Thirty women pounded their heels into the wooden floor of the Greek Orthodox Church downtown last week, dropping their full weight onto the imagined foot of an attacker and yelling "NO!" at the top of their lungs.
Although the thunderous racket produced giggles from all corners of the room, an unmistakable sense of empowerment charged the room as well. Somehow, laughing together only reinforced that we meant business.
It was the final portion of a free women's self defense class taught downtown, by Leonie Sherman, a self defense instructor for over 14 years.
The move she has just taught us was to be used if we should ever be grabbed from behind, one of the most common ways women are attacked. It doesn't matter if you're in flip flops, stilletos or barefoot, Sherman says.
"Think about flattening the arch of their foot, and then RUN!", said Sherman.
Sponsored by the Commission for the Prevention of Violence Against Women, the class attracted dozens of women, young and old, to learn valuable skills for defending themselves, skills they will likely remember for life.
"I want you to pay attention to what kind of mood you're in because it changes the way you walk," said Sherman.
According to Sherman, a study done a few decades ago showed videos of various New York City women walking on the streets to inmates incarcerated for violent crimes against women. The study asked the men which women appeared the easiest to attack. The "mugability report" revealed that it wasn't the high heeled women, the mini skirt-wearing, the most sexy or the skinny and petite women, but the ones who walked with a shuffle, kept their heads down and exuded passivity and disconnection from their surroundings.
"Lift your feet up, take your hands out of your pockets, and keep your heads up," said Sherman.
The first lesson of self defense is awareness of your surroundings, and using your body language to communicate that you're not an easy target. Sherman warned that talking on the phone or listening to an ipod automatically make you look more desireable to a predator, because your guard is down.
Another important component of self defense involves breaking the social conditioning to "be polite" that most women and girls are raised with.
"A really directive gaze is huge. Grinning while you're trying to get someone to take you seriously kind of negates everything you're saying," said Sherman.
In other words, if someone is bothering you, following you, sitting too close to you on the bus, won't leave you alone, or is giving you unwanted attention, don't be afraid to assert yourself. In fact, it's crucial that you do: most predators test their prey first for signs of passivity.
"It's okay to interrupt people, to say 'I don't want to talk to you anymore, please be on your way,'" said Sherman, in a firm tone of voice.
If you have to repeat yourself and say the same thing, do it, firmly, don't let the tone of your voice rise at the end like a question, don't apologize or show any signs that you don't mean every word that you are through talking to this person.
In the case that you are in fact attacked, statistics show that it is most effective to fight back. Unbelievably, many girls in the class, including the instructor, have been taught to not fight back in the case of an attack, because it could make the attack worse.
"Predators are not looking for a fight," said Sherman, who reminded us that statistics show that one self defense technique eliminates 65% of attacks, and three self defense techniques eliminates another 25%.
After two hours packed with information on self defense, women left the Greek Orthodox Church feeling empowered. They learned that they're much more likely to be attacked by someone they know than a complete stranger, and what to do if someone pulls a knife on them (to get anything possible between you and the knife, a backpack, a purse, anything, and to fork over your stuff if that's all they are after.)
"It's not worth getting shot or stabbed for your stuff," said Sherman.
They also learned what to do if attacked in your house, how to drive the heel of their palms into the nose or trachia of an attacker, and what to do if you're being followed, and so much more.
"They dispelled all the myths I've been living with all my life. The hard part is just changing what we already know," said Julie Lockwood 24, who says she was also told growing up to not fight back if attacked.
Other women were surprised to learn that if a gun is pulled on them that it doesn't necessarily mean they should submit immediately to every whim of the gunman.
"If that gun comes out in a public place it's because they don't want to use it right then and there," said Sherman, who explained that if you're in a public place do NOT ever get into a car with someone with a gun: they can take you to a much more secluded place that way. Instead, run. Guns are also incredibly inaccurate, contrary to popular belief.
"That gun comes out and I'm going to do whatever they tell me to," remarked one woman who was taking the class.
Sherman replied "I'm telling you that you don't have to. You should breath, get some oxygen in your brain so you can breath and function," said Sherman.
One thing Sherman also reiterated is that it is never the woman's fault for being attacked—violence towards women is a societal problem, and should never be blamed on the women's clothing or actions.
"I want you to feel stronger and more empowered in your life. I don't want you to stay in your room and eat takeout but to be able to live full, rich, vibrant lives," said Sherman, before sending her students back out into the world, all walking a little bit taller.
Click HERE for the full schedule of upcoming self defense classes.