Reporter learns skills at women’s self-defense class

Focus is on awareness, boundaries and — if necessary — how to ward off an attacker
Reporter Karen Bjornland goes into attack mode while Stan Tiska instructs during a self-defense class at the Guilderland YMCA.
Reporter Karen Bjornland goes into attack mode while Stan Tiska instructs during a self-defense class at the Guilderland YMCA.

The bad guy turns and looks at me. Oh God, now he’s moving toward me. My heart is thumping. I am scared. But I know what I must do.

From deep in my belly, I let out a loud roar and attack the evil giant. I kick and kick. I smack him in the head and face over and over again, as hard as I can.   

 “Get away from me!” I shout. “Get the hell away!”

The other day, at the Guilderland YMCA, I was one of 21 women in a class called ABC Women’s Self-Defense International.

John Borter, a Capital Region martial arts expert, is the founder and director of the three-hour program, which has been taught in high schools and colleges and at corporations, gyms and community centers in 12 states and 14 countries. In Schenectady, Borter and his crew have visited the Jewish Community Center and MVP Health Care. If a group doesn’t have its own space, they’ll do it at their home base, The Modern Self-Defense Academy in Albany. On May 18, a class is scheduled at the Duanesburg YMCA in Delanson.

At the Guilderland Y, the participants ranged in age from teen-agers and 40-ish moms to women in their sixties, like myself.

We had no idea what to expect in such a class, and before it began, we were curious about a pair of male manikins that stood like weird scarecrows at one end of the room. The dummies wore mean expressions on their molded plastic faces and black t-shirts covered their hunky, armless torsos.

 “Those guys don’t look very friendly,” said a tall blond woman in camo-patterned tights.

Kelly Dreher tells me that she drove down from Lake George with her 15-year-old daughter Arianna and another mother and daughter.

“I want my teen daughter to be well-equipped as she goes out in the world,” she says.

Borter begins the class by introducing his four assistants: Rodney, Trish, Donald and Stanley. All five have other full-time jobs. Women’s self-defense is a side interest, a passion, something that they believe is important. Rodney is a SWAT-trained police officer in the Hudson Valley.

“There is no martial arts in this class,” Borter tells us. “Martial arts does not necessarily equate to self-defense.”

Borter, who has a college-age daughter and five black belts in the martial arts, developed the program about eight years ago after doing research and realizing that martial arts moves were not the best way to teach the average woman how to protect herself.  

His “ABCs” are awareness, boundaries and contact. “If you learn awareness and boundaries, you don’t have to do the physical,” he says.

Shopping malls, parking garages and college campuses are common places where women encounter would-be attackers, he says. “It can happen to anyone.”

For the first hour or so, we learn what bad guys look for and how to get rid of them before they get close to you. Being aware and alert is the first important rule.
Borter holds up his cellphone.

“This is absolutely the worst invention ever for being aware of your surroundings,” he says.

Women who walk around with their heads down, absorbed in their phones, are easy targets.

Trish, the assistant instructor, recommends that women add a self-protection app to their phone. The apps can alert friends and family if you are in danger or tell them when you have arrived at a destination. An app can ring your phone with a fake call so you can escape a first date that doesn’t feel safe.

“I use bSafe,” says Trish. “It’s free.”

Next, we learn about eye contact, and I’m up on my feet to do an exercise. As we walk past each other, we quickly glance at the person’s face.

“You just reduced your risk. A bad guy does not want to be recognized,” Borter says.

“I throw a little resting bitch face in there,” Trish says. “Women have been taught to do the opposite. We are socialized to be nice,” she says.

We laugh and nod our heads. We know what she’s talking about.

Keep your head up, act confident and trust your gut, she says.

“You just don’t know what a good or bad guy looks like. Your gut is what keeps you alive.”

Next, we partner up and practice avoidance moves on the thick red gym mats that cover the floor.

When “Ellen,” a slim woman about my age, walks toward me, I move into a strong athletic stance and look her in the eyes.

“Excuse me!” I shout. “Don’t come any closer!”

This simple move can stop that bad guy in his tracks, Borter says. He demonstrates how a man might ask for directions and then move in close to show you a map on his cellphone. Don’t ever let a strange man get that close, he warns. Criminals use the “can you help me” ruse to lure their victims.

“Stop caring when people don’t respect your boundaries,” says Trish, adding that’s OK “to act like a crazy bitch.”

Borter and his assistants show me how to escape a wrist or neck hold by raising my arms and pivoting, using my body weight.

Ellen and I practice all the moves, with Borter and crew gently assisting.

The last hour is the most difficult but also the most fun.

If, heaven forbid, I can’t repel an attacker with my voice or stance, I’ll have to fight.

Our first target is those mean-faced scarecrow men.

Standing in two lines, we run up and hit them in the face while the other women cheer us on.

It’s serious stuff but we are laughing and shouting at the same time.

“Never punch. Open-handed is usually best,” Borter tells us.

We slap, slap, slap the heads and faces of the dummies with the heels of our hands.

To get charged up, I recall Me Too moments from my life and those of my Baby Boomer girlfriends. The anger that surges up makes it easy to attack those dummies.

But then, just when I feel like Wonder Woman, two monsters emerge from a back room.

Stanley and Donald are dressed from head to toe in shiny black helmets and black padded protective gear, their faces hidden. Think RoboCop or Darth Vader.

Each woman will take a turn, and for about seven seconds, attack one of them.

One of the moms doesn’t think she can do it.

“I don’t want to hurt him,” she says, casting an empathetic eye at one of the padded warriors.

“It’s tough to be abusive to another human being,” Borter says.

But he assures us that we can go wild, attacking them with feet, knees, elbows and hands. Obviously, they won’t fight back. And after less than a minute, he will drop to the mat, ending the exercise.

When it’s my turn, when the monster moves toward me, I am frightened for a second or two, but then my fighting instincts and new-found skills take over. Loud cheering from the women energizes me.

I kick and slap until the monster falls down.

As I catch my breath and watch the other women take their turns, conflicting emotions spin through my head. It’s disturbing to see women fighting for their lives, even in play. But at the same time, I am proud of and impressed with the younger women and their ferocious attacks. One of the best female fighters was barely five feet tall and weighed half as much as the six-foot-tall man in the suit.

I can’t help but laugh at the shouts, light curses and sprinkle of F-bombs flying through the room.

“Get away, jackass,” a woman in blue sweats yells as she strides onto the mat.

Yeah, I say to myself. I like her attitude.

And then I started yelling it too.

“Get away, jackass. Get away jackass. Leave her the hell alone.”

For more info on ABC Women’s Self-Defense International, visit and Facebook or call (518) 755-3475.

Mascolo teaching self-defense class at Saratoga Springs High School

Last fall, when Lauren Mascolo decided to teach “Female Self-Defense” as a continuing education class in Saratoga Springs, 30 women and girls, from age 12 to senior citizens, signed up. 

On Thursday night, Mascolo will be back in the high school cafeteria with a new group of students.

“There seems to be a desire for a fresh, new take on self-defense. I think there is a real need for it in this area,” she says.

A Ballston Spa mother of two with a black belt in Kenpo Karate, Mascolo has been involved in the martial arts since age 18. She works as a reading specialist at Maple Avenue Middle School in Saratoga Springs.

Her two-hour seminar offers common-sense safety tips and simple practices to help women be prepared for potentially dangerous situations that can happen in their daily lives.

“I teach how to avoid the attack altogether. It doesn’t matter how big or strong you are or how little or weak you are,” Mascolo says. “Over the years, I’ve just learned a lot and I share it and I love it.”

She talks about staying safe while shopping and where to stand in an elevator. “And we practice getting loud, really loud.”
In her seminar, Mascolo also shares a personal story about what happened to her one afternoon several years ago in the parking lot at the Wilton Mall.

She was heading from the mall to her car, pushing her infant son in a stroller, with shopping bags and a diaper bag hanging from her arms.

“I heard and felt someone behind me. I quickly turned around and sure enough, there was a man following me.”

Mascolo stopped in her tracks.

“I stared and glared at him and I screamed at the top of my lungs: “What are you doing? He was so taken off guard that whatever he thought he was going to do, his mind quickly changed.”

The man, who was in his early twenties, moved away and pretended to unlock a nearby car.

“That’s not your car. You know that’s not your car,” she said in a loud voice.

The man, who was terrified, disappeared from sight.

 “It was eye contact, my determination and my aggression, my awareness,” Mascolo says. “And that’s what I teach people.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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