My Brazilian JiuJitsu teammates and I climb up the stairs of the Renzo Gracie Academy to the final floor. The women are talking excitedly about upcoming tournaments; April is quickly approaching and several of them are competing. Even though class is set to start in five minutes, being around the team relaxes me. I know many of the women by name now and have spent time with them outside of the academy. There is a real sense of community and friendship: in between discussions of the tournament, there are questions about boyfriends, pets, new jobs, and doctor appointments. We are friends here. The care for each other continues beyond our practice sessions.
As we approach the mats, we see Professor Robson sitting cross-legged, scrolling through his phone. To the untrained eye, it looks as though our black belt instructor is engrossed in Instagram pictures and Facebook notifications. As you get closer, you find him actually looking at his own pictures: of himself and his young daughter, pulling silly expressions at the camera.
"Let me show you this one!" Robson says, as we step onto the mats.
Our professor's face lights up anytime his daughter is mentioned. When she visits the academy, he and his miniature partner in crime both pull small pranks; tapping people on their shoulders and walking away, making faces at a person when they aren't looking, or holding on to the sleeve of someone's gi to make them late for class. She is Robson's shadow, except two feet shorter and often wears a pink shirt.
The photo he shows us is of his daughter pouting, her arms crossed tightly against her chest. She is not even seven years old, but is already the spitting image of Robson, with longer hair and more mischievous eyes. He laughs at his child trying so hard to look like an angry adult, but then notices the time at the top of his phone. Professor Robson stands up, brushes invisible dirt off his gi, and yells, "Alright girls, time to line up!" in his thick Brazilian accent. Various women stand to position themselves on the floor, arms at their sides with attention.
While Professor Robson occasionally appears in a gi, the rest of Women's Class do not. Women's Class is exactly its name: a Brazilian JiuJitsu class specifically for the female practitioners. There is no prerequisite to attend; in fact, my very first BJJ class was a Women's Class. The levels are mixed, so all belts are allowed to attend and roll with each other. Thursday nights are no-gi, meaning that the women can take a break from wearing the heavy uniform and train in spats, rash guards, t-shirts, or the occasional shorts. While it is a relief to be in lighter wear, the class is harder; there are no gis to grip and it is illegal to grab any clothing. Not to mention that once class gets going, the women begin to sweat, and for lack of a better term, become slippery.
Practice starts with a few basic warm ups. The women run around the mats several times, alternating between slapping the back of their ankles as they kick their heels to their bottom or lifting their knees high in the air. Professor Robson then has us do several drills: starting with rolling across the length of the mats, hip-escaping, and practicing take downs on each other. The women whisper to their partner modifications for each other's technique: things like "Lift my leg towards the direction your head is going," or "Drive your knee down and keep your head against my abdomen." The goal of the class, and really the entire academy, is to ensure that every person is the best training partner possible. When we better each other, we better ourselves, and thus better the entire team.
Professor Robson's goal is to create a women's competition team. The women view this objective as invaluable. As Ellie, a purple belt who regularly trains at the Astoria academy puts it, "Your professor or coach is the gatekeeper to the promotion of this sport. Having someone who genuinely wants to build a women's team is amazing."
Training at Renzo Gracie's, we feel cared for, considered, and like we are a part of a huge family. Having the opportunity to represent the academy with a purely female competition team would be an honor and many of the women work incredibly hard to represent us as the best. One of the women, along with the academy manager, created the Instagram page @RenzoGracieWomen as a way to highlight the hardworking females' efforts. While we are playful, sticking our tongues out at each other during rolls, we are also very serious. Each woman's face differs when we are doing drills, but one word describes it all the same: focused. Every person on the floor is dedicated to Team Renzo.
We represent ourselves accordingly at all possible opportunities: at fights or tournaments, we wear our emblazoned shirts and sweaters; we hashtag all our pictures with #TeamRenzoGracie or #RenzoKnows, jumping at any opportunity to take a picture or talk to the master himself; and we will speak to anyone and everyone about why our academy and our team is the best. Girls' night out include jokingly carried out rear-naked chokes and discussions about technique. Nicknames are lovingly created, such as one of the fittest girls at the academy being dubbed "Fatty". The women smile and pose for pictures, throwing bunny ears behind each other's heads. "You have been developing so much, I'm so proud of you!" I'll hear from my more advanced teammates. Those compliments make me beam with joy. It's nice to hear when you're performing well, and to be told that by the same women you admire... Well it's a pretty wonderful feeling.
After we have warmed up and drilled sufficiently, Professor Robson will then demonstrate a technique on an advanced student and let us practice with our teammates. Again, we work together to make sure that everyone understands. A confused pair will watch higher belts carry out the drill, and try again on their own. Occasionally, we are put in an uncomfortable position when a partner is struggling to execute the procedure properly. However, we are supportive of each other; either Robson or a more experienced student will step in to make sure that the technique is learned and that no one becomes injured. Not that we are ever afraid of hurting one another. The class is not carried out in a cautious manner, instead very technically and thoroughly. No woman swings or throws their partner wildly, and we pay very close attention to anything that might resemble a tap during a roll or demonstration. Hurting a teammate only hurts the team.
Once Robson is satisfied that we understand how to carry out the attack or defense, we get to my favorite part: free rolling. The women will partner off with each other and begin their segment however our professor instructs us to: in closed, open, or half-guard, from side control or from on our knees. He then gives us three minutes to roll and practice anything that we may know. I am only a white belt with one stripe; meaning that I know some basics and can hang on when my limbs go flying. The best part for me about coming to Women's No-Gi Class is that I am given the opportunity to roll with the higher belts. Generally during the week, the time that Women's Class is at, I am at Muay Thai practice; a sport that I am wholly dedicated to and the reason why I started at Renzo Gracie's in the first place. I usually attend my Muay Thai session and then rush into the locker room to change into a gi, in order to make it in time for the white belt BJJ classes that are held immediately after. However, for Thursday nights, I switch my schedule around. I have commitments that start during what would be my second hour of practice, so I attend only Women's No-Gi and then rush out the door. As much as I love Thai boxing and my Muay Thai instructors and teammates, Women's Class is one of my favorite classes of the entire week.
When I roll with the more experienced students, it's highly unlikely that I ever submit them. I manage to get trapped in triangle chokes more than anything. While it can be frustrating, it definitely pays off; when I attend the white belt classes, it is difficult for them to triangle me. I'm not competing for a few more months, but I try to envision every session as though I was already there at the IBJJF tournament. I perk my ears to hear for my name and Professor Robson's instructions: a way to turn my head, escape my arm, or a vulnerability in my partner. Even when I have been submitted or we need to reset, I am not tired or discouraged. My teammate is giving me everything and I want to give her the best of me back.
After our first free roll, our Professor will then walk us through another technique. Oftentimes, it appears that he demonstrates a detail he noticed that we may not have been aware of--someone unable to escape closed guard effectively, sweeping from half-guard, or rolling out from a potentially nasty wrist-lock. After sending us out to practice again, he watches our movements even more keenly. We have all learned over time that JiuJitsu is comparable to chess and that it is the smaller aspects of our techniques that decides whether we submit or tap."Posture up!" Robson says, as he walks by me in closed guard with my favorite partner Ariela. "You need to keep a good posture or else she's going to bring you down and it'll be easier to submit you." Almost as if they planned it, Ariela then pulls my right arm down against my body, breaking my already poor posture, and effortlessly pulls me into a triangle choke. She efficiently has her legs around my neck and is aware of my unwillingness to tap. Ariela hangs on and slowly squeezes tighter, like a King Cobra anticipating its prey's death. I finally tap her leg when I have realized that I can not figure any other option. I'm not upset. I know that I need to be triangled over and over again to be an expert on escaping them.
"Look," Robson calls my attention to him in Ariela's guard. "Like this, back up, elbows here, and hand here." His back is upright and he's looking straight ahead. He easily breaks out of Ariela's muscular grasp and looks at me. "Try again." he says, as Ariela gets into position once more. She has no gi top for me to grab onto when I am trying to break her guard, nor does she have the gi pants for me to hold as I attempt to push her legs off of my midsection. But this time, I do exactly as Robson instructed, and find myself getting out of her guard much more easily. "Yes, like this," Robson says, before he continues on to another pair of students. The next Tuesday when I return to the gi classes, my partner will comment on how good my posture is and how difficult it is for them to break it. Muscles and strength mean almost nothing in JiuJitsu. What our instructors want us to learn is technique and that technique will get us through any situation, whether or not there is a gi to hold.
After practicing our newest escape and refining the details, we are then set to free roll for the rest of the class. This is the part I most anticipate. While it is necessary to cover technique and modify movement, I am always more excited to roll with my teammates.As a white belt, I don't get many opportunities to train with more advanced students unless I manage to make it to an all-levels class in the morning or at noon. Even though my teammates' skills are lethal, I am excited to walk away with something new that I learned from them. Triangles aren't the only weapons that are used on me, I am arm-barred, and darced. There are things done that I don't even know what they are called yet, but I know that they sure as hell don't feel good. Training with other women would isn't all soft and delicate, nor is it wild and frenzied.Every woman comes and gives the class their 100%, taking caution to not hurt their partner while doing everything in their power to submit them. Practice never feels competitive; every opportunity is a chance to learn. While Professor Robson is coaching us, we are coaching each other. My partner will tell me how to get out of their submission or give me tips when I am trying to submit them. The free rolling is never a way for us to "score" points on each other. They are only opportunities for us to better each other.
In between rolls, we are laughing or sipping water. We alternate partners and try to roll with someone new for every round. The time limit is longer--we have five guaranteed minutes now per session, but they seem to almost evaporate. One minute it feels like you almost got the submission, but the next we will hear Robson's voice boom, "Time! Switch!"
After I have been choked out sufficiently by Ariela, I walk over to Katya, whose blonde hair is pulled tight into a ponytail. She smiles shyly at me and her green eyes are vibrant. We nod at each other and slap hands before we begin to roll. Despite her quiet demeanor, she manages to make me tap out time and time again by some variation of an arm bar. She is incredibly technical and will manipulate my arms in just the right position every time, even if we have become upside down. We all vary in size and shapes, weights and heights. Katya is much smaller than me but can dominate me over and over again. It is never about strength or size, but technicality and focus.
The rounds end and all the women have partnered with each other at least once. Professor Robson has us all line up and bow out to end the class. We are red-faced, sweat-drenched, and grinning, with frizzed up hair and undone braids. One by one, we all shake hands, and clap each other on the back . We are constantly challenging each other, but are finding ourselves getting better with every session. Occasionally, we end with a class picture; one with our serious fight expressions, another with tongues out and eyes rolled. The women walk down the stairs and disappear, where I won't roll with them again until the next week's Women's No-Gi Class. That gives me time to get ready.
Photos courtesy of Falyn Swerer, Dana Minuta, Faye Farrales, and Kristin Doeblin. Special thanks to Renzo Gracie Women.