredness — vital skills that will come in handy in day-to-day life.
The University also offers a basic one-day self-defense workshop and another six-week self-defense course at Payne Whitney Gym. The classes are free of charge for Yale students and are sponsored, in part, by the Yale Police Department.
Peer Health Educator Colin Adamo ’10 said he is not aware of any students enrolled in self-defense classes at Yale. Peer Health Educators do not provide any training in personal safety, he added. Still, Adamo maintained that self-defense classes could be healthful for students, even if they have not been a victims of sexual assault.
“There’s this big misconception that sexual assault doesn’t happen at Yale,” Adamo said. “If [self-defense classes] make female Yale students feel safer then, yeah, I think it’s a great idea.”
Aarthy Thamodaran ’09, an executive board member of the WLI, said the workshops were more designed to promote empowerment than to teach attendees specific defenses in cases of street assault.
“If you feel strong on the inside, then you’re ready to feel strong around other people,” Thamodaran said.
The Art of Grappling
Saturday’s workshop was the second time Adams, now a civil rights attorney in New York City, came to New Haven to teach a self-defense class.
The WLI invited Adams to campus last spring for an intercollegiate women’s leadership conference, and Adams’ class was one of the most popular events of the conference, Thamodaran said.
Adams attended her first self-defense class at Payne Whitney Gym nearly 10 years ago. It was her freshman year at Yale, and a fellow student had assaulted her during a date, she said.
After that experience, Adams said, she realized she did not know how to protect herself against an attack. She decided to attend a self-defense class.
After learning a few protective moves in this class, Adams said she was enamored with the world of self defense and other defensive disciplines, which led her to become an expert in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, “the art of grappling.”
Adams said she recently won a gold medal for her division at a national Jiu-Jitsu competition. On top of her day job, she spent the last two years instructing self-defense classes, too.
Adams said she loves to watch her students transform from being timid and vulnerable to more confident and comfortable with newfound aggression.
“Women have a tremendous amount of potential for ferocity,” Adams said. “It’s unfortunate that some people believe there’s a dichotomy between learning self-defense and being a lady. It’s a wonderful thing for women to reclaim their power without losing their femininity.”
Bredes, who emerged victorious after grappling with Adams, said she is looking to protect herself not only from random criminals but also from potential date-rape situations that may arise as well.
“It’s naïve to think that women don’t have to look out for themselves here, within these gates, as well,” she said.
Although Bredes said her female friends immediately empathized with her desire to attend a self-defense class, she said some of her male friends were surprised to discover she was concerned about protecting herself from a potential situation of sexual assault.
But she maintained that having the physical ability to defend herself is an important skill for all women to possess.
“I guess the idea self-defense is unfeminine, but I think that idea of femininity needs to change,” Bredes said. “I don’t think it’s smart or attractive to be helpless, to be weak or to need saving.”
As the workshop participants filed out of the Berkeley College Common Room after an hour and a half of martial arts, a few girls exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses to meet up in the coming weeks and practice their new jiu-jitsu moves. All fears of assault and attack aside, the girls said, rehearsing tough-girl defensive tactics was simply a fun way to spend an afternoon.