Professor Presas and Sensei Wendi Dragonfire, 1982.
This post is the third of my series on “Women Warriors of Filipino Martial Arts.” The first two profiles can be found here:
(1) Karen Callahan, part 1: http://bamboospiritmartialarts.com/women-warriors-filipino-martial-arts-karen-callahan/
(2) Karen Callahan, part 2: http://bamboospiritmartialarts.com/women-warriors-fmas-karen-callahan-part-2/
(3) Guro Peachie Baron Saguin: http://bamboospiritmartialarts.com/women-warriors-filipino-martial-arts-guro-peachie-baron-saguin/
Today, I present Wendi Dragonfire, who started out in Karate in 1971 and met Professor Presas in 1980. In this post she describes meeting and training with Professor Presas, the impact that Modern Arnis had on her karate background and the difficulties of women martial artists in the 1970’s. Wendi was instrumental in introducing Modern Arnis into what was then Western Europe.
Wendi Dragonfire in her own words:
In 1971 I started training with Grand Master Robert A. Trias in Shuri-Ryu Karate. Karate is still my primary art. In 1980 I met and started training with Professor Remy A. Presas in Modern Arnis.
GM Robert Trias with some of Sensei Wendi Dragonfire’s students
In 1980 I started organizing workshops for Professor Presas so that I could train regularly with him. In 1981 I started traveling with him, assisting him in the teaching of his workshops. Many of his students know this experience, it was the best way to get steady training from him and to share his teaching under his supervision.
At the same time I also introduced Modern Arnis to Valley Women’s Martial Arts Inc, now run by Janet Aalfs, but at the time, my school. Since 1980 I have been learning, practicing and teaching Modern Arnis.
In 1984 I moved to the Netherlands and began introducing the Professor’s Art here. I also brought him here to teach and formed the foundation for Modern Arnis in Western Europe. Since 1984 there are many people who fell in love with Modern Arnis and made it their primary art. Most notably, someone who started with me, but clearly was destined for more and greater things, Gabrielle Roloff. Gabrielle, a fellow Remy Presas Hall Of Fame Award recipient, is now the primary Modern Arnis Teacher in Western Europe.
In 2013 on the annual celebration of the Professor’s birthday and the announcement of the Remy Presas Modern Arnis Black Belt Hall of Fame inductees, I received word that I was one of the lucky award recipients.
The slogan that Professor Presas used was: “The Art Within Your Art”. Lucky for me, between Grand Master Robert A. Trias and Professor Remy A. Presas, the art of learning and applying were always present. I have had the two best teachers. They have formed my Art and my teaching. Thanks to some very patient students, I’ve actually grown and progressed a lot over the past 44 years ☺
Sensei Wendi Dragonfire in 1984.
(1) What inspired you to start training in Modern Arnis with Professor Presas in the first place?
WD: I had friends who had taken a workshop with him and raved about him. I went to Portland, Oregon to visit Martial Arts friends and he was doing a seminar…so I took it…I was hooked from then on. At that time he was one of the most open teachers around. He recognized advanced, talented people and surrounded himself with us…regardless of gender. I still lived in Massachusetts at the time so I started organizing seminars for him and eventually started traveling to seminars with him to assist (learning more than imaginable).
(2) For those interested in the early history of Modern Arnis in the States and in Europe, can you describe what those early seminars were like? What did Professor Presas emphasize and teach in those seminars?
WD: The Professor emphasized the FLOW. He always said…it is the Art within you Art…and had bumper stickers with that quote that he passed out. He used to say “You know it already, don’t worry.” If people were obnoxious and I went to talk to him about it he would say, “Don’t worry, these are not our people”. He was magical in his skill…never hurt anyone but had total control of us, no matter what he was showing…one time we were doing Machete Sparring (Based on the 1st Sinawali)…it was fast, it was intense…and then…I have no idea how…I was lying on my back, disarmed in an arm bar with a machete to my neck. His seminars usually consisted of basics, 12 strikes, 12 blocks, basic disarms, trapping hands, empty hand disarms, slash blocking, abaniko, redondo and all the rest of the striking styles, take downs, knife stuff…pretty much everything you can think of. He’d use his assistants to get people striking and blocking and maybe doing one disarm so that people who were more advanced could go deeper and learn more…it gave all of us an amazing opportunity to deepen our knowledge by teaching and get amazing new stuff.
(3) Can you explain what you got out of the Modern Arnis training and how that impacted your Karate?
WD: Actually Arnis and Karate impacted each other. My Karate training was very complete, so a lot of what I got was reinforcement for what I already knew, in principle, I probably got more relaxed as a result…but Arnis was the Art within my Art and still is. The FLOW as a principle was probably the most important thing I learned, that I could give a name to within what my Karate was already giving me.
(4) Thanks for elaborating that Modern Arnis gave you the flow as many Modern Arnis students have benefitted similarly. Did Modern Arnis deepen your understanding of karate kata?
WD: Don’t get me wrong…I got the flow from Karate, but deepened it in Arnis and had a name to give it. My Karate kata deepened my understanding of Arnis. By the time I started Arnis I was a 4th dan in Karate and had been training 6-10 hours a day since starting 🙂 Arnis has always been my secondary Art…the Art within my Art 🙂
(5) Besides teaching karate in the Netherlands, do you still teach Modern Arnis?
(6) If you still teach Modern Arnis, what do you emphasize to your students?
(7) How often do you teach Modern Arnis classes? Are the students mostly just Modern Arnis students or do your Karate students attend them as well?
WD: I don’t have any students who just do Arnis…never have really wanted to do that…only ever have done it for private students.
(8) It seems that there are low numbers of women in Modern Arnis/Filipino Martial Arts? What are your thoughts on this? What can be done to attract more women to Modern Arnis/Filipino Martial Arts?
WD: 1st, the Professor was very welcoming and not sexist in his teaching…I remember a seminar that I organized for him in Massachusetts. A group of Filipino men came…they were old students of his. We did some machete sparring…they said to me that women don’t do that…at that moment I realized that as soon as the Professor was exposed to women taking initiative (which we did) to learn from what we saw, that he included us, as a result women were doing everything. Many of us early women teachers attracted other women to the Art and so there are a lot of us 🙂
(9) Can you relate what it was like, as a female martial artist, to train in the early 1970’s?
WD: In the 1970’s Martial Arts was not only completely male dominated. But most of the men saw women martial artists as sexual objects to be conquered. Because so many women admired those men and were trained to trust and obey, there was a lot of RAPE in the dojos and at events. Some of it was what we call date rape now, but it was abuse, abuse of power and insidious.
I was a feminist and aware of who I was and what I would accept. My Sensei, Robert A. Trias, was the head of our system but before I trained with him I had a woman teacher who pimped her women students out and a male Sensei who was a complete mysogynist. He once kicked a 16 year old girl who wouldn’t have sex or blow him with a roundhouse kick. I went to train with him for two weeks, the entire time he was trying to get me to have sex with one of his buddies. I would NOT and after a week I left. I contacted the woman instructor and she told me I was banned from school and style. So I contacted Trias Sensei to ask his advice. He told me that no one spoke for him and that I could move to Phoenix and train with him so I did. He put the word out that I was off limits, and when, a few years later, he sent me out to start my own school he let people know that my students were also off limits.
I spent a lot of time warning women about the way men in the martial arts were operating then. Some of them listened. Some were attracted to the power and didn’t listen and later came back to me to tell me they should have listened.
So, while many of the men were mysogynists, I also surrounded myself with great and wonderful men who were my training buddies and my Sensei was fantastic and supportive and was active in changing many of the ways that women were seen in martial arts. At that time, the male Senseis who one could trust the most and who were also the fairest judges were African American. They knew how hard it was to find fairness in that male dominated white man’s (In the USA) world.
Sensei Dragonfire can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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