Insights from Women in the Martial Arts, Part 1
In dojos across the world, there is a multitude of incredibly talented women studying and teaching the Arts. They are of varying rank from first-day beginners to the tops of their respective organizations. In this interview, I’ve asked a series of questions of seven black belt-wearing women, all coming from different backgrounds. These are all practitioners that I look up to and respect. Many of them are from a school in West LA, where I’ve had the honor to train with them extensively. You’ll likely recognize a couple of the other women from the movies.
The reason for this compilation of ‘Artists and Answers’ is that everyone has their own unique perspective. I wanted to gather that from these incredible women and share their thoughts with you. Whether you’re new to the arts or advanced, striker or grappler, man or woman, there’s something valuable in this article for you.
- Cynthia Rothrock
- Michel Manu
- Barbara White
- Cheri Temple
- Angela Dates
- Cathy Burns
- Kirsten Blakemore
The questions we asked of our participants:
- Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
- What systems have you studied, and which would you consider your base art and why?
- What drew you to the Martial Arts?
- What was the greatest challenge you’ve faced as a woman in the Arts
- What was the greatest advantage you’ve had as a woman in the Arts?
- What would you like to tell women that already train or are thinking about starting?
- Is there anything you would like to tell the men with which you share the mat?
- What has surprised you the most during your time training?
- What is the number one greatest lesson you’ve learned from training in the Martial Art?
- Is there anything on the horizon that you’re excited about and would like to share or any final words for our readers?
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I’m an avid adventurer—world travel and exploration are my great passions. Back when competing professionally in martial arts tournaments, I would focus entirely on martial arts for fear I would hurt myself doing some adrenalin-filled dangerous adventure. Once I reached my goal of attaining five consecutive years of being undefeated in forms competition, I began trekking worldwide to challenge myself further and test my physical limits. Over the past few years, I’ve done everything from white water rafting down class 5 rapids, scuba diving down fifteen stories into the Great Blue Hole of Belize, bungee jumping off the Harbor Bridge in New Zealand, to skydiving from over 20,000 feet. I trekked to the Mount Everest base camp, hiked through the rainforests of Patagonia, and even did a polar bear swim in the icy waters of Antarctica. I don’t think I’ll ever stop looking for adventurous things to do.
Mathematical movement has always been my drug, my body and soul’s medicine. I grew up in hula, jazz, tap, acrobats, cheerleading, surfing, skateboarding, competition gymnastics, and played the cello. I toured the Midwest as a professional Polynesian Hula dancer and choreographer for ten years. As an adult, I played semi-pro American football for an all-women’s league for five years. Vocationally I have a Juris Doctorate (JD), business credentials from George Washington University, senior executive leadership credentials from Harvard Business School, a master’s degree in Metaphysical Science (MMsc), and am a 2023 candidate for a Ph.D. in Philosophy with an emphasis in personal transformation. I have been in the legal profession for 26 years and have taught law at several ABA-approved schools and universities.
My name is Barbara White, and I have been a practitioner of Martial Arts since 1991. I am married to my best friend, Bob White, and together, we have 6 adult daughters. We own and operate Bob White’s Karate Studio and are fortunate to have been able to travel together teaching Kenpo Karate throughout the U.S., Europe, and South America. My other profession is in the health industry. I earned my degree in nursing at Washington State University in 1980 and have been working in various fields of nursing ever since. Today, I am a Case Manager at a local hospital. I plan the aftercare needs for patients and families, ranging from simple to complex situations. This has become a blessing to me and my family in many ways. I feel grateful for these two careers that allow me to help others. I love to train hard; I am never without at least two books to read.
I’ve always enjoyed sports/athletic activities. My extended family would gather at the gym field on a weekend and play softball – it was such great fun to watch my mom and aunt compete against each other. I was pretty young, but I was allowed to join in compete right along with the rest of them. This was a bright spot in my day-to-day as I grew up in an environment filled with gang violence, drug addiction, and lots of police activity. I loved to read, and this also allowed me to escape to many wondrous places, free of the perils of ‘the everyday.’ My love for reading and sports/athletic activities continued to grow over the years. My favorite sports to watch are Soccer, Baseball, and Tennis! I am in 7thHeaven during the World Cup, World Series, and Grand Slams, and, best of all, the Olympic Games! Now, one of my favorites has become a reality – Tennis. In September 2022, I started taking lessons, and I’m absolutely loving the game – well, sometimes, my knees don’t, but I certainly do! I have discovered that professional tennis players certainly make it all look so easy. I now watch with a totally different respect (and love) for the game. I’m an ‘all-in’ sorta personality, so putting in 3.5 hours on the court is wonderful and continues to fuel my passion to learn and be better. Sadly, getting older is not for the faint of heart. My mind remembers being 30, but that was 33 years ago, and my body is trying very hard to get me to realize that – I’m not going to comply. The love and joy I get from this game is worth it!
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA. I graduated from LMU with a degree in accounting. I am married with two children, who are now married, and I have two grandchildren with one more on the way. I also love working out, which includes HIIT classes, pickle ball, boxing, walking my dog and of course, karate.
I was a cheerleader in High School. I am a veteran of the US Navy. Married for 36 years. My husband does MA with me. I’m a mother of two boys, worked in the business world, and retired at 50.
I have always been active, looking for ways to enhance my health. I have been a competitive swimmer. I have trained and run a marathon, and a half marathon but turned to cycling, weight training, and yoga after knee surgery. Now, weight training is an essential part of my routine as I get older and ward off osteoporosis.
What systems have you studied, and which would you consider your base art and why?
My first martial arts style was Tang Soo Do, where I trained under Frank Trojanowicz in Scranton, PA. After I earned my black belt, I longed to learn weapons, so I studied Pai Lum Kung Fu. At the time, I would travel over two hours to NYC to study Ying Jow Pai with Grandmaster Shum Leung. I was then introduced to Wu Shu and fell in love with this wonderful style. I moved to California and started studying with Roger Tung and Anthony Chan. In 1972, I studied intensively in Chengdu, China. Once I landed in California, I studied Tae Kwon Do with Grand Master Ernie Reyes and joined the West Coast Demo Team. I studied Kempo with United Studios of Self-Defense. I don’t consider myself as one martial arts style more than another, so I’m more known as a Kung Fu stylist. I teach techniques, forms, and weapons from all styles.
I started martial arts at 9 years old. Lua, the native warrior art of the People of Hawai’i, is my only art. The depth of the Lua takes a lifetime to master. I may not cross-train in martial disciplines, but I do highly cross-train in my conditioning, movements, and techniques.
Kenpo Karate is the only system I have studied for any length of time. My first brief experience in the Martial Arts was in a Japanese system, but the studio was bought out by a Kenpo school within the first year. I will never discount what I learned in that brief period, and love watching the Japanese arts in motion.
I have only studied one art – Ed Parker’s American Kenpo. I took a short course in Aikido, but it wasn’t a good fit for me. Ed Parker’s Kenpo is a very practical art and appealed to my sense of movement and understanding of combat. I saw that Kenpo came in a variety of sizes and skill levels, and to take a technique, put it together, and make it work for your size/skill level piqued my puzzle-solving nature. How can you make this work? What adjustments do you need to make? What are your strengths? I realized that I could find a number of different ways to make a technique effective in different situations. I was extremely fortunate my first time out to have a Head Instructor like Bryan Hawkins. I found that he was a gifted teacher and practitioner. I got the best of both. I’ve gained great knowledge and insights from the instructors that have poured into me over the years, and I’ve also gained a family. Gaining insights from seasoned Instructors that have passed through our doors, sweating it out on the mat through drills and technique lines, certainly builds a bond that is not easily broken.
I have only studied Kenpo Karate.
American Kenpo Karate. Only art I’ve studied. Studied since 1998
I have only studied Kenpo. I enjoy spectating Muay Thai and MMA.
What drew you to the Martial Arts?
I’ve always been an out-of-the-box person. I’m attracted to anything unusual. I love traveling the road less traveled. When I was thirteen, I was introduced to martial arts by my childhood friends. The first time I set foot in a dojo, I was hooked. I’d never seen anything like it in my life, and this was back in the 1970s when, in my community, little was known about martial arts. What intrigued me most about martial arts is that you can defend yourself with your hands and feet, but also that it is a tremendously unusual form of exercise. It was a win-win for me.
There was a 2-for-1 special at a local martial arts school, and my mother decided to enroll me and my little sister. We were the only two girls in the class. In the 1980s, martial arts were considered a boy’s activity. Since I was 9 years old, I only trained in two other arts, purely for the cardio, when I toured the Midwest. When I returned from touring, I was strongly drawn to dedicate myself to my martial studies and the full contact aspect of martial arts training.
As a child, I was a regular fan of the TV show Kung Fu, and of course, the MA movies that came a little later. However, the thought of actually learning Martial Arts or asking my parents about it didn’t occur to me at my young age. I entered Martial Arts as a young mother with a 2-year-old and a newborn and I made the decision completely out of impulse when I saw a newly opened MA school next to my dry cleaners. This turned out to be a decision that impacted the course of my adult life and shows that oftentimes, decisions made out of gut impulse can turn out to be great ones. This one certainly did.
True story, my mom was a Martial Arts buff – she loved watching Kung Fu Theater, and Black Belt Theater. I remember going to the drive-in and watching ‘Five Fingers of Death.’ Martial Arts has always been around me. I never really thought of taking lessons because, let’s face it – flying through the air, jumping from treetop to treetop – well, I just wouldn’t be able to do that. Yes, that’s what I thought. You needed to be able to perform supernatural feats in order to be a martial artist! Well luckily for me, I was watching ‘The Perfect Weapon,’ and someone said that’s Ed Parker’s Kenpo. What! No flying through the air? Well, that long-dormant desire to train rose up to the top and I walked into Bryan Hawkins Kenpo Karate in November 1992, took my first introductory lesson and never looked back.
Funny enough, it was for the exercise. My son was enrolled in the BHKK classes by a fluke since we missed the sign-ups for basketball. We were recommended to Kenpo by a few people, which included friends in the neighborhood. But the most influence came from James Ibraro, one of Mr. Ed Parker’s first-generation black belts. He was painting my parent’s house when I met him. He shared his stories of training with Mr. Parker, as well sharing his articles in assorted magazines. He highly recommended Kenpo as a place for my son to train. I really never thought I would sign up, but watching the classes it looked like a really good workout, so I signed up. I did get the great workouts, but also more. Being an at-home mom for two kids at that time, I realized I was missing being challenged. Kenpo gave me that challenge in more ways than one.
The grace and precision of the movement. I was fascinated by the idea of being able to protect myself with my hands and feet.
Also, my two sons and my husband joined the MA in 1997. I wanted it to be a family endeavor.
I had my young boys enrolled in karate. I was around the dojo weekly with them. Although they had asked me to attend an adult class, it never appealed to me. That is until I walked into my home while I was being robbed. I was so unaware of my surroundings (kitchen door was on the floor, the Wii had been pulled out...) that when I walked into my bedroom and heard the robber in my bathroom move, I was paralyzed with fear for what felt like one full minute. I ran back to grab my kids and get out of the house. They never found the robber, but later that week, one of my kid’s karate teachers asked me again to attend an adult class and learn women’s self-defense, and I signed up right then. That was the beginning of my ten-plus year journey to black belt.
What was the greatest challenge you’ve faced as a woman in the Arts?
My greatest challenge was competing against men. At that time, martial arts competitions didn’t offer a women’s weapons division or grand champion. There were numerous times I had to compete in forms competitions against the men. In 1982, I was the number one weapons competitor for the year beating all the men. I trained so hard because I couldn’t just be good to win; I needed to be more than good—I needed to be the best. The same challenges occurred when I started doing action movies. At the beginning of my movie career, I was portrayed as “a girl that could fight,” but because of my gender, I still had to be saved by the guy. Things have changed in the industry since then, but on day one, I set a goal to be a trailblazer and champion for women to bring balance and equality. There still aren’t enough strong women gracing our movie screens and martial arts magazine covers.
I am a lifer. There have been, and will continue to be, great challenges at each part of my path. As a woman, I believe this is just how it is for most, if not all of us - the convergence of many things happening all at once that teaches us how to seek balance within ourselves - first, surviving and thriving in the old school training. When I didn’t quit and as I reached a certain level of proficiency, being aware of jealousy within the nuclear group and learning to maneuver with elegance while staying focused on my training.
The transformation of being a highly proficient practitioner into a master teacher and teaching all different types of people globally. The backend of teaching like accepting an invite to teach and ensuring my physical safety and managing the increased physical access to me while I am away. Even as an advocate for and a teacher of self-defense, I have experienced (what seems to be the inevitable) sexual advances, badmouthing, stalking, others that try to purposefully injure my reputation or me physically, to the jealousy from fellow female martial artists in the community and sometimes an unhealthy female student who feels she should be in my shoes. All that to say, the above have all been very good lessons, but not my greatest challenge.
My greatest challenge is me. I am my greatest challenge, and if I am not always connected with myself, I am my most formidable and vicious enemy. All challenges ultimately bring me to a place of awareness and choice to master myself – not techniques, but my essence. My life is the sum of my essence.
As a woman in MA, perhaps the greatest challenge I faced at the beginning of my training was the feeling that I was seen as “just a mom with kids” embarking on a hobby. In reality, I have had a passion for the arts since the day I walked into that studio next to the dry cleaners. I have trained consistently for almost 32 years and have read extensively about training, self-defense principles, and other art forms. I will never cease to be a student. When I tore my ACL sparring, the Orthopedic Surgeon recommended I quit “playing karate.” I wonder if he would have said the same thing had I been a man. Women have every right to be taken seriously, to be respected, to be listened to, and to be leaders and influencers in the martial arts.
Assumption. I’ve found that many assumptions are made when a woman walks through the doors of a martial arts studio: Why is she here? Is she serious about learning? Will she be able to handle it? Most Martial Artists are very respectful, but there are those that see you as an object and not as someone who wants to train as a martial artist. I’d like to briefly share an encounter I had with a new male student. At the time, I was a Brown Belt, and the etiquette of the dojo is that you now address the Brown Belts as Mr./Ms. and you give a salute. Well, that was normal for me to do when coming up through the ranks, but now that I’m a Brown Belt, wow, that was a bit unsettling, but I knew that I needed to make sure that I upheld the tradition.
I was having a conversation with a student, and the new student walked between us and never acknowledged my rank as etiquette required. Well, that put a few questions in my head, but I chalked it up to him being new. A little later, I was sitting on the mat and having a conversation with another green belt student when the new student came out of the changing room. One of our senior ranks was on the mat stretching, and the new student immediately went to him and saluted. He then made a beeline straight to me and the green-belt student I was talking to and completely ignored that we were mid-conversation and asked the student to come help him stretch, which was declined. I now had more questions in my head. So, I spoke with my instructor about his behavior to see if there was anything I should be aware of. He gave me a bit of the student’s history and finally asked if I had ever sparred with him, I said no, and that was the end of our conversation. Well, we sparred, and after that session, he saluted, addressed me properly and found every opportunity to speak with me after class. I guess it’s true that respect has to be earned.
I would say my greatest challenge was fear of myself progressing. I would attend classes at least three to four times a week but was always in awe of the higher ranks. Second guessing myself that I could ever get to their level. Even when I earned my brown belt in the beginning, I would shy away from the advanced classes thinking I was not supposed to be there yet.
Getting over my own self-doubts.
Modifying some of the techniques for the “what if” this were to happen to me rather than a big man. I think having a deeper understanding of the attack and defense helps me to give an alternative, more effective move if such an attack were to happen.
Thanks for joining us today. I trust that you’ve learned a lot about these amazing women and perhaps even a bit about yourself through their answers thus far. Be sure to check back soon as we complete the interviews and get answers to the remaining questions in Part 2 of “Insights from Women in the Martial Arts.” Salute,
3rd Degree Black Belt American Kenpo
1st Degree Black Belt Tae Kwon Do