Need safety insurance? Take this $5 self defense class at UT

Martial arts expert Janell Vela Smith will lead a self-defense workshop at the University of Texas on Friday and Saturday. Cost is $5 at the door. Photo courtesy Janell Vela Smith

 

A $5 self-defense workshop at the University of Texas this weekend is designed to provide students with a little insurance in case they find themselves in a dangerous situation.

Martial arts expert Janell Vela Smith will lead the two-part interactive workshop, scheduled for 3-4 p.m. Friday and Saturday in Room 1.105 of the University of Texas Recreational Sports Center.

Self defense and awareness are a form of insurance when it comes to safety, Smith says. Photo courtesy Janell Vela Smith

The classes are part of an awareness campaign by the Texas Sunshines. Proceeds go to the local non-profit Partners Against Child Trafficking, or PACT.

The workshop is designed to equip students with skills to help them navigate daily life with a heightened sense of awareness, confidence and preparedness.

“You can be minding your own business, but there are times you are just pulled into something. It’s always good to be ready,” Janell says.

Pre-register for the workshop here.

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I popped in for one of Smith’s training classes eight in 2011. Here’s what I wrote about it at the time:

Janell Smith, right, demonstrates an elbow jab on Statesman Fit City reporter Pam LeBlanc, left, during a self-defense class at the School for Performing and Visual Arts in downtown Austin. Julia Robinson/ FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Ladies, let’s be frank. Most of us aren’t taught how to hit.

To some of us, a roundhouse sounds more like a cut of beef than a punch, and we’re just not used to doling out swift kicks or elbow blows. If someone jumped us in a parking garage, we might even apologize for getting in the way.

It’s time to get tough. And Janell Smith, a 125-pound, 5-foot-1-inch powerhouse, is here to help.

Smith, who heads up a company called Iron Dragon Productions, has studied 10 forms of martial arts, and has blackbelts in tae kwon do and Tukong moosul. She teaches self-defense at Lifetime Fitness and John’s Gym in Far North Austin, and works as a stunt coordinator for films.

“Self-defense is insurance,” she says. “You hope you never have to use it, but if you do, you’re ready.”

According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, 5 million violent crimes, including about 200,000 rapes or sexual assaults and 16,000 murders, were committed in 2008.

Janell Smith, right, demonstrates an elbow jab on Statesman Fit City reporter Pam LeBlanc, left, during a self-defense class at the School for Performing and Visual Arts in downtown Austin in 2011. Julia Robinson/ FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

Many women don’t realize that by rummaging through their purses or fiddling with a cellphones as they walk through a parking lot, they’re setting themselves up as potential victims of would-be attackers.

Knowing some basic self-defense skills, Smith says, can help women avoid becoming victims.

“It’s silly to think we can go toe-to-toe with an attacker,” she says. “Use your brain first and not get into a situation where you are vulnerable. But if you do, it’s thinking quickly that can save you.”

Walk with confidence and self-esteem. Know your surroundings. Never be distracted as you walk to your car. Hold your head high and look around often. Make direct eye contact with people around you.

If someone closes in on your comfort zone, step back. Keep your distance. And if you’re threatened, yell “fire” instead of “help” – people are more likely to respond.

Staying fit is another deterrent to attack. “If you’re fit, you carry yourself in a different manner. It’s that air of confidence you project when you’re fit and healthy,” Smith says.

When I stopped by to join a self-defense class Smith teaches at the Austin School for the Performing and Visual Arts in downtown Austin, 15 teenagers were lined up in the wood-floored activity room, ready to take whatever Smith threw at them.

Class began with jumping jacks, and Smith encouraged us to yell with each repetition. Bellowing can spook an attacker – or at least make him look for prey that’s less likely to draw attention.

We worked our way through a litany of drills, firing off front kicks and side kicks, hitting with our elbows, and throwing quick, precise punches leading with our knuckles. Smith’s arms whipped so fast the fabric on her uniform flapped like a flag in a stiff wind. Besides helping to keep you safe, it turns out, self-defense class is a good workout.

Janell Smith, a black belt martial arts instructor, teaches students self-defense techniques at the School for Performing and Visual Arts in downtown Austin. Julia Robinson/ FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

“When you’re thinking self-defense, it’s your life and you can’t be nice; you can’t be shy. You have to be ready to protect yourself,” Smith told the students.

She showed us how to hit with the hardest part of our elbows. She demonstrated how to kick someone with a front or side kick, zinging him with the blade of the foot and aiming for a weak point like an attacker’s knee or stomach.

“There are no bad targets, only better targets,” she told the class. “The idea is to create a distraction – then run.”

Then we practiced escape techniques. I got paired with 16-year-old student Charlee Koonce for role-playing.

Caela Pousson, 11, Lucy Morrison, 13, Cady Boyd, 15, and Christian Nevarez, 13, practice escape techniques during a self-defense class taught by Janell Smith at the School for Performing and Visual Arts in downtown Austin in 2011. Julia Robinson/ FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Charlee played the attacker first, and tried to grab my wrist. Smith showed us how to rotate our arm and jerk to break the hold.

Then I pretended to be the bad guy, grabbing Charlee by her collar. While I had my hands full, Smith noted that both of my “victim’s” weapons were still free. Charlee broke my grip and sprinted away.

We learned other techniques, too, from scraping our foot down an attacker’s shin and stomping on his foot to breaking out of a bear hug by shifting to one side, sitting back and grabbing our attacker’s leg from between our own legs. Head butts are good; so are elbow strikes. Anything works as long as it stuns an assailant long enough for you to bolt. And it doesn’t matter if the bully is bigger than you.

It’s important to practice, so the moves become instinctive, Smith told us.

Janell Smith demonstrates a side kick during a self-defense class at the School for Performing and Visual Arts in downtown Austin on Friday August 26, 2011. Julia Robinson/ FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

An hour later, as class wound down, we got one final order: “Find your partner and give them a hug,”

The students then spent a few minutes discussing their new skills.

“On the off chance you might be in a life-threatening position, you need to know how to protect yourself,” said eighth-grader Lucy Morrison, 13.

Smith agreed.

“There’s empowerment in the mind-set of not being a weakling,” she says. “It’s not living in fear; it’s living in awareness.”

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994

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Janell Smith demonstrates an elbow strike during a self-defense class at the School for Performing and Visual Arts in downtown Austin on Friday August 26, 2011. Julia Robinson/ FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Women’s tips for self defense

1. Walk with attitude and make eye contact with others.

2. Don’t rummage in your purse or fiddle with your cellphone while walking alone.

3. Carry a ballpoint pen or kubotan, a self-defense key chain about 5 inches or 6 inches long, in your hand when walking to your car alone.

4. Back away if someone invades your personal space.

5. Yell “fire” if someone threatens you.

6. If someone grabs you, target weak points like eyes, nose, throat, groin or knee.`

7. Remember your goal is to stun your attacker so you can get away.

8. Avoid jogging or running alone.

9. Turn down the volume on your headphones when you run.

10. Take a basic self-defense class.


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