The man behind Gracie Academy Philadelphia, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and three-time Masters World Champion, is never looking for a fight.
“There are a lot of tough guys out there,” Brian Rago said. “And, you don’t want to pick on the wrong one. Once you become tougher yourself, you feel less [of a] need to show off or put on a show. And so, you’re not looking for that excuse to fight. You want to avoid it.”
Gracie Academy Philadelphia, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructional facility, now offers a free, one-hour long self-defense class on the first Saturday of every month for women as young as 12 years old.
“We were just trying to think about ways to benefit the community more, specifically with women’s self-defense,” instructor and brown belt Samantha Faulhaber said. “There’s a lot of women that are very apprehensive about starting this martial art where you’re wrestling on the ground with people.”
The classes focus on technique and movement. Rago displays the defense tactics and opens the floor to the class for hands-on practice. The goal is to give them as much experience with realistic situations as possible, he said.
“This focuses on the people who aren’t great athletes, who aren’t bigger and can’t compete on an equal level physically with somebody,” Rago said. “But you have to use body mechanics and physics to compensate.”
Rago started the school four years ago with friend and martial artist Zak Maxwell, who now lives in California. He began training jiu-jitsu in 2003 at 33 years old and practiced aikido and Japanese jiu-jitsu – two other grappling arts – as well.
“I always thought this appeared to be the most effective [martial art],” Rago said. “I trained obliquely in it and other martial arts that I thought did more or less the same thing. Then I started training at a real Brazilian jiu-jitsu academy and learned that it wasn’t the same. And I wanted to do it as much as possible.”
Brazilian jiu-jitsu immigrated to Brazil from Japan around the turn of the century, where the Gracie Academy was established around 1925.
From there, the sport evolved, but retained its street fighting qualities that are applied in self-defense.
Victor Dilella, senior computer science major, started practicing jiu-jitsu six years ago. After encouragement from a friend to train at Gracie Academy, Dilella is now a student and instructor at the academy.
“I trained in Bryn Mawr for a couple years, and my friend told me about the place and I liked training here,” Dilella said. “When I finally came, I loved it.”
Now, the academy offers classes every day for experienced black belts and beginner white belts, with the addition of a self-defense class for women who want to learn how to defend themselves if they would ever need to.
“We try to introduce the sport in a more friendly, bubbly environment, which is a little bit different than the normal class structure,” Faulhaber said.
Kathy Gomez used to be a full-time gym member at the facility where Gracie Academy members train and one day decided to try out the sport. Now, she attends regular classes as well as the self-defense class.
“I’m almost 40 and I don’t have an exercise background,” Gomez said. “I’m totally not the same person. I mostly work in an office, so I never get to see what my body can do and never what it can do with other people. I feel good.”
Rago said he hopes that women in the class will take home the moves and exercises to practice. These strategies, he said, will help avoid confrontation on the street, if nothing else.
“From a physical perspective, it really works your core and pushes you to use muscles you haven’t worked before,” Gomez said. “From a psychological perspective, it feels really empowering to learn techniques to defend yourself and know your body and what it can do,”
Students like Gomez and Faulhaber say they have never had to use jiu-jitsu techniques in a real-world setting.
“God forbid I should ever have to use it,” Faulhaber said. “But if I do, I’ll feel more comfortable and I have a much better shot at it.”
Emily Rolen firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @Emily_Rolen