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 Bad Ass of the week: Melisa Spence

Melisa Spence (2)

Melisa (seated) seen her with some of her students 🙂

Melisa just successfully launched a sliding scale payment “Toyama Ryu Battodo (Japanese sword) program” at our beloved venue Gilman. The awesome-ness doesn’t stop there; she also practices and teaches the Chinese martial arts of Baguazhang and Xingyiquan.

Starting with the beginning of your amazing journey, have you been actively pursuing various forms of martial arts and wanting to learn sword fighting from a very young age or was there an epiphany in adult life that inspired you?

“I studied Tae Kwon Do and Hapkido as a kid in South Carolina, then boxed and was introduced to women’s self-defense in high school. I met a lot of my current martial arts community when I moved out to Oakland in 2001 and joined Girl Army self-defense collective. I started studying Bagua and Xingyi under Maija Soderholm in 2008, and started Battodo a few years later. I cross train a lot and feel beyond fortunate to live in the time and place that I do. There are so many incredible martial arts teachers to learn from in the Bay.”

Wow! How lucky is Oakland to have you all the way from South Carolina! I thought I was a tough, tom-boy when I was a kid; sounds like you could have been the “Neighborhood Watch” patrol for your street! Bad ass!

Of all the various forms of martial arts out there, why did you choose to master and ultimately teach “Chinese martial arts of Baguazhang and Xingyiquan” specifically? What do you feel distinguishes these from other types of martial arts?

“Definitely not a master, but I value the practice of teaching as a way to deepen my understanding of what I do and don’t know! Bagua and Xingyi hold a special place in my heart because, among the things they have given me, they were my “gateway drug” back into the martial arts after a couple years off. As with the rest of the internal Chinese martial arts, Bagua and Xingyi have explicit focuses on health and meditation, as well as fighting application. The emphasis on solo practice makes them more approachable and accessible for many beginners…I spend a little more than half of class on solo training.”

“…Bagua and Xingyi have explicit focuses on health and meditation as well as fighting application.” The more I learn about these “arts of force” so to speak, I am filled with the utmost respect and admiration. I feel confident saying I’m sure most people out there don’t think any form of martial arts is “easy” to learn and apply by any means; however I had no grasp of just how involved this learning process is. Without experience, I would not have realized that there is equal focus placed on lifestyle choices and self-care off the sparring mat.

How would you describe the art of Japanese sword fighting and again, what sets it apart from other sword and blade work styles?

“I study a form of Japanese sword called Toyama Ryu Battodo under Michael Esmailzadeh of Suigetsukan Dojo. Japanese sword can be thought of as the mother art of many Japanese martial arts, including Jujitsu. It is said that sword gives one the strength and alignment for Jujitsu and other joint locking/grappling arts. Our art includes solo sword forms as well as Kumitachi (partner drills performed with wooden sword) and Tameshigiri (target cutting with live blade). As with Bagua and Xingyi, the emphasis on solo practice helps make Battodo accessible to a wide range of abilities.”

Please tell us about your “Toyama Ryu Battodo (Japanese sword) program”! When and how much?

Yes! I am thrilled to say that starting this month, I will be teaching Battodo on Sundays from noon-1pm at 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley. Class will be $40/month (pay what you can). Feel free to come by and check it out, or email me if you want to know more.

Absolutely epic. I really commend you for creating a program that is available to all. So many of us are “living just enough for the city”. Even $40 can sometimes mean the difference between taking a class or buying food that week. Thank you for supporting your community with the education and compassion you have to give.

To date, what has been one of the most triumphant moments in your journey, whether as a student or teacher?

“Seeing students carry themselves more confidently as their self-concept changes, and seeing a joy and zeal for the martial arts inspire a student’s life…Being able to be part of that for someone is one of the things that really makes life worth living to me.”

Spoken like a born teacher. I find it quite fascinating that you clearly have the nurturing spirit of a healer, yet the mind of a warrior facing battle at any and every turn.

How has all this training and mental precision translated into your life as a whole? How do you feel you have benefited the most from your experiences; mentally? Spiritually? Physically? A bit of all three?

“For sure, martial arts has done much for my physical and mental health, my ability to connect with others and move through the world confidently. There is something about approaching a skill which is impossible to perfect which makes it easier to just enjoy the practice. Before I returned to martial arts, I was doing a lot of therapy which, while good and useful, often came down to the Western medical model of “broken” and “fixed.” As a martial artist, I feel that I am able to step outside of those categories and focus on being a “student” or “practitioner.” This is, in my opinion, a more enjoyable way of approaching the journey of life.”

Thank you for that thought provoking insight. I applaud you for dipping toes in other pools and finding what truly speaks to you.

What advice would you give to those reading who would like to start pursuing martial arts and or sword fighting after reading about epic women like you?

“I recommend that people check out a lot of schools and see what jives with you. Your community (i.e. your training partners as well as teachers) is an important factor in sticking with a practice. Ignore advice which suggests that one martial art is better than another, and find what you like. Ultimately, the best art is the one that you are going to enjoy and be motivated to stick with.”

AMEN! Words of wisdom that can be applied to many areas of life. Ignore everyone else, DO WHAT IS RIGHT FOR YOU! Thank you for everything you do Melisa, Oakland is lucky to have you on her side 😉


You can contact the amazing Melisa: