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Students find self-defense classes ‘empowering’

Women’s self-defense class builds strength and community

Arriving in D.C. for their freshman year at American University, Jasmin Elgayer and Ava Rogers thought joining AU CHAARG on a trip to JTR Jujutsu International in Tenleytown would be a fun weekend activity. 

Now, Elgayer, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, works at JTR as a staff member. Rogers, a junior in CAS, continued with women’s self-defense classes for the rest of her freshman year.

Walking into her first class, Elgayer said that despite her athletic background, she recalls not knowing what to expect.

“The first class was a little bit intimidating,” Elgayer said. “But I was very excited to try it because I’d never done martial arts before.”

Grand Master Dong Jim Kim opened JTR in Tenleytown in 2010 and has attracted a small community of children, teens and adults. After Kim’s passing in 2015, Danladi Whitten assumed the position and later created the women’s self-defense course.

Whitten, known as Master Don in the studio, wants all people to be able to physically protect themselves from harm. He noted that the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network found that one out of every six American women has survived an “attempted or completed rape.” 

The program, he said, is designed for women in urban areas to learn to defend themselves using their bodies and physical environments against someone who could be stronger.

“If somebody is in your personal space, what can you do?” Whitten said. “How can you develop the greatest amount of counteractive force? What defensive postures, positions or tactics would be best to employ?”

Using foam shields and hand-to-hand combat, students repeatedly practice using their elbows, knees and fake knives to train their muscle memory. Students train these techniques while kneeling, facing backward or forward and side-to-side.

JTR emphasizes the ethics of caring for the mind, body and spirit; Whitten hopes students leave the class with confidence and community.

“It’s not strict and disciplined like the martial arts program that is rooted in Japanese culture,” Whitten said. “There’s more openness and social interactions between the members, there’s an energy of support.”

According to Elgayer and Rogers, it’s not uncommon for the class to get emotional. To counteract the toll that learning and performing techniques take, students cheer each other on, perform check-ins and have group outings away from the studio.

Remembering her initial reluctance to participate to the fullest, Rogers said the range of ages and abilities made the environment more comfortable.

“I really appreciate that because it kind of also encourages me to not be afraid to use what I know,” Rogers said. “I think it was very empowering in that way.”

Rogers said the classes can be grueling. They often begin with students running around the mat and performing a series of burpees and push-ups. New students follow along, learn exercises with the group and later spar with each other. Rogers said the goal is to keep an elevated heart rate, and students are expected to move until Whitten says to stop.

“When you’re out of breath, you still need to be able to push a little further,” Rogers said. “Some of the stuff we did was scary and uncomfortable to learn, like being in a headlock or a chokehold. But I felt good knowing it; in my head I felt good having practiced it.”

Elgayer believes the biggest benefit from her time at JTR is heightened spatial awareness. Now, when walking outdoors alone or going out with friends, she feels like she’s making smarter decisions staying on well-lit streets and within distance of other groups.

For the prospective students entering a new space and scared by the intensity, Elgayer advises them to keep an open mind because the class has a lot to offer.

“If you don’t know what to expect, that’s a good thing,” Elgayer said. “It can’t hurt to try.”

Women’s self-defense classes run every Tuesday and Thursday from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. JTR also offers one-day safety and self-defense workshops on a monthly basis.

This article was edited by Maria Tedesco, Patricia McGee and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis and Olivia Citarella.

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