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Dressed in simple street clothes and armed with wooden sticks and large swords, the eager students follow the instructions of their master. Maha Guro Nate Defensor, 49, stands in the middle of the homely, near-empty room at New Albany Park Collaborative, 3460 W. Lawrence Ave.(*) His class consists of students varying wildly in age and experience, but is unified with one primal goal: to learn Filipino Martial Arts. Defensor’s eyes twinkle as they exuberantly search the class for traces of struggle and confusion. He comes most alive when he demonstrates specific moves and maneuvers, swooping around the room like an elegant Joffrey dancer.
Since he created his own martial arts system from a variety of personally chosen styles, Defensor has been given the title of Maha Guro. Those who choose to teach the Defensor Method are simply called Guros and function as Defensor’s assistants during classes. Yet martial artists are encouraged to evolve their own style of martial arts, depending on their own personal needs and interest, which leads to a form of personal and artistic expression. However, during its rich, centuries-old history in the Phillippines, Filipino Martial Arts were used primarily for self-defense.
In World War II, Filipinos used their own specialized brand of martial arts to fight against the occupying Japanese. It was the only form of Asian martial arts ever used in actual combat during this century. When the war ended in the mid-1940s, people living in the 7,000 islands of the Philippine archipelago began to teach martial arts to younger generations. Since then, their teachings have spread throughout the modern world, allowing people of all cultures to interpret and personalize their methods of self-defense.
Though its variations are as numerous as the islands themselves, Filipino Martial Arts is often referred to as either “Kali” or “Eskrima.” In the 1970s, the first Eskrima school opened in the western world. Some martial artists, such as Defensor, have devoted their lives to teaching others the ancient skills of the Filipinos.
Defensor recently began teaching his Kali-Eskrima class at the Extreme Kung Fu/Wushu Training Center, 6525 N. Clark St., each Friday night. Like every fighting class at the training center, an environment is created during practice where students learn to battle against a resisting opponent as close to maximum speed as possible. This may seem like a recipe for injury, but the school’s founder, Master Anthony Marquez, insists that instructors are careful to guide students according to their experience.
“There are probably a lot more injuries in break dancing,” Marquez said, alluding to the fact that most break dancers learn their skill without the guidance of a professional.
“It doesn’t matter if you just started or if you’ve been doing this for 10 years,” Marquez said. “You’re always going to be working on your basic technique.”
The dedication needed to grow and evolve as a martial artist often causes potential students to swiftly reject the classes. Yet according to the staff at Extreme, Filipino Martial Arts has proven to be more accessible, and immediately useful, to students living in urban areas.
“This is probably the most practical self-defense for students, because it is the quickest to learn,” said Amber Kul, co-owner of the Extreme Training Center.
Defensor believes that his method is practical primarily because literally anything can be used as a weapon.
“The fighting system and techniques are geared toward a multiplicity of ranges and environments,” Defensor said.
His three basic moves—snake, strip and vine—could be performed using anything from sticks to blades. This makes Filipino Martial Arts instantly useable to anyone in a hostile environment. Defensor said this was one of the ways his brand of martial arts differs from that of the Chinese.
“They use fancy colored tassels so [their weaponry] looks good on film,” Defensor said. “We would eliminate that because it’s not good for combat. I want something that’s rusty, and I want to hide it, so you don’t even see me coming.”
One of Defensor’s assistants, Guro Jason Brigham, recalls seeing a random example of Filipino Martial Arts on Chicago’s streets.
“I’ve personally seen a fight where a guy had a pair of pliers and another guy had a bike lock,” Brigham said. “They were dueling with these two objects at three in the morning on Milwaukee Avenue.”
Of course, there is a tendency for Columbia students to overlook the potential violence of their environment, especially in a location as seemingly safe as the Loop. Still, incidents such as last November’s robbery outside the 1104 Center, 1104 S. Wabash Ave., are a reminder that self-defense is often a forgotten necessity in the city.
Another of Defensor’s assistants, Guro Richard Draney, 56, said martial arts have functioned as a confidence builder in his life.
“At some point you let out a certain aura of not being the available victim,” Draney said, who originally took Defensor’s class as a 30th birthday present. “My nephew was a kung fu practitioner in those days, and I was running a print shop downtown. I was just burned out and not getting any exercise.”
But what Draney found at Defensor’s class stretched far beyond the boundaries of physical fitness.
“I grew up in a tough neighborhood, so I knew what it meant to be fearful,” Draney said. “If I saw five rough-looking guys on the street corner, I’d cross the street. And now, I’ll go up and say hello.”
For Brigham, learning martial arts has also increased his street smarts.
“This art teaches you how to observe things on a large scale when you’re in the city,” Brigham said. “You become accustomed to seeing things that are out of place, perhaps a person of questionable intent.”
Defensor argues further that the sharpened observational skills brought about by martial arts lead to clearer understanding.
“It makes you respect everybody,” Defensor said. “Since you understand how a knife-fighter or gun-slinger works, then you understand the danger of it.”
Defensor’s assistant at his Friday night class, David McAra, 29, said internalizing the self-defense movements of martial arts brings about an inner calmness.
“Once you memorize the movement, It becomes walking meditation. It’s just embedded in you,” McAra said.
Draney compared it to the art of dance, in which the body is similarly trained as a tool. He also said that every martial artist eventually creates his/her own individual form of creative expression.
“You take the techniques that work for you,” Draney said. “I’m not going to be doing triple-back-flips and stuff like that. So I throw those out, and I keep the other stuff. You start to evolve your own system, and it truly becomes an artistic endeavor.”
As a Maha Guro, Nate Defensor has created his own method of Filipino Martial Arts, which has gradually found a large number of followers over the years. He said he would even be willing to start a Kali-Eskrima class at Columbia for any students who would be interested. Apart from aspiring martial artists and students craving physical fitness, Defensor said even visual art majors could benefit from his class, especially film majors intent on making their own martial arts action films.
“Sometimes the movement is not caught right,” Defensor said. “If you know movement and know photography, then you know how to put it together.”
For more information about Maha Guro Nate Defensor’s Filipino Martial Arts classes, visit DefensorMethod.com. For more information about the Extreme Kung Fu/Wushu Training Center, visit ExtremeKungFu.com