You enter the Renzo Gracie Academy in Manhattan by walking down the fire stairs in the back of a commercial building on 30th Street. The first thing you notice is a thick, humid wave of dank air — the end product of many people, overwhelmingly men, grappling in close contact, exerting themselves on the sweat-slicked floors of two large, matted rooms. It smells of balls, sodden rash guards, moldering clothes, and ass crack.
I began kickboxing on the Upper East Side shortly after the birth of my daughter nine years ago. The gyms and locker rooms there smelled of fresh blowouts and nail polish. Like me, most of the other women were there to "get their body back" after pregnancy or to learn self-defense. But even after I had "gotten my body back" and finished the self-defense classes, I found myself wanting more. I was hooked. When I decide I like something, I go in all the way. And what I really liked was hitting my instructors. So when they told me I should train in jujitsu, I took note.
I'd seen mixed martial arts fights before. I was a fan of Gina Carano, the actress and former MMA fighter; I thought she redefined what a woman could and should be in a way I wanted to emulate, although MMA didn't initially appeal to me. The fighters on the ground are trying to apply sophisticated joint locks or other moves, but to my untrained eye, and to the majority of meatheads in the audience booing when the fight goes to the mats, it's just two sweaty, slippery bodies grinding away at each other. It didn't look either fun or useful.
I will, however, try anything once. So I signed up, despite the potential grinding.
That first day, walking down those stairs, as the stench grew stronger and the heat intensified, I knew, in a primordial way, that I was in another animal's territory. I sat patiently outside an empty office, waiting for someone to notice me. Men — and the occasional woman — walked by wearing jeans and T-shirts, suits and ties; young and old, all carrying gym bags, headed for the locker rooms.
Eventually, a young man asked me if I needed anything. I told him I was there for the introductory class, and he disappeared for a few minutes, returning with a kimono (or a "gi," as everyone calls it in jujitsu). He suggested I change quickly, as class started in five minutes. The damned thing was two sizes too big, stiff, and heavy.
Barefoot, all jewelry removed, I entered the smaller of two matted rooms and asked if this was the "introductory class." There was, it turned out, no "introductory class." I was advised by my pitying fellow students to follow the instructor's directions and try not to get hurt. Nobody was going to hold my hand in there. Looking around at the odd collection of white belts around me, most of whom were used to being mauled by more experienced students, I could see they were sizing me up like a doggie chew toy — or a fresh pork chop.
I followed the people around me during the warm-ups, desperately trying to keep up and make sense of random commands, many of them in terms I didn't understand. I bungled every technique, my body completely unfamiliar with even the most basic movements.
And then, as class was nearing its end, it was time for "live training." In the last 30 minutes of class, you fight your fellow students — four five-minute rounds, with 60 seconds in between each one to rest. It was the first time since grammar school where "live," totally focused human strength and intentional movements were aimed at my body as an object. The moves in jujitsu are called "submissions" because they are aimed at getting your opponent to submit, which you signal by tapping. I tapped a lot.