When I started learning muay thai, things were very different than they are today. My first dojo was located in the bowels of a condemned building, which shared an address with a dodgy pool hall that was probably a money-laundering front for some criminal activity. The area, while rife with character, was not exactly what one would call safe.
If the instructor had chosen to show up on time for class, which was a luxury–not a given, you pulled open a battered metal door and descended into a dark stairwell. We’d been warned that the homeless sometimes curled up in the corners to get out of the cold, but there was no point being afraid, because you couldn’t see anything, anyways.
At this point, you could smell the gym. Years of sweat, blood, and tears, combined with the mold and mildew from a perpetually leaking roof and rotting carpet. Ah, the sweet perfume of muay thai!
You opened the door to a narrow passage, which was lined with jeering kickboxers. As a beginner, the most difficult part of class was to squeeze past that gauntlet into the gym. Once you got acclimated and knew the fighters enough to say hello and trade jokes, it was easier. I have no idea how the guys felt when they started, but as one of the few female students, it was damn intimidating.
The dojo was just starting to accept female students, so we didn’t really have a changing room. Someone had thrown up a sheet of plywood to create a little makeshift room, and we changed hurriedly in the dark, careful not to back into the board, which still had nails sticking out and could fall over at any time. As for the bathroom, forgetaboutit. I never went in there, for very good reason.
To say the classes were tough would be an understatement. Our instructor had trained in Thailand, and we learned muay thai the traditional way. We held a horse riding stance until our legs were shaking, only to get whipped with sticks in the inner thighs to test our mental strength and resistance to pain. We kicked iron poles. Sometimes the cardio was so intense that people puked. And there was always a lot of sparring, between people of all levels and genders. So yes, I sparred with men. Frequently.
There were about five women in the class, and we were tough by design. We wore our hair in simple ponytails and didn’t bother with make-up, lest it ran all over our faces. No one wore $300 spandex pants from LuLu Lemon. We wore the same club T-shirts and shorts as the men, and were proud of it, just as we were proud of our bumps, bruises, and cuts. To train in that club was to survive something, to earn a place in this fierce and incredible sport.
I remember clearly when things started to shift. At first, the move to a newer, cleaner facility was a wonderful thing. Hey, a real changing room for women! And bathrooms we could use! More women started attending. Nothing wrong with that, either. These girls came to the gym with perfectly made-up faces and coordinated outfits. We gave the first person with pink boxing gloves a really hard time, but now it’s the norm. The same person who thought tools would be more female-friendly if they were pink had infiltrated muay thai territory.
To each their own, but then the complaints started. These girls didn’t like the drill sergeant vibe of the instructors. They complained whenever a class was “too hard”. And forget hitting them with sticks–do you want to get sued? Sparring was a challenge because they took it personally, getting angry whenever they were hit, and using that anger as an excuse to play dirty. Hair-pulling, kicks to the back, you name it. I even had a woman rush me, head down, as if she was a bull and I was the matador. Unsure how to handle it, I put her in a headlock until she calmed down.
The little crappy condemned building hadn’t required much rent. The new, flashier gym did. Higher rent = the need for more students. Our club needed this demanding, whiny group of Shapes rejects in order to survive. The classes quickly changed to accommodate their needs. No more sticks. No more holding the splits for twenty minutes until you were ready to cry. No more running until you puked. What remained was a “sensible” workout that taught some of the skills of muay thai with none of the mental conditioning. Today, anyone and everyone can be a “kickboxer”. The sport is much more accessible, and I guess that should be a good thing.
Still, I miss the good ol’ days, when being a member of a dojo was a badge of honor few people could lay claim to. I initially met my current kru at that old condemned club, and we both shake our heads in wonder at the students who complain that our spacious community centre gym is “too crowded”, or who whine when one of the toilets in the squeaky-clean bathroom leaks.
If they only knew….