Saturday, April 27, 2013

Visiting the Valente Brothers with Eddie Kone

The Internet amazes me sometimes. On Thursday I found myself sitting and discussing branding with a black belt from the UK who, just six months before, was little more than a voice echoing through my speakers at work. The power of podcasts.

I spent a day this week down at the Valente Brothers', talking with them about the history of gis (apparently, they're the go-to people when talking about the feedback loop of form and function of the BJJ gi), and hanging out with UK black belt, Eddie Kone. It was all for research for GiFreak, and it was a great day. There's something amazingly cool about finally meeting in person, someone you've been talking to online...I've met Allie from Allie the Clear Belt at a tournament and...that's about it. Pretty crazy considering how many other BJJ bloggers are in Florida...even crazier considering how many bloggers I know from the UK, that I'd meet Eddie before, say, Can..

Eddie Kone of EKBJJ...amazingly cool guy

So I was a little antsy coming into this. I'd been referred to talk to the Valentes about gis and through some grand coincidence, Eddie, who I'd met through Twitter, was coming over to Florida to spend some time there, so I decided to roll down to Miami for a day. I've never walked into another academy for a reason other than an open mat, so I read up on some of Julia's experiences and Val's tips on visiting other academies, and acted accordingly.  I was a bit surprised to find out that their program is split gender, but was glad to see Pedro more than open to talk about that. 

I came in, and immediately started scanning the mats for a familiar face. Finding someone who you've only seen in static pictures on Facebook can be tricky, and being who I am, saw who I THOUGHT was Eddie, and started waving happily. He immediately started waving back...and then I noticed the brown belt around his waist. I have a habit of waving enthusiastically at people I've mistaken for someone else. Normally, though, I can just go about my business, but I spent the next couple of hours feeling like the weirdo-visitor that's way too happy to see strangers, and avoiding eye contact with the brown-belt who was probably thinking I was in love with him. 

After class

I settled myself down in the viewing area and Gui came over and started telling me about their teaching philosophy, why they don't start from their knees, why classes are broken into sparring and technique (sparring optional) and finally, started telling me about the gis which looked INSANELY thin to me. They were cropped at both the sleeves and the legs, and made of a slightly heavier version of what you'd see in a cotton fabric on the street...no where near even the light weaves most practitioners would know. After talking with Pedro though, it made a lot more sense. All that's going into an article for GiFreak.

So the women's classes...I really wasn't sure what to make of the segregated classes at first. They didn't immediately put me off, because I know that there can be benefits for separating out minorities in certain educational situations. I asked Pedro straight out about it though, and he pointed out something about women who train jiu jitsu that I'm aware of, but that I don't think much about. 

According to Gui, their women's program boasts about 30 students and 14 or so in normal classes. Proportion aside, these numbers struck me as much higher than your average, mixed gender school. Pedro explained that they cater mostly to women that are exposed to the art through their children and husbands/partners. He said that they focus on women that are more timid in spirit, especially compared to the average woman who trains at more sport-focused schools. They do though, have a few women who train with the men, the most recent being a pair of sisters who are about to test for black. If a woman wants to be promoted to black belt, she has to train with the men. Before that, it's left for the individual to decide, and the instructor to recommend, when mixed-gender training should be introduced.

He loves crocs...and dragging people into the sun. Apparently they don't have one in London.
So yeah...very educational trip and it was great to connect with some friends from overseas. 

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was in Ft. Lauderdale on business several years ago and called the Valente place to see if I come to a class. The receptionist gave me the women's class schedule, and when I asked for the regular class schedule, she said women could only come to the women's classes. I'm always nervous about getting hurt in a strange gym, so an hour drive to a segregated class me off to visiting their school.

While all boys and all girls schools have turned out some people with really great educations, when it comes to gender segregated bjj classes, I think Brown v. Board of Education had it right. When I see a women's class advertised on an academy website, it's almost never taught by the head instructor. Why settle for less because I'm a woman?

Megan said...

Thank you for bringing that up because I know there was a lot I either didn't clarify in this post or missed entirely. From what I was told, Pedro teaches the women's classes and serves as their model opponent for technique evaluation.

I think the point you make about boys/girls schools is incredibly important here. When it comes to cerebral education, children are starting from a generally level playing field. When it comes to adults (the childrens' classes are mixed gender), this is absolutely not true. Women have spent years being conditioned to be gentle, nice, timid, deferential, controllable and even scared. As much as I'm inspired by the story of a woman fighting through the the difficulties of training with men, I'm coming to acknowledge that not all women are natural fighters...that not all of us were born with, or still have the will to challenge all the norms that BJJ throws in our faces.

As long as the women in question are getting quality education, I believe that these women deserve the chance to learn BJJ just as much as any others, even if they have to take a different path.

Can Sönmez said...

Yeah, the way that the Valentes split classes by gender is something I found very off-putting when I first heard about it a while back, I'm glad to hear that they do apparently also offer mixed gender classes.

Womens-only classes are not a bad thing (as you know, I think that they can be an excellent thing, as we've discussed in the past), but if women are banned from attending any classes with men, that's a totally different and very negative situation.

I also get the impression that the Valentes heavily push the Helio revisionist history, from what I've heard of them in interviews (though the bias is understandable, as from what I gather they spent a great deal of time with him).

And yeah, I'm planning to rectify the 'haven't-met-Can' thing next year, hopefully. Planning on doing as many bits of the US as I can fit into two and a bit weeks, focusing on Florida. :)

Anonymous said...

I think you miss the point of what makes gender segregated education a positive environment for students. The point is not that these women are getting a quality education. The point is that these women are [probably] getting an unequal education. That's a guess on my part. Why do I think so? Because in your interview, the instructors say they focus on women who are more timid in spirit. Do these women benefit more from women only classes than mixed classes? Probably so. But expectations are lower, so they are basically in a special education class, where the criteria for that classification is being female. It's not the equivalent of going to an all women's college or high school where the instructors are both highly qualified and mostly female and expect great things from their students.

If this is the niche they cater too, I guess that's okay. This country has room for all sorts, and I chose not to patronize their establishment because it doesn't cater to me. But I have a fear that this attitude could become pervasive, and women become second class citizens in the jiu jitsu community, especially if more bjj schools promote "Jiu jitsu for everyone" in an effort to grow. I know this is mostly an unrealistic fear, but as I mentioned above-- Brown v. Board of Education-- that sort of thing existed in the past. The lessons of history . . .

Megan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Megan said...

@Can...I know. When I first heard about the split classes, I immediately questioned it, and I get the feeling that allowing women to attend the men's classes is a newer policy they have, but I support the change if that's the direction they're going in. I have to read up on the revisionist history...the story of Helio isn't something I've delved into too deeply.

If I don't catch you in FL, it'll be somewhere:)

@Anonymous, I'm quite clear on what makes segregated education a potential positive. Your comparison to Brown vs TBE misses one very important difference...you assume that women students' chances of staying in either type of class is the same. While Brown vs. TBE may have some lessons, we can't pretend we're addressing the same environment. School attendance is mandatory for most of a child's life and will have an enormous impact on the child's quality of life. That is in no way the same thing as an optional, recreational hobby, out of which, a person can drop at any time with almost no negative repercussions. We have to be highly mindful of comfort level when talking BJJ and women. I see it almost as a cousin to a Curves type of gym without the overt classification system. We have to be mindful that not everyone is working toward the same goal, and therefore, will not start from the same place.

As you said, if this is a niche they cater to, it's fine. That's the impression I got from only one visit and that's what my opinion is based on.

Of course there is a remote risk of the attitude of women being second class citizens becoming the norm, but what I'm seeing more of these days in jiu jitsu, is "tougher" women freely and proudly exhibiting their bias against women who may not be keen on fighting it out on the mats with men on a regular basis...and that strikes me very much as women internalizing the negative behavior of some men in jiu jitsu. I think there is a much greater risk of that growing.

That's the thing about inclusion...if we genuinely want to see jiu jitsu expand as a community, we're going to have to take a second look at the system of gateways that we offer and promote, not just the end results.

Anonymous said...

Jeez ladies. An attacker doesn't care if you attended mixed classes or separate classes. Focus on your self defense. I googled and saw a video of a girl who ha only been attending a few months

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXSW6cSYWBk

Megan said...

See though...you're trivializing an element of those classes that has a notable effect on who even shows up to focus on self defense. If you're goal is to get more women, you can't tell people "just focus on self defense"...it's gotta be deeper.