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Pacific Association of Women Martial Artists

Uniting and empowering a diverse community
of women and girls in the martial arts.

Sifu Michelle Dwyer
Photo courtesy of Michelle Dwyer.

Traveling and Training

Sifu Michelle Dwyer

The year: 1989.
The scene: Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo,112 degrees Fahrenheit.
The first combined NWMAF and PAWMA camp.

The charismatic Colleen Gragen probably conceived and definitely organized this dynamic meeting. For the first time I was hired to teach at national camp. At video night Colleen introduced me to Nina Van Roedon from Amsterdam. Nina organized a women’s summer camp in the Netherlands, F.I.S.T. (Feminist International Summer Training). Nina, at that time, was a strong kick boxer. I took her class early on in the camp. My legs talked to me the whole camp! I asked her to send me an application to teach at F.I.S.T. I applied. I got the job to teach at F.I.S.T. ’90.

In the U.S.A. we have a national camp and a west coast camp but F.I.S.T. was truly international. Women teachers and participants came from Japan, Australia, Korea, U.S.A., Norway, Germany, Netherlands, Austria and more. Lucky for this American, all announcements and classes were in English. The camp was 9 days long with a free middle day. There was always a “disco” and bar on site. The trainings were progressive letting instructors go deep into their style. Between 200 and 300 women joined the camp, half of them from Germany. The food was usually terrible. From 1990 to 1997 I traveled to Europe in the summer and taught at this fabulous women’s gathering and made many friends and contacts. German women began inviting teachers to their hometowns after camp for a weekend of training. The last F.I.S.T. was 1997 due to Netherland tax issues. I kept in contact with friends and from 1994 to 2013 I traveled to teach in various European cities in Netherlands, Germany, Austria, France and Spain. Leaving my domestic classes to train on their own, I was gone from 6 to 8 weeks. A different city each week with 7 or 8 hours of training on Saturdays and Sundays; evening classes on the week days. I never stayed in a hotel.

Germans have very good educations. Most of my friends speak five languages fluently. The women are very determined and dedicated to pursuing knowledge and training self-defense and martial arts. They avoid hierarchy because of their history. In each city there are long time training groups. They register with their city as a sport association so they can rent school gymnasiums on weekends and during the summer months as training halls. The feminist network is vibrant in Europe. Throughout the year women travel from city to city, country to country, for self-defense meetings, political protests and anniversaries, martial arts and creating women’s publications. Women travel to Vienna for knife fighting weekends; to Hamburg for Modern Arnis; to Kassel for a week long winter training as an alternative to traditional holidays; to Bonn for Push Hands; to Bremen for Shaolin weapons training; to Berlin for T’ai Chi and Ch’i Gung; to Marburg for Northern Shaolin hand forms. The women are motivated and dedicated. They learn something; they keep it; they share it; they add it to their repertoire of gathered knowledge and skills; they build and add to it. Self-defense it very important in the feminist network and there is a yearly international meeting in France, on women owned land, to share skills, stories, and techniques.

I know several Americans who have immigrated to Europe and teach martial arts. Wendy Dragonfire teaches Karate in the Netherlands. Beth Holt teaches Modern Arnis in Holland. Sunny Graff teaches Tae Kwon Do in Germany. I think the 1990’s was fortunate timing for me. Chinese martial arts were just arriving in Europe. Many Chinese masters left China in the 1980’s and started teaching in the U.S.A.; west coast, east coast, Texas. From there the internal and external Chinese martial arts traveled to Europe. Women teachers were rare. Everyone wanted to train Chinese weapons: straight swords, sabers, long staff, and partner sets. As years passed (everyone getting older) people were interested in T’ai Chi, Push hands and Ch’i Gung. Northern Shaolin sets are demanding and long. Some hand forms we could do in one weekend of 16 hours training. Some of the long forms were learned half in one year and half the following year. Women learned in this condensed fashion. They practice and keep the forms. Several women’s Kung Fu clubs still train and teach the Shaolin forms. In Berlin a small but dedicated T’ai Chi club carries on.

I am 68 years old now and travel is not so alluring to me. However, twice a year I get German visitors who join all my classes and we train together at my home practice space. In between I tour guide friends to all my favorite nature spots, San Francisco museums and Chinatown and of course the East Bay. This year I am honored to teach at a martial arts camp in Greece. The dates coincide with the PAWMA camp. I will miss all my PAWMA friends and all the great trainings at my very favorite camp. My martial arts path has been fun, challenging and enriching. The best thing about martial arts is martial arts friends. I want to thank the women’s martial arts community worldwide for all the opportunities to travel, train, teach, learn, laugh, and love.

Thank You.
Sifu Michelle Dwyer

Sifu Michelle Dwyer has been training in Chinese Martial Arts and Healing Arts since 1974. She is a long-time member of Jing Mo, San Francisco, CA where she specialized in Northern Shaolin Gung Fu, Hsing Yi, Yang Tai Chi and many weapons. She has taught many times at PAWMA camps; F.I.S.T. (Feminist International Summer Training, Netherlands); Canada's Women's Festival of Martial Arts and at National Women's Martial Arts Federation Special Training. In 2012 she was the recipient of PAWMA’s Lifetime Achievement Award and in 2013 she was inducted into the Association of Women Martial Arts Instructor’s Hall of Fame. For 21 years she has traveled to Europe and taught women in Germany, Austria, Netherlands, Spain and France, as well as many weekend workshops in Portland, OR and Seattle, WA.  Sifu Dwyer is the author of Tai Chi Chuan – Dragon Tiger Mountain.

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