KARATE KIDS: How Body Painting Gone Wrong Led Me to the Dojo
Updated: Sep 20
32 years old
He’s cast me in the role of Kali, the Indian Goddess of Destruction, among other things. (1, 2) This has been a good exploration for me, as I haven't danced with Her in many years. Even before I was hired as the primary choreographer for this multimedia variety show, that fiercer, fanged side of me had already been stirring again. Rustling in the undergrowth. Play with me...
It's been too long. I haven’t picked up a weapon except my dance sword since I hung up my medieval armor and left the SCA six years ago. (3)
I love the music for the sword dance in this show. I’ve got it mostly choreographed and will soon teach it to My Girls.
Two of them are with me today. We're doing a photo shoot so the producer can start working on the show advertisements. He prefers the blue skin rendition of Kali over all others, so he’s brought in his airbrushing machine to spray my body. Since the girls aren’t being spray-painted, they have a later call time than I do. We’re almost done by the time they arrive.
When they see me standing there in nothing but a thong, they recoil in shock. I smile, remembering my own awkwardness with nudity at their age--they’re only eighteen and nineteen. (4) Doing theater for so many years cured me of that, given how often cast members of any gender stripped down together backstage for quick costume changes.
Hoping to set my students' minds at ease, I greet them like normal and launch into a casual conversation about the concept of the photo shoot. They seem to take it in stride.
But then, when I about-face for the spraying of my left side, I notice their expressions. Not when they look at me.
When they glance at our producer.
They exchange sidelong looks with each other, flick their eyes back at him. Whenever he speaks to them, they squash their scowls into tense flickers of a smile, then go back to their pale-faced, round-eyed, teeth-clenched scrutiny.
My guts thrum.
Their expressions scream everything that I have been stuffing down inside me for the last forty-five minutes. It’s just theater, I croon to my hackle-raised, alarm-clanging inner snarler. I repeat this to myself over and over. It's just art.
I know in my guts that he would say the same thing if I'd expressed any misgivings about being almost naked in front of him. I've never been completely sold on this tall, toothy-grinned slickster from Hollywood, and I can see it in my students' eyes. They are really not sold on him, on being here, and on watching him spray my body with blue paint.
Nudity is nothing to be ashamed of, my inner chastiser continues. The priests and prudes and pinchy-faced pricks were all wrong. My body is nothing to be ashamed of. And what if we WERE doing some sort of sexy photo shoot? Sex is not shameful. But we’re not even doing that. We just don’t want paint lines underneath my little dance top, and I can't very well spray myself.
Why didn't he have his assistant do it? the growler growls back.
I glance over at her as she clacks the keyboard at the desk. Because she's doing her job. Now calm down and do yours.
I lift my chin and pull my hair back tighter so he can get behind my ear. My guts have been tense since about ten minutes into this paint adventure. My hackles bristle. My paranoia has kicked into full swing.
Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. Or in this case, perv on you.
See? Sheesh! You are such a psycho-spaz.You think everybody's out to get you.
And I can hear the classic retort now. If I voiced my concerns, I would be lambasted for being the unprofessional, immature one. "Well, that says more about you than about me."
But I know what I feel in my guts.
It’s not in the way he looks at me. It’s not really even the way he speaks to me. It’s definitely not in any of the words he says.
But it’s there.
Seedy. Lascivious. A subtle thread of his energy oozes around me. He doesn’t stand overly close, but the part of him that's invisible to the naked eye does. As he takes advantage of the visual scrutiny required to cover all my skin with the paint, that part of him runs tentacled hands up my torso, around my bare breasts, across my collar bones to breathe down my neck.
That part of him has fangs, too.
But what can I say about that? I can't prove it. Nudity IS commonplace in theater and body art, and I legitimately need to be stripped down for this effect to look right. His assistant has been here with us the whole time. She even comes over to help whenever needed. She hasn't batted a single eye, hesitated, or exchanged alarmed glances with me. Nothing. Not once.
Maybe I truly am being paranoid, given my history. The girls are very young. Maybe we're all overreacting.
And yet, my body knows what’s happening to it. Not to my skin. To all the fine little hairs dancing in my intimate energy field, and to everything deeper than my flesh. I've been body-painted before, by males and females, and it never felt like this.
As the girls go into the back room to put their costumes on, they toss matching looks back at me, as if reluctant to leave me out here with him. I answer with an easy smile. Reassuring. I don't want to scare them.
But there’s a piece of me that doesn’t want them to leave either.
That piece is my own innocent nineteen-year-old, still there inside me. Another is an even more guileless thirteen. And the four-year-old. (5) Those little girls don’t want My Girls to leave.
During the photo shoot, the tentacles multiply. We're all dressed in costumes and my tits-and-bits are fully covered now, but my students still squirm. They put on the Professional Face, just like I do, cooperating with all his instructions. Nothing lewd or suggestive. He doesn't ask us to pose in any way that I would be hesitant to show my parents.
Even so, when we head into the back room, we're all very quiet as we dress in our street clothes and leave. Out on the sidewalk under the street lights next to our cars, we arrange the schedules for our next rehearsal and don't say a word about the photo shoot.
Energetically, we are a flock of wing-flapping, feather-ruffled, squawkers: “What the fuck was that! I don’t ever want to do that again! Yeah, me neither! I don’t like this anymore! Please don’t ever make me do this anymore! Okay, fuck this, we're OUT!"
It’s not only me and my two students who have this conversation in our looks and everything we don't say. It’s me and them and every little girl inside us, screaming and frothing at the mouth. I am the one in charge here. I'm supposed to be the responsible adult. The teacher.
And I just taught my students to suck it up. I taught them how to paint on the smiley, placid-sacrificial-cow-face for the sake of “professionalism.”
What a reeking pile of bull’s shit!
After returning home, I hunch in the dark on my couch with a couple candles lit, fuming. Shaking. Queasy. The way I always get when I think about fighting back. Blowing out the candles, I slink to bed and pull the covers over my head.
But the next morning, the rage is still there. Actually, it's amplified. Silly him, he shouldn't have cast me as Kali. Her sword is meant to destroy that which no longer serves.
Being a doormat.
Being everybody’s punching bag.
Being a blowup doll that guys feel entitled to grope.
Letting bosses and other larger or older or stronger males encroach, nudge up, touch, drape arms, give the eyes, run the leers up and down, make the innuendos, and generally tentacle me because they can get away with it.
Because I let them get away with it.
Like I always have.
Can't prove the Curious Case of Tentacles in a court of law, after all. Can't prove what I feel to anybody. But I no longer give two reeking piles. These things no longer serve. Their heads require lopping. It was bad enough when I let him do to me.
But these are My Girls.
My beautiful, innocent, precious little sisters--my dance-daughters--and I will never again let anybody make them squirm like that and get away with it. I will never again take that without standing up, placing one hand on my scabbard as I wrap the other around the hilt of my sword, and growl with unyielding clarity, "NO, YOU WILL NOT."
Not on my watch.
All the little girls inside me beg to be included in that vow, so I take them under my big, bristling wings. I march into the kitchen. I pull out the hefty phonebook. I thump it down on the desk and flip through pages until I come to the category of Martial Arts. Raising my chin, I close my eyes and I ask.
My pointer-finger lands on the phonebook. I open my eyes.
Huh. Apparently I’m going to learn something called Kenpo. (6)
Two days later
I stand before the mirror in the changing stall of the dojo with my eyes on the floor. I've put on the loose white pants and matching white top. I've knotted the little ties that keep the crossed lapel in place. Finally, I draw in a deep breath and dare to look at my reflection.
All my hair stands up on the back of my neck. My eyes are huge. I don’t know where to file this in my mind. This uniform is the iconic image of all-too-familiar figures I grew up with. But I am no Karate Kid. I am 32 years old.
I may as well be twelve. Fourteen. Seven. Nineteen.
My heart races, four parts terror and six parts exhilaration. I'm wearing a karate uniform. Me! In college I was engaged to a brilliant young man who was a Shotokan black belt, so it's not like I don't know what a gi is. But I never dreamed I would be dressed in one.
Okay, fine. I've dreamed about it since I was a kid, but it's taken half a dozen friends a decade to convince me to put one on.
Before my thrill-to-terror ratio can think about flip-flopping, I turn my back on the mirror and enter the dojo. My instructor is waiting for me in a similar outfit, except his pants are black. So is his belt. The one he carries is white, folded round and round itself. After removing the two rubber bands that hold it in place, he uncoils it and comes to stand before me, belt draped ceremoniously across his palms.
I look up at him and gulp.
He is tall and stern with a chest like a barrel and arms like oxen. He looks straight into my eyes and says, “I will show you the proper way to tie this today. This is the single time anyone will ever put a belt on you. After this, you will only ever do it for yourself.“
With my mouth pressed tightly closed, I nod.
He places the center of the belt against my belly and wraps it around me, drawing the ends to the front. He then tucks, tugs, and ties so that that the loose lengths hang down evenly from the knot at my navel.
We both stare at those dangling ends for a moment. They hang down to my knees.
His hard façade cracks, and he shrugs up a shoulder. “Well, I guess it was intended for somebody quite a bit bigger than you are. That’s all right. You’re not going to trip on them, so let’s get started.“
I follow him to the edge of the main floor. He puts his feet together, toes nearly touching the mat. His bladed hands press against the sides of his thighs as he hinges at the hips. His eyes remain focused on where he’s going: out to the center of that sacred space.
Modeling him, I follow and take the place before him. There he recites the creed, which he has me echo, phrase by phrase. These words are inspiring and foreign, yet intrinsically familiar. They resonate with the most important things I’ve always believed in.
Improvement of mind and body.
Understanding of others.
Understanding of ourselves.
I love the way these vows feel in my mouth. They are as comfortable as my cotton uniform.
I intend to use what I learn in class constructively and defensively, to help myself and my fellow person, and to never be abusive or offensive.
Isn't this the very root of why I never fought back? Beyond the fears of getting in trouble or getting my ass kicked if I'd tried to defend myself and failed, isn't this ultimately what always stayed my hand? Because I had never been taught to fight. In fact, that had been strictly forbidden in my upbringing. I had been taught to turn the other cheek like a good Catholic girl, so any attempt I would have made to fight back would have been nothing but an explosion of blind, pent-up rage.
That was the last thing I ever would have wanted to unleash.
As it occurs to me that I am about to learn the arts of self-defense in a system that espouses the principles and codes of conduct that dwell at the core of me, I know already: I have made one of the best decisions of my life.
After we do a few exercises to warm up, my instructor shows me some stances that are similar to positions I’ve been doing for years in dance. They just have different names. Square Horse. Cat Stance. Closed Cat.
Then he puts one foot back, bends his knees, and lifts his hands in an unmistakable gesture.
My pulse thuds again. My stomach flip-flops. Once more, my eyes go huge and my teeth lock together. I don’t need him to say the words. I already know what stance that is. I am mortified by the thought of so much as putting my body into that position, much less using it.
And that’s exactly why I’m here.
“This,“ he says, “is Fighting Stance.”
After less than two months of training, I asked my Sensei and two of his top black belts to help me edit the letter I wrote to my producer. Not only did I resign my position as head choreographer and performer, pulling my dancers from the show along with me, but I also demanded $1000 as payment for the services I had rendered, and the show expenses I had paid out of my own pocket. I gave my reasons why--the horrible and unprofessional conditions we had been put in over and over throughout the production of that show, in spite of my insistence against them.
Lastly, I made it clear that he should cease his slanderous accusations that I had quit the show because I'd "had a breakdown," unless he wanted to take it up in court. There's a vast difference between stress-induced seizures from violation of my health stipulations that I had laid out since day one, and the kind of breakdown he was describing to anyone who would listen.
That wasn't my first rodeo with someone trying to use my disability to destroy my reputation and livelihood because I had stood up to them, but this time I wasn't fresh off a new brain injury. Neither was I isolated from losing the majority of my friends, students, and gigs to the smear campaign, and I wasn't already embroiled in a double nightmare of a civil and criminal suit against a drunk driver.
This time, I was in fighting condition.
I had over four years of recovery under my belt, a husband, friends, a flourishing dance community, respect in the regional community at large--and I had just acquired new mentors to teach me how to defend myself. They all stood at my back as I mailed that certified manilla envelope with shaking hands and a queasy gut.
My ex-producer ignored me. Once. After writing a second communication detailing precisely which legal channels I would use to pursue the matter, I received a check in short order.
I put that money toward the second big theater show I produced with My Girls.
32 years old
It’s my first belt test. I’m transitioning from White to Gold. For this chart I have had to learn the basic stances, hand strikes, kicks, and blocks, as well as five self-defense techniques and their variations.
There are only four adults testing tonight. The rest are children. As a white belt, I'm not used to standing toward the front of the line that rings the mat. Usually I’m way over on the far right end, or if it’s a really full class, I start out around the corner where the Little Dragons fidget today.
The youngest girl is only four, a tiny blonde thing with huge brown eyes. Her hair is tied up into pigtails, the kind I always coveted when I was that age.
Who would I have been if I'd started martial arts that young?
As I watch her, my every episode of bullying, violence, abuse, and squirming capitulation rolls through my mind, and I imagine its conclusion altered by the existence of that Little Dragon belt and everything beneath it. Everything ahead of it. The hours, the years, the sweat and blood and tears--so different than the kind shed while being a perpetual victim.
An eerie sensation overtakes me.
I am standing here, the fourth adult in the line, yet I am simultaneously down at the end--and I am 3 feet tall. I'm wearing my 70s boy-bowl haircut and I am staring up at all the instructors like they're giants. In the forms of every girl standing between me and that Little Dragon, I can feel myself. The nine-year-old orange belt. The pair of six-year-old purple belts. The thirteen-year-old green belt.
And thirty-two-year-old me.
By embarking on this quest, I’ve altered some thing. Not just from this moment forward. They say time is not the linear thing we imagine it to be. By standing here in this white belt, about to change it to gold, I am performing Alchemy. In making kintsugi of myself, I transform the cracks of my foundation into seams of gold. (7) I repair my damaged spine with steel.
I am rewriting my own history in this very moment.
My conscious mind understands: I cannot go back and change anything that happened in my childhood. But something inside me understands on a deeper, more instinctual level that by doing this, I am changing everything about my past. I don’t yet know how. I don’t fully understand how it’s even possible.
I only know with utter certainty that this is so.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: THAT FRIDAY NIGHT WHEN I GOT TO SEE JAKE AGAIN - And what I learned about boys & girls.
--OR if you want to find more of my martial musings, you can find them HERE.
2) Some more ruminations on Kali and Her misunderstood nature
3) The Society for Creative Anachronism, where I put on medieval armor and whapped my friends with big sticks all day, then danced around the fire under the stars all night.
4) My 19-year-old self first encountered the theater world's comfort with nudity as I first encountered belly dance.
5) The post containing a map of these traumatized little girls
6) Geeking out over the first style of classical martial arts I studied, Kenpo under the TraCo branch.