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Sensei Jaye Spiro

By |2003-02-27T09:00:00-05:00February 27th, 2003|Uncategorized|

By Ruth Seymour

“Do not seek fame. Do not make plans. Do not be absorbed by activities. Do not think that you know. Be aware of all that is and dwell in the infinite. Wander where there is no path. Be all that heaven gave you, but act as though you have received nothing. Be empty, that is all.” Chuang Tsu, p. 37 of Karate Student Handbook, Mejishi Martial Arts.

FERNDALE – The small table with its two cafŽ chairs is draped in light blue, under glass. Nearby, a stick of smoking incense juts at an improbable angle from a dish of raked white sand. Natural light, winter sun through a wall of glass, suffices for the room.
At the table is the sensei (teacher), who right now is thinking carefully, her personal bearing and facial expression an advertisement for the benefits of regular meditative practice.
It would hardly seem the place to learn how to poke someone’s eyes out.
But it is.
For 32 years, Sensei Jaye Spiro has studied the martial arts (earning a 5th degree black belt in karate and a 4th degree black belt in the Filipino art of Arnis) and for 27 of those years she has shared what she has learned with others. She is nationally revered, having helped to found the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation 22 years ago, which has certified hundreds of women as teachers. In 2001, she was chosen as the first national recipient for the New Traditions Women’s Martial Arts Hall of Fame in 2001.
An “Air Force kid,” Spiro was born in Colorado. But her martial arts career started in the city of Detroit in the ’70s, when she decided to teach women self-defense.
Before too long, she began teaching children. “Then the boys got older …” she says, and smiles.
Today the Mejishi Martial Arts school likely has the most diverse and multi-racial gathering of students in metro-Detroit: women, men, boys, girls, gay, lesbian, straight. They include four-year-olds, senior citizens, at-risk teenagers, and probation officers.
“A lot of our leadership is lesbian – the other black belts,” Spiro said. She pauses; on the wall to one side of her is a quilted portrait of a lioness, “mejishi” in Japanese. Behind her is a framed document on the wall.
This is a community of peaceful warriors.
Proudly representing both sexes, diverse ages, all ethnic backgrounds, political persuasions, beliefs, sizes and physical abilities.
ALL are welcome.
ALL are special.
There is no right or wrong type of person here as long as our behavior is thoughtful and respectful to ourselves, others and to our world.
Come in pursuit of power, balance, health, excellence, coordination, self expression and self defense.
“We had that diversity statement before everyone else did,” Spiro said. “We had to have a copy of that so that our straight people would feel they belonged.”
Some say Spiro has mellowed over the years. Clearly, you still don’t want to mess with her. At 55, as limber as a child, she has developed a growing fascination with weapons.
“I still can kick and punch, but I am looking for other skills to add,” she says. Her favorite instruments so far: machetes, seven-foot sticks, knives, sais (metal crosses), and kamas (sickles). “Ceremonial tools,” she says. “These tools are interesting.”
The point of martial arts like karate, however, is not the lust for violence, but the control of violence. The ethics of karate (p. 9 of the Mejishi Karate Student Handbook) order:
* Contain rather than hurt
* Hurt rather than be hurt
* Hurt rather than maim
* Maim rather than kill
* Kill rather than be killed.
As ever, many of Spiro’s students are women.
” Women are different than 30 years ago, big time!” she says. “They have a higher consciousness about victimization. They don’t put up with stuff they used to. They are much more willing to fight and defend themselves, and not as concerned about hurting someone else. Women have always been courageous. The most courageous women are those who have been victimized.”
Spiro says she admires the bravery of women who, although they have been abused personally, allow that abuse to be replayed upon them at her school so they can learn to fight back.
One of her popular workshops is “Mr. Shadow,” in which a male black-belt in karate protects himself with foam padding and a helmet (“He looks like ‘the man from outer space'”) and proceeds to pin female students down on a mat.
“You can hit (him) as hard as you want. He is the nightmare,” Spiro says. “He has you down on the mat, saying nasty things and grabbing you … You can kick the living tar out of that equipment. It is really exciting.”
Women aren’t released from the exercise until they break free themselves, Spiro says. But before they begin, they understand the rule is that the battle won’t end until they win. Eventually, every woman does.
“You stay on the mat and we coach you ’til you get it. Everybody always wins.”
The triumph, Spiro says, is that women move through fear into power. “They feel afraid and they choose to allow themselves to be in a situation where they feel at risk and then to overcome their feeling of fear, push through, fight and yell and successfully resist. Anger in self-defense can be healthy. ‘How DARE you!'”
But Spiro’s self-defense classes also teach verbal skills, cooperation, yelling, escape and the use of resources (like spray, keys or an umbrella).
“I don’t feel someone has to fight when actually there are other options to minimize the damage to you,” she says. “Self-defense isn’t just karate. Karate is great, but it doesn’t give you the verbal tools the psychological tools that you combine with physical confidence.”
Much of Spiro’s work is what she calls “satellite teaching” outside of her Ferndale school. She teaches county probation officers, because they aren’t permitted to carry weapons. Three weeks ago she taught a class of at-risk girls at Children’s Hospital. And many, many years ago, she was teaching a class of senior citizens when she met Ruth Ellis of Detroit, who died last year. IS THAT RIGHT? At her death at 101, IS THAT AGE RIGHT? Ruth Ellis was the oldest known lesbian in America. Spiro was the one who introduced her to metro-Detroit, and the world.
“I met Ruth Ellis teaching self-defense to seniors,” Spiro recalls. “Little did I ever think of seniors as gay! I thought of them as society does, as asexual. So I was pretty blown away when one of my students sent a Valentine and invited me to have a meal. I was not even 30. Society never taught me that anybody in their 70s could be gay or lesbian. It never had occurred to me.
“She had figured out that I was gay; she had lost all of her generation. I was the first of that generation that she met.”
Years passed. Today it is Spiro who finds herself in the position of being “kind of a great-grandmother” to a movement.
“I didn’t really choose my path; it just kind of fell into place before me,” she muses at the table by the window. “It just became more obvious to me. I wanted to teach women self-defense, then I wanted a karate school.
“Part of the way I could do it is I didn’t mind being poor. So I was independent.”

About the Author:

Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.
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