It was an odd scene at the Hellgate High School auditorium on Tuesday.
Although school is out for the summer, about 20 teenage girls dressed in sweat pants and T-shirts kicked, punched and wrestled at the command of a tall bald man standing on stage with them.
The only sounds were grunts of exertion, and a catchy mix of the Jackson 5 and James Brown.
This was not your typical high school class or play rehearsal, though.
Rather, the day’s lessons were dedicated to self-defense.
The goal: to help the teens – ages 14-19 – gain confidence, literacy and proficiency in how to be physically safe.
The free class kicked off with a quick sign-in, and a circle, where the students introduced themselves, stating a superpower they’d like to have, and briefly summing up their reasons for attendance.
One girl said, “My name’s Lilly, and if I had a superpower, I’d turn things into musicals.”
When it was Kessa Juda-Nelson’s turn, she said, “I’m here because my dad doesn’t like me out at night alone.” She paused, and continued with a chuckle, “Or anywhere ...”
The comment was followed by a resounding laugh of support.
The other girls understood.
The class, put on by the YWCA’s Girls Using Their Strengths, or GUTS program, featured discussion, education and a self-defense lesson from fifth-degree blackbelt and local tai chi instructor Mike Norvelle.
Norvelle’s studied martial arts for 40 years, and got his first blackbelt in traditional karate when he was a student in Japan. While teaching martial arts at the University of Arizona 20-plus years ago, Norvelle helped develop an appropriate curriculum for a women’s self-defense class.
Despite his intimidating background, he’s a gentle guy with a gray beard and pleasant demeanor.
Norvelle said of Tuesday’s participants, “I hope they come away from this with a realization that they can take care of themselves.”
GUTS program manager Roe Erin said a few words after introductions about sexual assault.
“We want to be clear that we don’t think it’s your responsibility,” Erin said. “If something does happen, it doesn’t mean you didn’t prepare yourself and are at all responsible.”
Activities and discussions followed, dealing with some common myths about sexual assault and tips for prevention.
Norvelle chimed in that sexual predators look for two common characteristics in their victims – the distracted and the submissive. Strong eye contact, confident body language and constant awareness are very important, Norvelle said.
“Don’t live in fear or anything like that,” he said. “Just be aware.”
The idea for Tuesday’s workshop started with the local high school offshoot of the GUTS program called, Leadership, Enhancement and Development, or LED.
LED participant Claire Michelson, who will be a senior at Hellgate in the fall, went to Bozeman with GUTS for a February conference put on by a similar Bozeman group, Girls for a Change.
There, a grant application was made available by First Interstate Bank to a group that would put the funds toward bettering their local communities.
Michelson, with a women’s self-defense course in mind, helped apply for the grant. GUTS got the money, which was responsible for funding the free lesson and providing lunch.
Michelson is currently considering the self-defense class idea as a senior project, possibly trying to incorporate it into the high school curriculum.
“I think it’s a big confidence builder,” she said.
When lunch was over, the floormats and punching bags came out, and Norvelle stepped into his element.
Kiehly Hyde, who hopes to be a writer when she’s older, said, “If I were to get attacked, now I’ll know what to do.”
Cody Blum is a journalism student at the University of Montana and an intern at the Missoulian. He can be reached at 523-5361 or at email@example.com.