Clear-cut combat: Oro Valley resident shares his passion for simplistic self-defense - Tucson Local Media: Import

Clear-cut combat: Oro Valley resident shares his passion for simplistic self-defense

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Posted: Tuesday, April 5, 2005 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:49 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

April 6, 2005 - Standing lightly on the balls of his feet, twisting his hips and swinging his arm over his head, Alan Dankwerth then brings his clenched fist down with a sharp crack, crushing the Blast Master, a thick black rectangular pad.

The force of the movement causes the brawny police officer holding the pad out in front of him to lose his balance slightly, moving forward to keep from falling over. While the officer is nearly twice his size, the power of the blow delivered by Dankwerth could easily have knocked the young officer down had it come in contact with his body.

The effectiveness of the move shows as surprise on the faces of a couple of new students who are in the middle of their whirlwind orientation to Krav Maga, a Hebrew self-defense method.

It's not that their instructor is puny, it's just that a grown man his size doesn't strike fear into the heart at first glance.

At somewhere around 5 and a half feet tall, with the beginnings of salt and pepper hair and a gentle smile, Dankwerth is more Father Knows Best than Terminator. But when he lets loose on the Blast Master, landing a dozen fast, groin-height kicks with a precise thud, repeatedly causing the muscular officer's arms to buckle with each blow, Dankwerth is transformed into a relentless warrior.

For the past five years, the Oro Valley resident has been practicing and teaching the techniques of Krav Maga, which combine self defense moves with the use of deadly combative force.

Dankwerth starts each beginner's class by telling the students this, warning them that to use these techniques on someone who is not threatening your physical well-being is illegal.

"This is not pretty stuff," he says of the brutal techniques. "But it's not meant to be."

Krav Maga was developed by Imi Lichtenfeld, who grew up in Bratislava, Slovakia, and honed his skills on the streets, defending himself and his Jewish friends against anti-Semitic groups, according to the Krav Maga Association of America, headquartered in Los Angeles. In the 1940s, Lichtenfeld went to Israel, where he joined a paramilitary group and began teaching the members his fighting techniques. The Israeli government asked him to teach these techniques to its soldiers, and over the next 20 years, Krav Maga became the official training technique of the Israeli Defense forces, tested again and again on the streets and battlefields.

In the 1980s, the technique came to the United States, where the military, police officers and civilians expressed interest in learning the methods.

Dankwerth, who had been involved in several martial arts forms, including years studying Tai Kwan Do, learned of the method at a martial arts conference he attended in 1999. He and his instructor were so impressed after their first experience with the form that they immediately signed up to become licensed, and over the following six months made the trek to L.A. several times to complete their training.

While Dankwerth still has great respect for the martial arts forms he has studied for years, he said his passion was ignited for Krav Maga because of its simplicity.

Last year he opened a studio in Tucson, Ultima Martial Arts, to spread what he knew to others interested in learning a proven self defense method. He teamed up with SWAT Fitness to open the Ultima SWAT Martial Arts and Fitness Center last October, at 7649 E. Speedway Blvd.

The idea behind partnering with SWAT was to offer everything under one roof - Tai Chi, cardio-kickboxing, personal training, Krav Maga and other forms of martial arts, plus access to the gym equipment.

The Speedway facility is the only fitness center in Tucson that has instructors certified through the Krav Maga Association of America.

Dankwerth, part owner of Ultima, said the partnership has worked out so far and even has benefitted him personally.

Through working with the trainers at SWAT, Dankwerth strengthened his legs and increased his endurance to be able to run in the Phoenix marathon for the past two years.

There are 12 Krav Maga classes offered each week at the SWAT facility. Dankwerth also teaches the technique at the University of Arizona and Pima Community College, and lectures at the Tucson Jewish Community Center and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, among other facilities. He said he hopes to bring a class closer to Oro Valley in the coming year.

There is strong interest in Krav Maga at the university, he said, where young women in particular see the need to learn to protect themselves. A few weeks ago, when Daniel Aaron Lopez, 27, was arrested near the university, accused of multiple sexual assaults, the classes swelled, as they usually do after a violent act is made public, Dankwerth said. It might seem alarmist to some to encourage this kind of reaction, but he believes it's being smart.

He said he is driven to teach the techniques to as many people as he can because he thinks that knowing how to defend oneself against an attack is vital in these times.

Participants ranging from 20-somethings to 70-somethings are enrolled in the various courses, with a mix of men and women. Several local police officers are in the classes, as well.

"They see the techniques we teach as very viable," Dankwerth said.

In the sterile, white workout room at Ultima, with its padded floors and mirrored walls, it is hard to think about the methods as being useful on the street.

But the key to the method is to inject enough realism into the lessons that students get used to being in high-stress situations. The thinking, Dankwerth said, is that if students can learn to react to dangerous situations with these tried techniques, they will be able to use them effectively, should a life-threatening situation arise out in the "real world."

For this reason, students in Dankwerth's class are choked up against the rough brick walls outside the facility, thrown over car hoods and surprised in the dark during their training.

When the students are tested on their knowledge of the techniques, it is usually after an hour or two of activity, when they are feeling exhausted from a long workout.

"We try to put them in the most adverse situations, when they are feeling fatigue and stress, because that's what they're going to meet. They won't be feeling fresh as a daisy," Dankwerth said.

The movements of Krav Maga all begin from the neutral stance, which basically is just standing still.

"No one is walking around waiting for an attack," Dankwerth explains, and so students are taught to begin every move as if they have been taken off guard.

The movements are simple, and in the first class students are shown about eight of the basic strikes and escape moves. The moves are designed to be easy so they can become instinctual to anyone with a little practice. Dankwerth illustrates how, if someone is put in a bear hug, a swift move with three fingers to the eyes can "eliminate" the threat. Students are taught to aim for the soft spots and to expect blood if the move is executed correctly.

As he teaches the students how to punch and kick, he tells them to think through "the target."

"The idea is to stop your attacker, and you have to do it with everything that you've got," he says.

He yells at the students, leaning in close and egging them on.

"Beat him up! Beat him up! Come on," he barks as the students repeatedly punch the pads for 15-second intervals. He said the only way to make the class useful is to teach the students how to use aggression to get their adrenaline pumping. While the new students are slightly timid at first, the more seasoned ones grunt, groan and make other stranger sounds as they slap at the pads - their imaginary enemies.

Kip Orr has been with the intermediate Krav Maga class for more than two years.

At 6 feet 3 inches, and weighing about 190 pounds, Orr considered himself a pretty fit guy when he started the classes, but he said he has increased his fitness level dramatically with the techniques and is impressed with the skills he has learned.

"When I started taking it, I had a computer job, my life was pretty tame," he said. "But even after the first few classes I felt like I would be able to handle myself if I was ever in a situation."

He said Dankwerth's strength as an instructor is that he is able to find a way to motivate all students, no matter what level of fitness or aggression they bring when they walk through the door.

Joe Insogna, during his first day with Krav Maga, said he found the class on the Internet after he went looking for a fitness center that offered martial arts. He had read about Krav Maga and heard it was a fierce self defense method that also had the health benefits of a great workout.

"It's the real thing," he said.

By the end of his first hour, Insogna looked a little worn, sweat dripping from his hairline, his cheeks a bright red, but a smile on his face.

With a background in other martial art forms, Insogna thought he might have some knowledge going into the class, but was told at the beginning to leave everything he learned in his other classes at the door.

"Park it. This is not a martial art," Dankwerth explains.

But after the short class, Insogna has already learned a lot of this new technique and is feeling good about the fast progress.

"See how quickly you learn the basics," Dankwerth says to Insogna. "In more traditional martial arts, this could take years. But in one day here, you learn the basics. That's the beauty of Krav, it's so simple."

Knowing how to use Krav Maga and actually using it are two very different things. Dankwerth himself has never had to apply the techniques outside of class, and injects into his lessons a constant reminder to his students that if you can avoid a fight, you should. If it is sensible to run away, to lock yourself in your car or to hide, do it, he says, but "if you have to fight, if it's a matter of life or death, we give you the tools to use," he said.

Dankwerth spends nearly as much time teaching the techniques as he does lecturing on safety and how to avoid "looking like lunch."

He said he speaks to groups about smart steps they can take to avoid potentially dangerous situations, for example, getting out your car keys before you leave a store or office, looking around your car for strangers before you approach it, and giving an assailant your wallet or purse if asked, instead of fighting for it.

Dankwerth's wife, Helen Dankwerth, an Oro Valley council member, said that when her husband first started teaching Krav Maga she learned some preliminary moves, although she admits the couple haven't found the time since to practice, with her busy council schedule and him teaching more than a dozen classes each week.

But she said even those quick lessons, learned years ago, have worked wonders on her.

Once, while loading shopping bags into the back seat of her car, alone in a large parking lot, she was approached by an "unsavory" looking man, who wanted to ask her for money. Because she was hunched over with her back to him, she didn't see the stranger until he was directly behind her. She whirled around and was taken off guard by the man, by that time just inches from her.

Startled, but without missing a beat, she told the man "get out of here," in a deep growl. The man left without another word.

Although she did not have to use the methods, knowing she could gave her the assuredness to stand up for herself in a menacing situation.

"It gave me confidence to do that," Dankwerth said of her experience with Krav Maga. "If nothing else, it really improves your self confidence."

Student Tara Burke said that power to transform form your personality when you need to is what is most impressive about Krav Maga. And she agreed with other students that Dankwerth knows just how to bring out that inner fighter in everyone.

Burke was living with her boyfriend near the UA campus when he saw a flyer for a Krav Maga class and suggested she try it out.

"He wanted me to do it so he wouldn't have to worry about me so much, knowing I could handle myself," she said. She was often by herself in midtown, coming home late at night, and he was concerned about her well-being.

At first she was tentative. A petite girl from a small town, she has always believed in avoiding violence and didn't think she had it in her to beat up anybody. She said she was naive to any dangers that were out there and didn't think she would ever be in a situation where she would have to defend herself.

But after a few classes, she was hooked.

"It brought out something in me that I think had been there forever it's just I never had an outlet for it," she said. "Now, there's no way anybody's taking me, no matter how big or how strong."

She has been studying now for more than three years and has even considered becoming an instructor.

She hopes that when she is Dankwerth's age she will be able to work out as hard as him, and inspire other students to find the tigress inside themselves.

"He's an absolute bulldog at living life," she said of her instructor. "He knows how to bring out that person to hit the bag. He can raise your level of aggressiveness. But at the same time, he's a sweetheart and he cares about all of us so much."

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