Thursday, October 20, 2011

Interview: Muay Thai Fighter Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu Part 3

Sylvie teaching with her Muay Thai students

Alright y'all, it's time to wrap it up.  If you have read Part 1 and Part 2 of my interview with the amazing Sylvie, check out the final installment.  

What about your post-fight? Do you do any type of celebration afterwards or do you immediately get back into the gym the next morning and train?
I do. I eat a Snickers bar (laughs), which I really, really relish after a fight. I'm usually not the final fight, so I stay and watch the rest of the fights. I just slip into the audience and sit with my husband and watch. And we're usually driving back to our house late at night, so we'll stop at a diner and get food. I think for a lot of people, food after the fight is kind of a ceremonial, celebrational thing, whether you've won or lost to kind of unpack your experiences and just kind of sit in it for a minute. And more often than naught I've been back at training the next day. I've been told not to do that and I've also been applauded for it (laughs) so I don't know what the line is. You know trainers have their own method and they want you to comply with it, whether it's 'take a week off, you deserve it,' or 'you need to rest up, your body needs to repair itself.' And I'm like, you know, I'm in my twenties, I think I am okay. When I feel like I can't come to training the next day, I won't. But I feel like alright, that's done, it's time to get back into it because for me, fights are part of training. You don't train just to fight, you fight for your training.

I like that. So to switch gears, I saw on your facebook page the other day that you are also teaching. How long have you been doing that? That has been a couple of months. I got my Kru certification from Master K in June, actually on his birthday. And then I started a class at this very cool local gym near me which unfortunately just closed today. It's this ex-boxer who has this extra house on his land, it is kind of a two-story warehouse, packed with every kind of exercise equipment from 1970 to the present. And then upstairs is a boxing ring and some bags. And it's a 24 hours gym, he just gives you a key and you can just come in whenever you want, which as a bartender was perfect for me because I can get out at three in the morning and just go workout. And so I started taking my students there when I got my certification and I've basically had two consistent students. One is a very large man and one is a young girl, I think she is fifteen or fourteen. And I adore them. I am totally amazed every time they just do something well, so quickly. I see how they get excited by an elbow or a combination and I can totally feel what that excitement is because I still get it. You know I've done these elbows before but I still get really excited when it's time to work on them. But it's been interesting because I think teaching actually helps with your own training because it forces you to really practice what you preach. Like, you better throw a proper right cross if you are going to be teaching one (laughs).

Absolutely. Teaching makes you better, whether you're teaching martial arts or you're teaching writing. It's going to make you better at what you do. So I get a lot of women in my gym or just girls who will talk to me and say 'I want to come in, I want to learn to box, I want to learn to wrestle, but I'm scared,' they are afraid. Have you ever had interactions like that before with other women? 
Not with women who are saying they want to do it, but they have this fear. But most often, women I work with who are complementing, you know, my body or my arms or my strength or whatever and when I tell them where it comes from they are like, "oh my god I could never..." or "you're so scary." (laughs). I've is most men who say this to me, in this tone of disbelief, like 'why would you do that? Why would you put yourself through that and be hit.' Because I think they see it as only me being beat upon and has nothing to do with an exchange. And I often tell them, tell everyone, why it's so meaningful to me and why I don't think I could ever live without it is that fighting is the only thing in my life that takes away my fear. Every time I get hit, it takes away my fear of being hit again. And you just kind of build upon it, you know, and you learn to position yourself in such a way that you're in the dominant position and suddenly you are not anymore and you have to struggle to get back to that place and it's all within the confines of rules and regulations and training. And the person you are fighting is trained to do this, too. You know these very weird guys at my bar will be like, "do you think you could take me," and I'm like, "No! You're 200lbs" (laughs). I don't think I am going to go walk down some dark alley like a vigilante and beat some dude up. You know I fight in a ring with a girl my size, rules, a ref and some gloves. It's crazy. But I do think you have to be slightly crazy to try it, because you have to get over that initial fear. But the women I've met in the martial arts and boxing community have just the coolest women I've ever met in my life and we all have this kind of inside joke of how great it is to get together and punch each other in the face (laughs). I think that fear becomes, not so much an adversary as something you mold. It is something that is still there but it's not something that prevents you, it is something that pushes you.  

So you are teaching this Muay Thai class with your clients. Are you teaching them basics or did they already have some basics when they came to you?
Well my guy had boxing basics, which...he actually had some bad habits that I am trying to work on with him. I'm also kind of careful, because I've taken boxing as well, to offer distinctions between Muay Thai and boxing so it's not, 'you're doing something wrong,' but 'that won't work in this kind of situation because...' I don't know why people see it as it has to be one way. And then the girl has nothing; she is actually very athleticly talented. I can see how well she understands things in her body. But I think she comes from softball or something; it's really not martial arts background at all.  So we definitely started with really basic stuff like stance and balance.  I didn't learn defense for a really long time, I'm still struggling with learning defense, so I started on that with these students because I feel like you're more willing to be aggressive if you feel comfortable defending yourself.  So we've been working on that and just adding in small things and review.  It's a little difficult because it is just once a week and only for an hour so you really can't build in a fast way and you don't want to progress so fast that they're not getting things but you don't want to dwell on one thing for three weeks.  So it's kind of interesting rolling over the same moves in different contexts and building in a really slow way.  But they really enjoy it and I really enjoy it, so it's been a really pleasant experience. 

One of the really cool things about Muay Thai and other traditional martial arts that are tied to a culture is that it is more than just the striking.  There is a whole ceremonial aspect to them and there is a history, a really rich, deep cultural tie.  Is that something you want to do in the future as you start to grow as a teacher, are you going to add in the more ceremonial aspects of Muay Thai or is that something you teach along with the...punching?
(Laughs).  I think that I do try to insert aspects of the tradition and the culture it comes from in order to highlight the thing that I am talking about.  For example, when talking about the posture in Muay Thai and you want to be very tall.  It's not the butt back, hunched over the way you would be in boxing.  And I was talking about the head, and specifically the top of the head, the brow, is a ritualistically meaningful part of the body.  And you want to keep your head high because you actually want to be above your opponent in this way.  Your posture has this meaning, which effects your attitude, which you definitely see in the performance of Muay Thai.  You know, why would someone stand up so straight and you can see this kind of proud, regal thing.  So I try to bring it in in that kind of way.
The student of Master K's who has invited me down to his gym to train with his guys, he has actually invited me down to teach everyone the Wai Kru, as an entire class just learning the Wai Kru, which I think would be so awesome.  I've been increasingly disappointed that they don't permit you to do the Wai Kru and Ram Muay out here unless you are professional.

Really? (I cannot stress the disbelief in my voice at this point).  That is so bizarre.
Yeah.  And even the pros don't really do it.  And I am constantly struggling with the officials saying "well nobody is going to it, so how much time am I really going to be eating up? There have been two knockouts tonight, so there is time..."  But they keep saying no.  I feel like it is such an affront to the tradition of Muay Thai when people are trying to highlight their adherence to tradition and then they knock that part out.  I find it offensive.

I always assumed that the Wai Kru was a part of any Muay Thai event.  It really shows the way that martial arts can become bastardized in our country.  That is really unfortunate.  So Sylvie, what do you do outside of the gym?
Well, I am a bartender, which is great because it allows me to train the way that I do. ...
Part of me feels like all I do is Muay Thai.  I am a freelance writer; I write my own blog as well as interviewing female fighters for Alias, which is a women's sponsorship fightwear company.  And I am basically always trying to incorporate my love for Muay Thai into these projects that I'm doing.  And I'm currently applying for a FullBright to go study in Thailand for a year.  But it's a really good project.  It is a study of gender and pedagogy in Muay Thai.

Thank you so much for talking with me.  I"m really impressed by your dedication to the sport and to the culture.  I think that is something that is lacking in a lot of recognize the origin of these practices.

Show your support for female fighters and check out more from Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu! 

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