Turning Vision Into Service

By Njoli Brown

Today during our LEAD session we talked about the role that vision can play in transforming things that we do for ourselves into tools we can use to support our communities. Such an important thing to remind our young people that service isn’t always a grandiose thing out of reach in our everyday. Look for ways to use their passions and interests as the vehicle for engaging their generosity and empathy. http://ow.ly/i/lyefa

Over, Under and Through the Hump

By Njoli Brown

So here we are.  It’s February and all of the emotions that the school year brings feel like they are compressed somehow by the cold.  I think it’s commonly understood that self-care plays directly into the kind of care that we, as educators are able to give our students.  But one of the built-in lessons we can give during this time is a capacity to self-reflect and to recognize when our equilibrium is askew. From here we can determine to take actions both in and out of the classroom to right our sails.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that, very often, we’re only associating the phrase “prep time” as an indicator of the time we put aside to prepare the room, our materials, our resources.  But are we allocating 5 or 10 minutes to psychologically and emotionally prepare for the day?  Did we walk away for 5 minutes in the afternoon to hit the “reset” button? Some deep breaths, some music that brings you joy, some stretches to address the parts of your body that need it, all of these things remind you that you are loved, by you.

The prep that I’m talking about isn’t an anticipation for things we imagine will go wrong.  Instead it’s taking the time to observe yourself when you feel at peace so that you can recognize that feeling as you try to return to it at various points in the day.

Perhaps, as this becomes part of your practice, it becomes a part of your class’s practice as well.

 

5 Questions: A Stage for Love, Sex and Identity

I was fortunate enough, this past year, to begin both a working relationship and friendship with educator, poet, director, joker and generally fascinating person, Bobby Gordon.  I count myself tremendously lucky to be able to tap you into some of the profound work he has in the making.  Enjoy, as he gets back at my 5 Questions.

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When I think about the directorial projects that I am most proud of, and why I feel that way, I remember this moment sitting at lunch with my friend Amy Burtaine in Carrboro, North Carolina. We are both arts-activist directors and theater of the oppressed practitioners, and were reflecting on the work that we do. She called what we do “creative midwife-ing” and I absolutely love that. Like midwives, we are helping someone else give birth to something creative that was living inside of them, be it a scene, a poem, or a song. What they create is certainly theirs, not ours, but there is something tangible and beautiful about being in the room and assisting them bring this new art into the world. There is something magical about asking the right question, giving the needed challenge or encouragement, and witnessing them seeing themselves as artists in perhaps a way that they hadn’t before. 

All of the directorial projects I am most proud of, had a big element of this sensation. Of being a creative midwife in the trenches, with an individual or a group, pushing them past where they thought they could go, to create a piece of art to try and change the world around them, changing themselves dramatically in the process.

The first project that comes to mind that falls into this category is actually the project that Amy and I collaborated on together, the Sex Squad. The Sex Squad is group of university students working together in a class to learn about sexual health and arts-activism, and then create their own funny, moving, and interactive performances to take on tour to local high school students to supplement their health education. Sparked by a collaboration with the incredible South African activist, actor, and creative midwife Pieter-Dirk Uys, I founded the UCLA Sex Squad through my work at the UCLA Art & Global Health Center, and the project has since grown with groups in action in North Carolina and Georgia (where the groups are known as Sex-Ed Squads), and high school Sex Squads in Los Angeles and Mexico City.

Displaying DSC_0155.jpgThe Sex Squad is a powerful thing to witness in action, because students dive into their own complex and challenging stories, and offer them to the audience through poetry, music, and interactive theater. The performances don’t involve professional actors with scripts about what might be important to high school students. Instead, the performances involve college students creatively grappling with their own real, ongoing issues. The college student actors are incredibly bold and vulnerable, offering themselves to the audience, and they create a space where high school students are invited to be bold as well, entering into the college student stories (using the technique of forum theater from Theater of the Oppressed) to rehearse these real life situations.

In the past students have created powerful works on a number of topics, including scenes that challenge gender inequity, stand up to homophobia, and explore trying to use a condom with a partner that doesn’t want to (and also has more structural power.) That last part is important. These sexual health situations don’t happen in a vacuum, but inside systems and structures of power, so for a young student to really be an advocate for their own sexual health, they have to challenge the systems that get in the way of that (sexism, homophobia, ageism, and the list goes on…) In the best of scenarios, the college students become creative midwives themselves to the high school students creative social change.

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Theater of the Oppressed (T.O.) found me, rather than the other way around. I happened to be at work on a random Tuesday and ended up volunteering at a convening of Imagining America members. I met Brent Blair. The amazing Brent Blair. Brent is a Theater of the Oppressed joker (facilitator/practitioner) and the director of the Applied Theater Arts MA at USC. He told me about his summer intensive, a week of T.O. training. I was in the midst of a million things at work, and preparing to take a new theater piece to a festival, it was not the moment to do an intensive. But something told me I had to. After meeting Brent and hearing about the program, I felt compelled that I had to see what T.O. was all about.

That week of early mornings, late nights, and intensive T.O. workshops told me what I needed to know. T.O. opened a space for play, for wildly and collectively using art to reimagine the world and imagine social change. I wanted more, so I enrolled in the M.A. program which I completed in 2012 and T.O. has been a part of my life ever since.

In my own life, T.O. has been a place to ask questions, to unpack my own privilege (as a heterosexual white American male) and attempt to stand in solidarity with others battling a variety of oppressions without attempting to ride in on any white horses. I’m reminded of the words of Lilla Watson the Indigenous Australian activist, who said, “if you’re here to save me, then you are wasting your time. But if you’re here because your liberation is inextricably linked with mine, then let’s work together.” T.O. is the place in my life for letting go of any savoir complexes I might have and showing up to work together with others. At this moment, in the wake of all of the deaths of young black men at the hands of police, and in the midst of protests and marches, learning to do this work in solidarity is crucial.

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Theater of the Oppressed is all about finding the next question, and because of that it requires constant curiosity. A joker has to be genuinely curious about things, about people, ideas, and opportunities. Ultimately, this curiosity is more important than a desire to draw conclusions. Because there is no finish line for social justice work, or arts-activism, in the real world, finding conclusions is not really so useful. A conclusion means the work is done. But this work is never done. What is useful, is fining a way to celebrate the victories that come, in order to refuel for tomorrow.

I do two things to keep refreshing myself and the groups I work with. 1) We make time to celebrate, either with meals, parties, or events where we are together for no purpose other than to be together and honor what we’ve accomplished. And 2) reflection is a part of the ongoing process. We often look at reflection as something that happens after a project. It is like an epilogue, and because of that, when non-profits are strapped for time and money it is often the first thing that people let go of. However, if you look at arts-activism as an ongoing cycle, then reflection becomes a crucial step in the middle of a cycle where you learn the lessons from the past and prepare to make the next cycle as successful as possible. Reflection becomes the crucial first step in a program happening again, and being even better the next time around. If there isn’t time for this, then a group is limiting it’s potential for creativity and growth.

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Again, things find you. I was working at the UCLA Art & Global Health Center when my amazing boss David Gere told me that he was bringing South African artist/activist/satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys to lead a theater workshop on humor and HIV, and would I like to be his assistant. What followed was two weeks of sponging. Pieter’s use of humor to break apart taboo and create spaces to have conversations about the things that frighten us blew my mind open. It was Pieter’s inspiration and methodology that led to the founding of the UCLA Sex Squad.Displaying IMG_2139.jpg

I’ve found that the issues in sexual health are so deeply intersectional, that you end up talking about a wide variety of issues. To have a full conversation about sexual health, you have to talk about gender, sexism, homophobia, race and racism, ageism, and much more because the situations where these issues come up are not in a vacuum. All of these issues are at present and at play, and it is more a matter of trying to be aware of how.

In my own life, as an artist and educator, I’ve been really interested in masculinity because of the strange way I was raised. My parents raised me in an environment where, as a young boy, I had to talk about my feelings. I knew how to share, how to cry, and when I was in social situations with other boys and issues came up, I’d talk about my feelings. This last part didn’t make much sense to the boys around me who’d internalized that boys don’t do that. Their reactions taught me that something was wrong with me.

And then I found slam poetry. I found Youth Speaks, a fantastic youth literary organization, and not too long after that I found myself on a stage sharing poetry. People weren’t making fun of me for sharing my feelings. They were applauding. In art I found a space to challenge the gender norm and it felt like fully being myself in public in a way I hadn’t in a long time. It felt like being seen. And heard. For who I really was.

My art and activism is in large part about queering masculinity, about opening up a space where men can be different. Where men can feel, and express, question, and not need to subscribe to a system that gives them (us) power, but at the expense of everyone else, and through a hegemonic limiting of what it can mean to be a man.

I should probably say now that I was born into a house where the taboo of sex was not so taboo. My dad was a retired adult film star and my mom (a marriage and family therapist) used to do therapy with pre-orgasmic women, talking them through exploring their bodies. I was taught that sex can be a good thing. I was taught to have a “normal” and healthy relationship with sex, and this made my sisters and I very fucked up in the world.

In 2010 I began working on a one-man show called Debbie Does My Dad, which explored my experiences of growing up with a porn star dad, and coming into my own sexual identity. I knew my dad to be sweet and sensitive. Was he that? Or was he really the stereotype our society has of male porn stars? And if he was sweet, and knew what people thought of porn stars, why would he choose that? And what did all of this say about who I was?

Ultimately in my own sexual experiences, I’ve found that it was a rich and valuable gift to able to talk openly. You have better sex, for one. If you can say what you want, then you just might get it. And if you can ask what the other(s) want, then you’ve got a much better shot at providing it. Silence benefits no one. All it does is reinforce this status quo where men are supposed to know what to do, and women are supposed to go along with things, and the heteronormativity of society makes it so that’s it’s only men with women in this example. If there’s anything I’ve learned about the status quo, is that it sucks and needs changing. For me, gender, sex, and sexual health is a crucial arena for this change. I’ve found it in my art, and in my life, and it keeps getting better because of it.

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In doing work on the topic of sex, I find that international boundaries are of less importance than cultural ones. Even within one city there are a wide range of communities with vastly different cultural norms around sex and taboos. What can you say? What can’t you say? What can you do? What can’t you? And why?
As a cultural field worker, I find the question mark to be my most important tool in navigating this challenge. I mentioned privilege earlier. In many instances, it is my privilege as a white male American with the right business card to be able to travel somewhere and do a workshop. And then it’s my internalized privilege that would have me believe that I know what the workshop participants need, even though their lives are vastly different from mine in so many ways.

It would be really easy for me to go into community unaware of all of this and knock things off the shelves with my unpacked privilege. And I have to admit that I probably have done this on numerous occasions. Ultimately, all this does is reinforce a system that privileges white American men, and does nothing to challenge that or seek equality and liberation.

However, if I can come in with questions, the relationship shifts. Privilege is still very much in the room, but there is least space for something different to take place. I am able to be full of care, but not careful. I’m not walking on egg shells, trying not to offend or to pretend like I know things I don’t. I am trying to own my not knowing with grace and playfulness. I am an outsider in a community, state, or country, and I have to own that fact, and be real about why I’m there. Who invited me? And I have to be transparent if I don’t know anything about what it is like for the people who live there. What I do have to offer, are my skills as a T.O. practitioner, an artist, and everything in my tool kit as a human being.

I have to give up the reigns of where things are going, and be open to helping the group discover where it wants to go. If and when I can do that successfully, the what takes place in the room is a fuller collaboration between the workshop participants as the artists and myself as a creative midwife.


 

Bobby Gordon

Displaying 1965040_10103131762744176_1286777273_n.jpgBobby Gordon is an arts-based activist working with theater of the oppressed, devised theater, spoken word poetry, and an enduring belief in the power of laughter. Earning his B.A. from UCLA in World Arts & Cultures and an M.A. from USC in Applied Theater Arts, Gordon is the founder of the UCLA Sex Squad, an activist sexual health theater troupe, and co-founder of the Melrose Poetry Bureau, a collective that creates live, interactive poetry installations. Currently, Gordon is researching arts-activism in various forms throughout Brazil, while remaining active as the Director of Special Programs for the UCLA Art & Global Health Center.

Current Projects:

Bobby is currently building a study abroad program for UCLA students to study Theater of the Oppressed in Rio.  Also he is actively developing the Melrose Poetry Bureau, a collective he co-founded with Nayeli Adorador, manifesting live and interactive poetry writing.

Why Train in Winter? Bodyweight Training for the Uninitiated

By Njoli Brown

I had a couple of moments this Christmas morning and, yes, here I am doing a little writing.  Maybe it’s because I know I’m about to go out and eat all kinds of delicious foods and spend some wonderful quality time with friends.  All that being said, I know this day will pass and I will be back to my process of building and developing my martial practice.

Now, none of this is to say I’ve been taking a break from my regular training, but my thought has been that a little extra diligence always has to happen during the winter months if I really want to take things to another level.  It’s the season where rich foods, nog drinks and all the rest bring us comfort.  I speak all this from a place of familiarity because I’m not one of those who was born with the natural gladiator genetics.  I have to work hard and consistently to put myself at high gear.

At the same time as winter draws us psychologically into a state of comforted hibernation, it is also the prime opportunity to make huge leaps and bounds.  As a general rule, spring ends up being a time of recovery and so, by end of summer, we hopefully reach our prime again.  Imagine if we built all the way through winter, and spring and summer were just continuing parts of the evolutionary process.


It may not be the time for your long outdoor runs (depending on where you’re living) but it’s definitely a great time for exploring the wonderful world of body weight training.  I’m not going to pretend to be a personal trainer or to be the go to source for advice but I did want to include some resources that I’ve found.

All of this being said, though, do your own research and know that your goals are out in front of you.  Winter can be a time for steps back or steps forward.  You choose.

Men’s Fitness article on bodyweight exercises

Just a little starter to remind you that the exercises you need in order to start your practice are well within your grasp and don’t require much, if any, equipment or space.

http://www.mensfitness.com/training/build-muscle/back-to-basics-the-best-bodyweight-exercises

The Complete Book of Abs by Kurt Brungardt

This book, along with The Complete Book of Shoulders and Arms, is a veritable bible of exercises.  But alongside that, it sets up a huge glossary of routines for you to scroll through, progressing week by week, month by month.  I know most of us don’t have the coin for our own personal trainer but having someone help you to establish a routine and then bouncing it off your doctor or a fitness professional might just be the first steps towards finding your own discipline.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Complete-Book-Abs-Expanded/dp/0375751432

Youtube:  44 Best (Beginner) Bodyweight Exercises Ever!

44 tremendously unpretentious bodyweight exercises.  Maybe you just feel like your exercise vocabulary is lacking or you just know that you’re more of a visual learner.  I found this video online and really enjoyed the fact that there was nothing in this that felt out of reach for the absolute beginner and, at the same time, relevant for adaptation as someone progresses.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEMcHVwzHPA

Spring Into Summer, Summer to Fall: The Bridge Between Camp and School

By Njoli Brown

I first started teaching out in Seattle about, I’d say, 14 years ago.  I worked in a small independent elementary school (Happy Medium Craig-SeasholesElementary aka The Giddens School) and, over the course of a few years, worked in almost every possible capacity, co- teaching, after school programming, special programs, 4th grade, 5th grade, kindergarten.  It was a wonderful place to learn the craft of teaching.  I was surrounded by amazingly dedicated and inspired teachers, most of whom, seamlessly integrated their own creative, artistic selves into the task of designing curriculum.

Now, I’ve never been much of a non-worker so, during our summer breaks I’d search out gigs where I could simultaneously work and still feed my desire to explore and to spend time in beautiful places.  The idea of working camp just dropped into my lap. It was all of those things at once, existing in places all over the world and with a direct developmental relationship to the kind of capacity I wanted to build, inspiring young people to discovery.

Again, I’ve done the range of camp gigs.  I’ve been a backpacking lead, athletics director, youth development director, program developer, etc. and in all of those things it’s occurred to me this special potential, this bridge where learning can happen in the midst of a time where young people feel liberated to truly be themselves.  Camp experiments with creating the illusion of boundlessness while maintaining the boundaries that keep spaces safe.  At the same time they often miss the teachable moments because they are blinded by the lessons they imagine their charges should be learning.  high ropes course

Perhaps it’s because of the majority number of inexperienced, although tremendously energetic, staff.  Maybe it is because of the precarious balancing act the administration has to play in order to protect its revenue stream, by sustaining the “care-free” ideal.  It could be a discomfort with or lack of capacity to train staff to recognize teachable moments and not to shy away from them.  Whatever the case may be, when I see camp really working, it is a marvelous thing.

I spent a couple of years working with a summer program called Morry’s Camp.  The interesting thing about this project is it’s integrative goal of providing an exciting outdoor experience while recognizing the importance of making space for a social justice component, an academic tutorial piece and career internship opportunities.  During the school year they arrange for meet-ups, field trips, etc. and, by doing this, they recognize the student as a fully rounded being and introduce a new perspective on “year ’round” education,” making recreation and emotional development an equivocal part of the process.  There is a true sense of dedication to the youth as a “camper,” a scholar and a part of society at large.

There are other programs which do this successfully (i.e. Outward Bound, SIT: World Learning) and as many which view summer programs as a chance for kids to “get away from it all.”  I’m not one to say which of these perspectives is wrong or right but solely to draw attention to the possibilities.

School, as well, has been an experimental process highed-nodewith as many  iterations as there are students to teach.  I think it’s become fairly recognized
that, nationally (and I speak in general terms), schools model themselves as much in relationship to  the evolution of student thinking as they do in relationship to the type of thinking that is required for the era, whether this speaks to market or social requirements.
This being said its been quite a while since the production line model of education has been an appropriate metaphor for real world success.  Alternative classrooms are not the end all and be all.  In fact, at times they can be as exclusive as they are inclusive but a holistic perspective on teaching engages the array of different “intelligences” which are required to share an educational space.

The bridge between camp and school.  Historically they have been seen as a relief, one from the other.  But many of the things that make each wonderful, individually, could be a welcome addition to the toolbox of the other.


 

Be on the lookout for my article later this season…

Who Camps?  The racial, social, economic divide in the summer camp experience. who camps

 

At the crossroad: Kruzada Kali’s Guro Wilton

By Njoli Brown

An interview with Guro Wilton Valerio of Kuntaw Kali Kruzada

Njoli:  Yeah man, I just wanted to check in. See what’s going on at the getdown, going on at the Kuntaw.

Guro Wilton:  Yeah, it’s been good.  You know, we’ve got some new black belts in there.

Nj:  So they’re going to start rotating in teaching and that kind of thing?

GW:  Yeah, they’re almost there.  Still in that process of doing that teacher level certification.

Nj:  Oh, okay.  So they’re not really attached to each other?

GW:  No, not really.  I mean, you can get your black belt and not necessarily have worked as much on your teaching tools. There are different certifications for a variety of things.  I think the one who’s making his way through it all is Hubert (Saladino).

It’s one thing to make your way through the the learning process but then going through it all again, thinking about teaching it…

Nj:  So, maybe it recognizes that other feature beyond application that’s more intensely developing your analytical mind.

GW:  Yeah, that’s pretty much what it is in many ways.

Nj:  Yes, I can definitely see that Hubert has an enthusiasm for teaching and that is very apparent in his way.

What about you though?  How long have you been in this?

GW:  15… 14 years? Yeah, I think 14.

Nj:  Wow, so 14 years with Kuntaw… and were you doing something else before that?

GW:  I mean, I did some Tae Kwon Do before, you know, like most New Yorkers did in the 80s and 90s, hahaha.

Nj:  Bro, I’m tellin’ you.  They got it locked down.  Locked down tight.

GW:  Yeah, 80s, 90s, 70s too.

Nj:  So was your first coming into kali with Kuntaw or with some other group?

GW:  No, it was with Datu Rich.

Nj:  So how did you first get in touch with him?

GW:  He used to teach at Fight House.  I don’t know if you know that place.  It used to be called something else. It used to be called Chow’s back then.   Named after Peggy Chow who ran the school.

They had it sectioned off and so you know it provided a lot of individual training spaces, and everybody was there.  I mean, Renzo Gracie was there before he was a huge name.  Man, and you know, we were right after him, right after all those smelly-ass gis and everything, hahaha.

But you know, there was also a Thai Boxing class there as well.  So, I had gone there to check that out but the teacher, he just showed no interest at all.  Kinda blew me off, like “oh, what you see is what you get.  Look around and whatever, whatever, whatever…”  Meanwhile Datu Rich was teaching at the same time and I was like “that looks amazing!”

Right from there I started talking to him. “Hey, is this JKD? Is this this? Is this that?” When he told me it was kali, I mean, I had never really heard of any Filipino martial arts.  I mean, some of my best friends were Filipino. You might have met Guro Alex.

At first I would just come by every week or so and just watch class. They probably thought I was some kind of spy or something, hahaha, trying to steal some secret moves.

Nj:  Were there a lot of other groups operating during that time?

GW:  No, not really. As far as large organizations, you always had Doce Pares,  maybe Doug Pierre.  But I hadn’t really heard of them until later.

Nj:  Crazy thing, on the side a bit, but recently I’ve been doing a lot of reading and researching and realizing there were a lot of old school kats out there in Philadelphia.  I’ve been reading a lot about some huge contingents of classical and modern kali/arnis/escrima practitioners who immigrated and, not only moved out to California but, also took up residence in Philly.

GW:  Hmmm, that’s interesting.  I didn’t really know about that but I do think that you find a lot more long time committed students outside of New York City.  Maybe just because New Yorkers just don’t have a lot of time.  Ya know and because of this along with the high rent, it’s a hard thing to run a school here in New York without selling yourself out.  It’s a balance thing.  Either people go that TS (franchise) route or a much more low key thing.  It’s difficult…

2014-04-21 (3)

At my old Tae Kwon Do school the teacher did a few stick things and that sparked my interest.  He would do some stick drills and what not and if we ever asked him he would be like “Oh, this is Filipino martial arts.”  That really sparked it for me.  I think he had trained some with Remy Presas.  Just seminars and things like that.

Remy was really big with doing seminars, especially in the 70s.  So my teacher Spider, you might know Spider Rodriguez, you’re from New York, anyway, he’d go to these workshops and then come back and teach us some stick stuff.  When I finally ended up find a stick fighting school, I don’t know, I was just like “this is it.”  At that point I kind of segued away from Tae Kwon Do into kali.

Nj:  All of this stands out to me also because of the really interesting role that blacks and Latinos have played in the development of martial arts in New York.  There’s been a really big presence for decades now.

GW:  Yes, really big.  We kind of needed it, on many levels… and the truth is, they were taking it very seriously.  The 70s and 80s were kind of a “golden era” for a generation of martial artists.

Nj:  So what about you and opportunities to head over to the Philippines?

GW:  I’ve been there twice so far, in 2006 for about 2 weeks and again in 2010, and it was really great and I loved it.  The training there was just, just different.  I mean, you’ve trained with us so you know that we’re pretty serious about training the self-defense aspects of the art and I felt like that just wasn’t the focus out there. They’re more about learning the drills and learning the art and there wasn’t any… paranoia about the way they were training. They’re also very into tournaments and demos.  I went out to one with GM (Vic) Sanchez.  Then there’s that really deep level of dedication, like a whole other level.

I mean, you know, at Kuntaw we get maybe 3 hours a week here. That’s what you’re warming up on out there and that’s almost every day.  That felt like one of the biggest jumps.  I felt like my skill level really rocketed, being able to spend up to 30 hours in a week training.

NJ:  So, I’m curious do you see similarities ad contrasts?  One thing that stands out to me is the fact that the knife is by no means an abstract thing to Filipino practitioners and so it’s practiced in that way.  Do you find that cultural perspective plays a role in practice both here and there?

GW:  I don’t know, but it was a big change and definitely an eye opener.

Nj:  Interestingly though, you train with Datu Rich Acosta and he seems to be tremendously open minded stylistically speaking.  He’ll pull things from Aikido, Wing Chun and Jiu Jitsu if he feels like they’re relevant. Even the style uses this cross of Cinco Tieros, Lightening Scientific, Modern Arnis, etc.

So what’s been your experience in terms of diversifying your practice?

GW:  Well, I know that we really like the way the Wing Chun fits in with what we’re doing, especially thinking in terms of the hand trapping.  Practicing that element of Wing Chun really helps out  a lot.  It enhances the knife fighting and the close in stick fighting stuff.

So, yeah, I think I’m definitely interested in using what works, not getting so wrapped in metaphysical restrictions but focusing on what’s practical.  A lot of that also comes from Datu’s brother, Maestro Rico, because he trained at a lot of different schools, the ones you mentioned and so many others.  That’s where the idea of kruzada comes from in the name.

And you start to realize that the body only moves in certain ways and you start seeing the in-common techniques.  You’re cross-referencing between a variety of answers and creating one big hybrid.  We may not like to call to a hybrid art but that’s essentially what it is.

It was a process of  getting rid of the the useless drills and coming at it from a more simplified directions.  It’s not like aikido or karate or some other art where there are thousands of techniques.  We have a few angles and a few techniques and we have to work hard to master them.  A lot of arts have a lot of fluff, a lot of drills that don’t really lead anywhere and maybe they see that as a way to train beginners.

Nj:  It could be.  I mean, a lot of the people might say that the purpose behind certain drills is to teach body mechanics and movement theory so that it can ingrained into the student before they start to move on to more advanced applications.

GW:  It’s harder to teach some aspects of kali to someone who doesn’t have any martial arts experience, especially when you’re talking about things like Lightning or Cinco Tieros.

Nj:  Maybe that’s why you see a lot of the people who take kali have tried or trained something else before and have at least a general sense of their body.

GW:  Sure, I’d say that’s true, particularly if I’m thinking of the ones who really stick with it.  ‘Cause it can take a lot of time to learn those body mechanics, the timing, to train the basics, and you have to come in with the patience to do that kind of work.

I mean, it took me forever just to get my head wrapped around the idea of blocking & checking or sinawali.  All of it was good, but it was a lot of work, learning to use my left hand as well as my right.

I found a lot of the good fighters that I met in the Philippines were left handed and maybe that gave them a leg up because so many of us are used to fighting another right hander.

Nj:  Since you started training kali have you taken any other martial arts and how was that experience?

GW:  Yeah, yeah.  I’ve done a lot of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Nj:  Was there something specific you were looking for in that practice?

GW:  Yeah, definitely.  Although I might not think it’s the most practical of martial arts, it does teach you a lot about body mechanics. It gets you away from trying to muscle through things.  BJJ is all about leverage and that was a real eye opener.  Similar to Wing Chun, there’s this element of energy flow.  You don’t have to be big and strong to take someone twice your weight down to the floor.  And then there’s the conditioning aspect.  We don’t get too much conditioning in the Filipino martial arts.  If anything, it’s very specific to the arms and shoulders and areas needed for manipulating the sticks and knives but in terms of the lower body… I felt like that was something I really got out of doing the BJJ.

Nj:  I wonder if this plays into this aspect that I noticed from your classes.  I’ve seen that it’s not common for every FMA (Filipino Martial Arts) school to spend as much time as you all do with dumog or ground fighting.  I always thought it was a very intelligent thing, you guys recognizing not just these 3 ranges, but this additional fourth that is on the ground.

GW:  Sure, sure and the truth is, when you see it many of these places… how good is it?  If you were to take what you’d learned and throw it into a real BJJ school, would it hold up? That’s a big test.

Going up a really good purple belt or whatever in BJJ, I mean, they’re really good, really fast and it’s hard to lock ’em in or submit them.  So I felt like that was a good reason for me to train with them and to learn their techniques.  I wanted to understand how they move and why they move in the ways they do.

And then we incorporate some of that stuff back into our teaching.  I mean, we’re not big into doing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu ’cause it’s not the most practical thing but there are some aspects that are really fundamental like:  how to move your hips, how to relax, that kind of thing.

Nj:  Yeah, proximity is such a psychological thing and people can really freak out once someone moves into their space or is in contact with them for too long.

GW:  That’s a big problem for a lot of students. We do chi sao, for example, and you’re supposed to be totally relaxed, it’s energy flow, but people freak out. That same thing comes up when we get into all the hand-to-hand stuff, where you have to grab someone or grab their stick or whatever.  

So stuff like Jiu Jitsu and dumog help with stuff like that, especially when you get into a grappling situation.  Knowing if you should be grappling, particularly when someone’s holding a knife or some other weapon.  Jiu Jitsu spends a lot of time getting its students really comfortable with a variety of different guard positions.

These things can be really good for FMA but, of course, we remember that we’re so practicality minded and know that we don’t want to wrestle on the floor for too long.  But you never know.  I mean, most people in this country have done some kind of wrestling, done some kind of mixed martial arts, it’s gotten so big.  So you never know if you’re going to get taken down by surprise and if that happens you don’t want to freak out, you want to be ready to react accordingly.

The truth in all of this though, is that we have to practice to also learn other people’s weaknesses.  We also have to train to be strong enough and have enough stamina for all kinds of situations.

That’s something I think students need to learn more of,how to train themselves.  It’s like a weight lifter who wants to build a certain muscle. He has to work it every day.  We do some angle 1s and 2s in class, you have to work them and perfect them.

When I first started I was really into exercise science and wanted to be a personal trainer.  So I looked at martial arts as another type of body development.  When I set up class I think about how many angle 1s are we gonna do, how many redondas, can we put in a high intensity sparring session? All of this is so people can build a strong core, foundation.

Nj:  Since you’re bringing up teaching I’d love to ask you a bit more about that.  I’d love to hear more of your thoughts about managing a space, dealing with the in and outflow of students, keeping up your enthusiasm when you find yourself constantly returning to the fundamentals, the excitement or feelings you have for the students who’ve been with you for a longer time.  Take it where you will…

GW: Yeah, it’s been six, seven, maybe even 8 years I’ve been teaching now.  The last four or so have been at Shin Budo Kai.  Just before that though, we were almost closed.  Maestro couldn’t teach anymore and Datu Rich was out in Jersey with family, kids.  So basically I was the only one.  I was either, close the school down or I keep teaching.  At that point I really put it on myself to keep the school open.  I didn’t want to see us lose everything we’d worked for over the years prior to that.

But, yeah, now six or seven years later, I’ve seen a lot of beginners come and go.  You start to feel like you can tell who’s going to stay, who’s not going to stay.  And, yes, it’s great seeing people progress, especially when you see them pass that two year mark.  The time flies but you can really see the difference.  That’s really exciting.

For me, a lot of this has been about learning from my own mistakes.  At first I would teach too advanced.  You know Maestro and Datu, they will throw technique after technique at you.  So I decided when I was teaching I really wanted to reinforce the basics so that everyone could keep up with it.  You can tell when certain students just aren’t really grasping something or they’re kind of shaky on this thing or that so… You just have to focus on the basics.

I mean,  a good “1,” I think it’s the best angle ever and if you train it hardcore for a year, it’s the only angle you’ll ever need.  If you have the timing and the strength behind it and the endurance to hold onto the stick, all you need is angle 1.  Angle 1 and angle 2, you could keep it to that.  So, there’s a lot to basics that could seem kind of boring but is so important.

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One thing I learned from GM Sanchez was that there should be at least one thing in your class that you do every time.  You’ve been to my class and have seen that I have some pretty standard warm-ups that I do all the time.  Because all of those body mechanic warm-ups translate into sinawali, into stick and dagger movements, and so on.  We’re trying to develop muscle memory not just work on the moves that make us look cool (’cause there are definitely students who are into that, hahaha).

Nj:  True, true.  Speaking truthfully, I always think of it in terms of a hope that my students will have the opportunity to train with someone far better than me.  I figure, I’m trying to help put together tools so they can reap the most benefit from the chances they encounter.

GW:  Sure, and this is exactly what I meant by saying when they train with Datu and Maestro the pace is fast and I want them to pick up as much as possible.  Because they will be throwing them technique after technique and sometimes it’s just a matter of you learn it or you don’t and we’re moving on. Besides, there’s always something to improve on in the basics.  Change up your training.  Use a tire, get a partner, but stick to working on those basics.

Nj:  Damon (Abraham of Kapatiran Madirigma NYC) is from the same era as you right?  Are there other guys who started out with you who are still in the game?

GW:  From my generation there are not many of them left.  Guro Joe, Alex… Damon came around a little later.  He had been training with Kombatan which comes from Ernesto Presas.  It’s basically almost the same thing that we do.  I mean it’s their own thing and they developed it and I like Komabatan a lot.  But, yeah, Damon was already a black belt by the time he came to us so we were already on the same level, but he stuck around.  He wanted to learn Lightning. 

So, he’s definitely from another generation at Kuntaw, him, (Lakan) Jay (Shin) and then right after Jay, (Guro Lakan) Hubert (Saladino) came.

Nj:  So what about your opportunities to train?  Who did you come up with and how do you get your training in now?

GW:  Well, back then it was pretty decent size, maybe as many as 15 people.  Kind of like when class fills up nowadays.  I’d know Guro Alex since I was a kid.  We grew up together.  Me, him and Randy, we came from the same Tae Kwon Do school.  I went to that school because they went there.  Those guys were friends of my brother and I was always the younger one tagging along with them.

But when they stopped doing TKD I was still wanting to do something.  Finaly , when I found Datu Rich I got Randy and Alex to come train with us.  So we all went over to kali together.  Alex and his brother Randy, me and my brother, Marcus.

That really helped to keep me training ’cause we would finish up with class and then we’d hang around in the gym and practice, or we would meet up in the park to work on things.  That kind of thing helped so much, even though we didn’t know what we were doing, we still got together and played with the angles, worked on bigay tama, free flow, disarms and that kind of thing.

At the time class was only 3 times a week, about an hour and a half per so, what’s that, around 4 hours a week.  That goes by so quick and you could really use an hour each session just for warming up.  If there ended up being a lot of explanation or stuff to talk about you could end up with lke 15 minutes of class.

Me? I don’t like to talk much during class.  I’m like “let’s get to work! We’ve got an hour,” hahaha.  After we left Fight House we cut it down to that hour.  I guess it was easier to schedule and to manage.  You can definitely get stuff done in that time, you just really have to be on track.

Nj:  What that’s really saying is that people have to b motivated to train outside of class.

GW:  We tell ’em that.  They can also take privates or semi-privates. That’s pretty much how my generation of students did it.  We’d go out to Long Island where Maestro was and we’d do black belt class, sometimes we’d call it Fight Camp, hahaha.  We’d go over the stuff but in different ways.  It felt like he was really grooming us for teaching.

Nj:  And what about now? Who do you get to train with now?

GW:  My shadow, haha.  I do a lot of conditioning on my own and sometimes I get together with Guro Alex and we’l go over bigay tama.  We’ll do a lot of grapling because he’s a really good grappler.  But teaching is what’s really helped me clean everything up.

hqdefaultThrough the years I’ve taught so many beginners and having to teach things all those times has really given me the opportunity to work out the details.  You’re able to see your own errors and tweak the formula.  You see the mistakes you make in the students that you teach and then you ask them “Who taught you that? Oh, I taught you that? Hahaha.”  That’s part of why I think teaching is so much a part of your development.  It’s so hard to really look at your own technique otherwise.

Nj: On a separate but related note, I wanted to talk about something that I’ve noticed from your classes that stands out as a thing that many groups struggle with.

You guys seem to have a good number of women in your group. Not only that but,some of them are really solid students who’ve stuck around for quite a while.

GW:  This is actually the most women we’ve had in a long time. It’s always been at least one but usually they don’t go longer then one year or so.  Some stay as long as two years which is a fairly typical.

It helps having one or two committed women in the group ’cause I think it shows something to others when they come to check us out or to try out class.  You also have to understand how to teach some things differently for them.  With some of the guys you can use a more aggressive approach.  In fact, some of them prefer that.  With women, their strengths are different so you have to teach things in…

Nj:  Variations…?

GW:  Yeah, variations.  Lots of that.  You also have to teach that mentality, a mindset that’s focused on self defense.  We usually teach them a lot of knife ’cause it’s most useful for them, that and thinking about applying improvised weapons.  Besides, in kali, knife translates to stick, translates to open hand and on like that.  If you learn the right mechanics, that #1 strike, that hammer fist, that chop, they all come from the same basic idea.

Nj:  I also wanted to ask about your work as an acupuncturist and how that supports or influences your martial practice.

GW:  Well, I was always really interested in healing but I was pretty disillusioned with the conventional medical practice, the doctors would just hand you an antibiotic for anything, like they didn’t really care about you.  So while I was doing Tae Kwon Do I started getting exposed to the idea of oriental medicine and that kind of thing.  The more I kept training martial arts, the more I realized how important it was to learn how to heal myself, especially if I wanted to keep training until I got old.  If my body’s already racked by arthritis when I’m 70 then where do I go from there?

Along with that it’s important to learn the balance between over training and keeping yourself healthy.  I’ve also got to know about how to take care of my students if they get hurt.  So, I feel like these two practices work hand in hand.  So much of both of them is about moving energy, understanding how it flows.

Nj:  Where did you study acupuncture?

GW:  Pacific College f Oriental Medicine, which is here in New York.  There are three branches, here, in Chicago and San Diego.

Nj:  Do you every find opportunities in your kali classes to talk about some of your healing work?  I know, in my capoeira group we have an acupuncturist who has come in a couple of times to hold discussions about general wellness, healing and eating well for active and athletic living, things like that.  It gives people the chance to ask those questions.  How do I take care of my joints? How do I strengthen my bones?  How do I keep my energy up after long work days? How does diet affect my moods and my ability to focus?  People have always been super receptive.

GW:  I try to talk to some of them about that.  Some of them even stop by my office for treatment, but I don’t really get into that stuff so much in class.  I talk to them on more of an individual basis.  I’ll hear “oh, I’ve got this and that problem.” A lot of times it’s diet related or how people are treating their bodies.  On the most base level, keeping chi flowing in the most healthy way possible.

All the same, I don’t want to lecture anybody.  You know, everybody thinks that they’re doing it right and it’s not my place to intervene.  I figure people will come to me if they need help.  Sometimes it can be as simple as modifications to their workout routine.  You see a lot of people who want to hit the weights but they’re not necessarily doing the most functional exercises for the martial art that they’re training.  You don’t need bodybuilding per se for what we do.  It’s okay to be big but, done in the wrong way, it can slow you down or decrease your range of motion.  Truth is, swinging the sticks is the most functional thing.

One day… the dream is to make a way to incorporate everything. Me and Guro Alex want to open up something in the future where we can have a martial arts, health and acupuncture center, all of it under one roof.  We both know a lot of teachers.  We have doctors in the family, psychiatrists and lots of other talented people, even just within the Kuntaw family.  If we all just team up together we could do something really good.

Nj:  Do you feel wed to New York?  ‘Cause, man, you’re talkin’ about some square footage.

GW: I know.  That gets us thinking about all kinds of things.  I’m like “I don’t know if we can do that here.  Maybe we have to move up to Connecticut or something.” Hahaha.  It’s probably going to come down to something like that.  But anything is possible.  Look at gyms like Five Points. They’ve got it all pulled together in one place.

Nowadays, no one owns their own spot and if they do, they’ve probably been in there since like the 70s.  Maybe that’s part of why I like doing stuff in all the outer boroughs, Brooklyn, Queens.

Nj:  Sounds like a lot of stuff is happening

GW:  For sure.

Nj:  Thanks for letting me get at you.  It’s good to get you sitting down for a minute, hahaha.


 

 Wilton Valerio’s Bio

As a kali practitioner:
Wilton Valerio is a 3rd degree black belt and full instructor under Kuntaw Kali kruzada. For the past 15 years Wilton has trained under Maestro Rico Acosta (Kuntaw Kali Kruzada, Acosta Fighting system) and Datu Richie Acosta (Kuntaw Kali Kruzada). Wilton has also trained in the Philippines with Senior Master Samuel Dulay (Modern Arnis International) and Grandmaster Vicente Sanchez. (Kali Arnis international)

Wilton has over 6 years experience teaching group classes and private lesson in Manhattan and Brooklyn and specializes in coordination drills, timing, reflex, physical fitness and self defense utilizing empty hands or weapons such as single or double stick, knife and improvised weapons.
http://www.kuntawkali.com/

As an acupuncturist:
Wilton Valerio is a licensed acupuncturist in New York State 2014-04-21
and graduated from Pacific College of Oriental Medicine with a
Master of Science Degree in Traditional Oriental Medicine in 2008 and has  completed over 500 hours of clinical internship at the Pacific College Acupuncture Clinic and Grand Meridian Clinic in New York City.

Trained in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), he specializes in sports recovery, pain management, digestive support, weight loss, physical fitness/personal training and stress management using acupuncture, tui na (massage), herbal medicine and nutritional counseling. Wilton has been in practice for six years and has helped many patients recover from motor-vehicle accidents, sports related injuries, seasonal allergies/immune support and support clients suffering from anxiety and depression.

Wilton’s practice is located inside the Rutherford Medical Complex on 2nd avenue and 17th street near Gramercy park, Union Square and Peter Cooper Village. Wilton is incredibly friendly, experienced, flexible with appointment scheduling and takes his time with all patents. His rates are very reasonable and believes that healthcare should be safe, affordable and accessible to everyone regardless of their financial situation.
http://www.acu-healthny.com/default.html

In All Forms…

when i was skinnySo this old ad pops up every once in a while.  Whether it is as a catalyst for a discussion on social aesthetics and the roles they play on self image, economics and its affect on definitions of beauty or the cultural difficulty we have with reconciling health and beauty, this image always gets me thinking.  I decided to post it for the sake of whatever process it sparks for you.