By Jan Swoope
STARKVILLE, Miss. — By day, she’s a mild-mannered teller at a credit union in Starkville. Courteous, neat, efficient. Nothing to hint at the chokeholds, locks or disabling blows she could deliver to take a bigger, stronger adversary to the ground. No sign of the third-degree black belt she holds in taekwondo, or the brown belt she’s earned in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Jessica Dobbs doesn’t look like a fighter. Until you see her fight.
Dobbs is indicative of a trend in America — women in the male-dominated arena of martial arts. Once she leaves the world of figures and finance, she dons her gi — the traditional lightweight, two-piece garment of loose-fitting pants and a jacket secured by a belt — and heads to No Limit Jiu-Jitsu in Starkville.
For four years, she has taught all-female Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes two evenings every week there. It’s an adrenaline rush.
There was a time when she was the only woman on the mat; now there are about eight to 10 on a pretty regular basis. They are high schoolers, college students, moms and career women. They come for different reasons, but they all like the feeling of empowerment.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu teaches a smaller person how to defend against a larger attacker using leverage and techniques. There are standing maneuvers, but it is most famous for its powerful ground game.
Dobbs, a native of Jackson, Miss., became interested while earning her degree in sociology at Mississippi State University. Taekwondo had been her martial art since childhood, but at MSU she discovered a Brazilian jiu-jitsu club on campus. In the club, she met Jae McIntosh, who went on to establish the No Limit academy, where Dobbs helps other women discover their fiercer sides.
Leave the ego
Each female in Dobbs’ group has her own motivation for training. Many are in it for self-defense. Some are looking for a different way to get in shape, to discipline their bodies and minds.
“I think if you know why you’re training and you stay true to that, then it is for everyone,” says Dobbs.
Nobody claims it’ll be easy. It pretty much kills an ego, she cautions. People get up in your space. This is martial arts at close quarters. That’s one reason the 27-year-old began volunteering to teach all-female sessions. Some women starting out are hesitant to mix it up with guys in this ground-fighting art. (As they gain skill, many will go on to attend open classes as well.)
“I wanted to give ladies the opportunity to come in and feel comfortable,” Dobbs says. “I really do it because it’s done so much for me.”
Martial arts have opened doors for Dobbs. They have forced her out of her comfort zone, put her in leadership positions, fueled her self-confidence.
“Quite honestly, I used to hate public speaking, used to hate talking to a crowd, but now I’m teaching, explaining things,” she says. “I love martial arts. It challenges me in a different way. You’re getting a great workout, and you’re learning something that could potentially save your life.”
Jiu-jitsu has broadened Dobbs’ horizons in more ways than one: In late January, it took her to Australia. The Starkville resident was invited as a guest instructor at Girls in Gi, an international jiu-jitsu camp in Melbourne.
“It was amazing!” she says. “I’d never traveled out of the country before, and now I have friends on the other side of the world.” In Australia, Dobbs had the opportunity to work with some world champion instructors, and with participants of all ages. There was a wealth of girl power, an anomaly for women who are almost always in the minority in any martial arts gym.
Sophia Seltzer-Hill, 16, joined Dobbs’ local class a couple of years ago to learn self-defense techniques. She was shy, awkward and tentative, she admits, hiding behind baggy clothes, retreating in silence.
“When I first started I wouldn’t talk in class. Now they can’t get me to shut up,” she laughs.
“I became so much happier and more confident,” says the Starkville High student. “It’s helped me realize there is no limit to what I can do, as long as I put my mind to it and my heart behind it. I realize I can control my life; I control what happens to me.”
Last April, the teen felt so much surer of herself that, as a Girl Scout project, she organized a bully prevention class for kids in her community as well as a self-defense seminar for adults, with the help of instructors and teammates.
It proves something Dobbs discovered long ago and teaches: Martial arts can help you focus on bettering yourself. And then, there’s just something gratifying in being in a dominant position over an attacker twice your size.
“It’s incredibly empowering, and it’s so important that women learn to be aware of what’s happening around them,” says Seltzer-Hill. “You have to be able to defend yourself because there’s times you won’t be able to get to your pepper spray, your phone and police.”
Jennifer Seltzer, Sophia’s mother, has joined the ranks of those training in Starkville — as has Seltzer’s husband, JoVonn Hill, their 7-year-old son, Rowan, and 6-year-old daughter, Jacqueline. It makes for a lot of laundry loads of athletic clothes.
As a research associate in Mississippi State’s Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, Seltzer finds herself doing field work in secluded locations. She wants to be able to defend herself if the need arises.
“It’s therapy as well,” she adds. “There’s a mental part to it that is sort of like playing chess. You have to figure out what your opponent is doing and how you’re going to react … you always have to be thinking ahead.”
Yes, when most people think of martial arts, the implication is that it’s an individual, aggressive sport, she says, but it’s important to know you get a network, a team, an extended family out of it. It’s more than just learning moves like Osoto-Gari or Uchi-Mata. It’s tapping into something deeper, something challenging, something that helps most followers be that “better,” more aware self.
“And you have all these supportive ladies and guys around you,” says Dobbs. “It’s a good community.”
Picture by: Luisa Porter with Jessica Dobbs in No Limit Academy in Starkville, Miss.