Teaching young girls to be powerful in pink

Posted on Sun, Mar. 12, 2006


This Way Up | Teaching young girls how to be powerful in pink
By Art Carey
Inquirer Columnist

When Liz Durning was a girl, she was skinny and shy, not at all physical and athletic. That made her a
target for bullies and tough girls - and in Upper Darby in those days, the tough girls were really tough.
Then, at 8 years old, she saw a karate movie featuring female fighters that impressed her indelibly.
"They were beautiful and tough," she says. "They showed me that you could fight and still be feminine."
The same could be said of Durning today. At age 43, she is still slender but no longer shy. The
once-retiring non-jock has blossomed into a confident martial artist with a third-degree black belt and a
passion for teaching the self-defense skills of American Kenpo karate to girls.

She does so through Pinkarate, which she conducts three days a week at the Wayne Ballet & Center for
Dance Arts.

Aimed at girls ages 4 to 12, Pinkarate is designed not to produce the Lara Croft of tomorrow, but to
instill a sense of awareness and physical poise and to enable girls to protect themselves in a world
that's not always as safe and genteel as downtown Wayne.
"If my mother had let me take this kind of training, I would have stood up to the bullies," Durning says. "I
would have told them to stop, and if they didn't, I would have been able to back it up."
Bullies are unpleasant, but they're not the real problem. According to the National Center for Missing &
Exploited Children, one in five girls is sexually exploited before reaching adulthood. And the molesters
usually are not strangers. More than 90 percent of sexual-abuse victims know the perpetrators, the U.S.
Department of Justice reports.

So Durning launched Pinkarate in September 2004. "I wanted a way to get girls who think karate is
intimidating to try it," she says. "I wanted to teach it in a place that is female-friendly. And I wanted to
make it fun."

The fun begins with the uniforms. The typical karate robe, or gi, is white and bland. Durning, who lives in
King of Prussia and has been practicing karate for 20 years, is shrewd. By dyeing the robes pink, she
not only sent a message that karate is for girls, she also created a must-have fashion accessory.
On a recent weekday afternoon at Pinkarate, about a dozen little girls, pretty in pink, were practicing
kicks, blocks and punches. They hopped, scampered and scrambled. They ran agility drills and
mini-windsprints.

"1, 2, 3, 4! Four steps away!" they shouted as they retreated from an imaginary "tricky person."

"What's the first rule of self-defense?" Durning asked.

"You move. You get out of the way," the girls replied.

A cardinal principle of Pinkarate is "stun and run." To reinforce that message, the girls formed two lines
and attacked kicking shields brandished by Durning and an assistant.

"Eyes, eyes, eyes," they shouted, as they pretended to gouge the eyes of an assailant with their fingers,
squeezed together to form a beaklike point.

"Palm, palm, palm," they shouted, as they pretended to smash their palms into an assailant's face.
"Kick, kick, kick," they shouted, as they pretended to deliver a strike to the groin, walloping the shields
with resounding pops.

Durning's goal is to enable these girls to master the basics fast. The first task is to "break the freeze
response," the paralyzing panic that can overcome you when you're threatened or attacked.

So in Pinkarate class, rather than learning katas, the stylized stances and move sequences that are the
alphabet of grown-up karate, the girls learn what Durning calls "real self-defense moves" - practical,
unadorned techniques for repelling or escaping a malefactor.

"You can teach strategy," Durning says. "But you have to give them the physical skills to back it up. The
girls have to know in their hearts that they can do it."
The hope is that the girls will never have to resort to physical resistance. Being aware of potential
danger and avoiding it is 90 percent of prevention, which is why skill drills are interspersed with coping
lessons.

What do you do if you get lost in a store? Answer: You look for a mother with children and ask for help.
What lures do "tricky persons" often use? The "help me" lure, the "go with me" lure, the "gift" lure.
Watching this group of girls, many of them so cute they looked like they stepped out of the L.L Bean for
Kids catalog, I wondered about their lost innocence, whether all this talk about "tricky persons" and
"lures" might make them precociously suspicious and fearful.

If so, they certainly didn't show it. There was plenty of giggling, laughing and frolicking.

"You learn how to defend yourself and you do a lot of fun stuff," said Julia Saile, 8, of Berwyn, a second
grader at Episcopal Academy in Devon.

Julia, who has been taking Pinkarate classes for three months, was proudly sporting her recently
conferred yellow belt. She enjoys the karate class so much she recruited a classmate, Brittany Berrard.
"It makes me feel more brave," Brittany said, "like I could do a lot more than I thought I could do."
Julia's mother, Darlene, calls herself "an ambassador" for Pinkarate.

"It's given Julia more physical confidence," Darlene Saile said. "It's awakened an awareness of her
inner strength."

It also has enabled Julia, described by her mom as "demure and reserved," to do something most little
girls, especially well-bred little girls, are not socialized to do - unleash aggression, or as Darlene puts it,
"unleash controlled aggression."

"You should see their faces light up when they discover kicking and punching," Durning says. Indeed,
when it came time for the girls to clobber the miniature heavy bag with roundhouse kicks, they did so
with as much verve and glee as a bunch of rowdy boys. They were spritely embodiments of Pinkarate's
motto: "Pretty powerful."

The most valuable benefit of Pinkarate, Durning says, is that "these girls are able to stand up for
themselves. They're learning how to say no to adults."

Contact columnist Art Carey at 215-854-4588 or acarey@phillynews.com. Join him on Wednesdays at
2 p.m. for an online chat at http://go.philly.com/phillytalk.

For information about Pinkarate, call 610-688-3904 or visit
Philadelphia Inquirer.