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I’ve known Sylvie Charbonneau through internet communication for over a year and have recently had the pleasure of meeting her in person here at Lanna Camp in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I’ve been training for 4 weeks, and where Sylvie’s been fighting and training for the past 3 years.

Sylvie agreed to meet me for an interview, so long as it was early enough before PM training that she could still get a run in before holding pads for the afternoon session.  Even as a woman in serious contemplation of retirement, training is still prominant in her daily rhythms.

She moved to Thailand three years ago in order to fight – an opportunity that comes hard for women in the western world, and more rare still for women Sylvie’s size: around 5’2″ and 100 – 105 lbs (like myself).  Interestingly, Sylvie is still small in Thailand and has faced off against opponents both bigger and heavier.  Nontheless, the opportunities for fights have been consistant and Sylvie has accrued a career of 50 fights, with a record of 39-11-0.

After winning the North Thailand Championship belt, Sylvie has been considering retiring from fighting and moving out of Thailand to begin a new chapter in her life.  In our interview we examine the arc of her career as a female Muay Thai fighter in Thailand – the bends and bumps of the road that has led her to the crossroads that is now asking her to forge on to an unknown path.

(Total interview time 16min 21sec, in three parts.)

For more in this series on the women of Muay Thai see our interview with and documentary of Natalie Fuz, “We”, here.

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When the opportunity arose to attend Nathalie Fuz’s retirement fight, a significant change in the life of Nathalie who I had recently met and interviewed for an article, it seemed that the event must be captured in some way; I could not let it pass only as a spectator.  I asked, and Nathalie welcomed me to interview her again, as well as her partner Kelly – and with the hospitality of Justin Blair of Friday Night Fights the whole special event was opened for filming.   Below is the film that resulted, much of it on-camera interviews with Nathalie and Kelly.  But it can also be viewed as a personal expression of what Muay Thai is and specifically female Muay Thai.   The film focuses on how Muay Thai is so much more than “the fight”, aimed at the entire circle of lives and relationships and concepts that come together, and came together as Nathalie prepared for and then reflected upon the final fight of her career…this last contest before she opens her own gym, and concentrates fulltime on her own students.

The Entire film (45 minutes) can be seen on Megavideo here, in perhaps slightly better video quality and full screen, recommended. (When you get to the Megavideo link, just click the red play arrow, and then the green.)

Or it can be seen in these five parts on youtube which are cut with just a bit of overlap:

The way that the film developed in editing was that the first two  “parts” form a small 20 minute film on their own, and the secondary post-fight reflection a kind of commentary on all that preceded. Perhaps it is Muay Thai in its art, and then its thoughts. It stands as a whole, but then again it is two films. View it how you wish.

Part III [Part I here, Part  II here]       

Article by Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu

The studio is small and bare, with one mirrored wall directly parallel to a wall of windows, which lets in a thin, lazy light, as well as the heaving sounds of traffic and horns from the Chinatown street below.  The room’s hardwood floor and low ceiling send the noise all around the room, while Kru Natalie and I sit in the farthest corner, leaning toward each other when a particularly loud truck groans by.

It dawns on me in this little room, isolated from the busy New York crowd below, how remarkable it is just for the two of us to be here: two women, a generation apart, discussing our love for the art and challenges in the sport of  class=”hiddenSpellError” pre=”of “>Muay Muay “>Thai.  class=”mceItemHidden”> Kru Natalie has experience and knowledge; she’s made Muay Thai a vector point in her life and it is a large root that keeps her planted in the USA.  I have only just begun and I am each day making Muay Thai a bigger focus for myself; it is a passion that has brought great people into my life and it is a limb that reaches to take me out of the US.  She is a teacher, but she’s not my teacher; I am a student, but I’m not her student.  And yet these echo through the room as we move through topics that excite us, or issues that make us cringe.  Our voices jump and bounce off the walls, floor and ceiling, interrupting the cacophony that spews through the windows.  And I am filled with a sense of awe and gratitude that the overpowering voices in this room are women’s voices.

Kru Natalie is singular in many facets of her experience.  Not only did she begin studying and fighting Muay Thai at a time when she had very few female peers, but she became an instructor and in October of 2008 received the rank of Kru (a ceremonial and often certified title for teachers) at Five Points.  If female fighters are underrepresented in gyms, female instructors are virtually unheard of. 

I’m a big advocate of female to female sparring partners.  (I’ve often heard men claim that any woman worth her salt in the ring has sparred with men – it just makes them better fighters.  I agree that sparring with men is important, but I do question the validity of this statement.  Given the small number of women generally amassed in gyms, the number of female sparring partners a woman might have is probably between one and three.  The constant for this female to male experiment is therefore skewed and it’s not a matter of gender, but a number game: who does better, a woman who spars only with women and therefore has between 1-3 sparring partners; or a woman who spars with men and therefore has upwards of 20 sparring partners at her disposal?)  I can only wonder at the benefits of having a female instructor, whether the advantages be inspirational, aspiration, or sympathetic.  I don’t mean sympathetic in the stereotypically feminine sense of the word, but rather the notion that the instructor might have gender-specific experience that applies uniquely to women.

 

I don’t think of this at first as Kru Natalie’s advantage as a female instructor to female athletes; instead I experienced it as a woman standing at a parade and watching Natalie casually and confidently announce that the emperor has no clothes. 

Sylvie: I was reading an interview with you and I was so stunned because you are the first person I’ve heard mention menstruation for women athletes, other than that at high levels of athleticism one might lose it or something like this. I thought, my God, in a sport where making weight is so prioritized, how can it not be a topic.  And then you have women with this body hatred thing going on at the same time – I’m conflicted in my own mind whether it’s never mentioned because it is a male dominated sport and women should just know and men don’t want to hear about it, or whether it’s just that as a woman you don’t even think about. For example I know girls who won’t train while they are menstruating. I believe you should be able to make that choice for yourself and that’s great, so long as it’s a conscious choice.  But for me, as someone who’s dealt with it for 13 years, it came as an utterly unexpected obstacle when preparing and actually going to fight.  I mean, it didn’t even enter my mind as something I should consider when weighing in or having energy or anything!  It’s just never talked about.

Kru Nat: Well, that’s the other thing about male trainers vs. female trainers. Any female athlete that ever had a female trainer in any sport – I can assure you that it’s been addressed, because we all know how much it sucks. And you know, like you said the point is that in this sport you have to make weight, you can’t just show up and whatever. So, we all know biologically you put on a few pounds at a certain time of your period and because you can get weighed the day before, but then boom, you get on that scale… when you’re younger it’s two or three pounds, when you’re my age it’s five or six.

The thing about not training while you have your period, that’s really extreme; you deal with it. I do check on my cycle, I always know when it’s going to happen because I’m very regular and I need to know, especially going into a fight, because I’m going to have to adapt. If I’m in the middle, it’s fine, with the traveling and all that I might be a little off; but if it’s right to a certain day and it’s really heavy then I’m going to have to drop down, because otherwise I’m going to be in trouble. So it’s a real concern. I think, again, it’s a cultural thing. You know I hate to bring that up, but it’s true. Over the years I didn’t think that being from another country necessarily meant anything, just the fact that you are from another country, but it’s pretty amazing – the impact of culture in early formative years and what you take from it. You know I’ve been gone from France for 20 years and I have no intention of going back – I love France, but not to live or run a business, I’m very clear about that.  This is where I want to be, this is where I’m at, but culturally, those things, like any body thing –

Sylvie: Very hush hush.

Kru Nat: Yeah, here it’s very hush hush. It’s that all Puritan, repressive thing and over there people make fun all the time that we are nudists, or whatever; so there’s not that sense of being hung up on the body thing.  So for me it’s very easy to talk about it.  And, you know, my trainer is English – that’s the worst – because I would just bring it up and he would be blushing and I would just think: get over it.  It’s become a joke between us because we’re such an odd couple in that way, because of the cultural difference, but it is very important to address it. I’m sorry,  but this is a huge part of being a female athlete, you know?  You’re just not the same at certain times of your cycle. Not the weight, or even up here [motioning to her head/heart?]. At a certain time when I’m training, if it’s two days before I’ll be super focused and then the next day I’m not focused, I can’t really concentrate, or I’m not as powerful. I mean it affects you and that’s the way it is.

Another thing that I address is sexual behavior. Addictions of all kinds, drinking, drugging, all that is out the door; you cannot do that, and sex has to be addressed too. It’s one thing for a man, it’s another thing for a woman. And I talk about those things, believe me. When I start – most of my girls are from here [NY/the US] – and they’re like [looking shocked, smiling] –

Sylvie: [laughing]

Kru Nat: – oh, I’m very humorous about it, so they have a humor about it, and they are used to it by now, but I’m going to talk about it. I don’t care how you feel about it, I need to talk to you about these things, it’s part of it.

Sylvie: How do you address it with them? It terms that it needs to be a point of focus or do you actually give them this as part of the regimen?  I mean, clearly you don’t drink, clearly you don’t do this –

Kru Nat: Oh yeah, you have to. You can’t be seriously getting ready for a fight and being horny and drinking away, or worse taking drugs. You have to dry up.

Sylvie: It’s your body, and you’re using your body, so…

Kru Nat: Well, I mean you can do it, but you’re not going to be 100%, and never mind 150%. It’s just a fact of life: it’s your body and you need to get super healthy. You smoke and you’re going to fucking die; it’s intense. Again, you’re going to pay the day of the fight. You disregard that advice you’ll pay for it in the ring.

Sylvie: Speaking of sexual activity and health of a fighter, I was really stunned when I went to this gym in New Jersey. It was a couple of years ago, pretty soon after I started, so I was maybe 23 years old.  I watched the class just to see if it was something I wanted to supplement my private instruction with. And the teacher actually brought up to me that because I was so young I needed to take into account the fact that doing, I assume fighting in, Muay Thai might make me unable to have children.  I couldn’t believe that he had brought it up to me. I was actually really offended, as if my baby-making abilities were the primary concern of a young woman getting into a sport. And I couldn’t tell if it was that it was a combat sport, that it’s that you are getting hit so you are going to hurt your uterus, or if it was that of course that is supposed to be my primary focus, as opposed to me, as an athlete doing things.   Of course, I appreciate that it’s a legitimate warning for some people.  But I thought, you never say this to men; if a man gets nailed really, really hard, I’m sure they might have some kind of problem –

Kru Nat: Oh, sure.

Sylvie:  – but it’s just not addressed; ever. That was pretty shocking to me.

Kru Nat: That’s crazy.

I think it’s important for me to take a moment to explain this particular example and why it was offensive to me.  I’ve gotten to know this trainer over these years and his intentions are most certainly good, coming from a place of care and meticulous attention to health and well-being for his clients.  I’m not certain that he gives this warning to all his female clients, although he did point to one female fighter, perhaps a decade older than I am, and said she’d already made this decision for herself that children were not likely in her future and therefore it was okay for her to risk her reproductive health for the sport of Muay Thai.  There were a few younger girls in the class, none of whom trained to fight, and I reckon they likely did not receive the warning as training at this particular gym is not full-contact. 

To be fair, I do not train at this gym as a regular client and this man is not my trainer.  As such, I cannot say what other aspects of women’s health he would or would not have brought up to me over the course of training with him with the intention of fighting.  I don’t know that he wouldn’t talk to me about menstruation – keeping track of my cycle and working around energy crashes, weight gain, bloating, emotional challenges or mental fatigue – but I do doubt it.  I don’t know that any male trainer – outside of someone who trains a large number of women over many years – would be aware of or sensitive to this particularly female aspect of training fighters.  I wonder what it would do for my own training to be open about these issues – if I would be more forgiving of myself on bad days if I were more aware of the biological catalysts and my trainer knew when to work with it and when to push against it.  As it is, I’m always pushing against it and am generally unaware when it might be a hormonal change that’s making me exhausted or frustrated or totally unable to focus.  Or when it’s actually burn out.

Kru Natalie is open with her students about any issue, and she is individually able to address a number of possible challenges that conventional trainers may not have on their radar.  Her upbringing in western European culture leaves her unabashed in discussing sex and drugs and body functions, but her non-hetero orientation allows her to address sexual issues that non-hetero students might face; her gender-identity and biological gender allow her to relate to women, who are underrepresented in gyms; and her age, life- and fight experiences permit her to offer advice to students who face any number of challenges.

The sexuality of a trainer may appear to be an irrelevant factor in the quality of the trainer, but it has a direct influence on the quality of the dynamics and relationships within the gym.  With so few female trainers – or women in authoritative positions in gyms – the power dynamics within a gym setting are typically male dominated and, when sexualized, heterosexual.  In the handful of gyms I’ve visited over the years, the majority of them host a romantic relationship between trainer and student – something I’m not ruling out as a possibility for a female trainer – but it is noticeably a power structure between a male trainers and female students.  This is not a criticism of the romantic relationships themselves, but a question of how the power of that relationship affects the dynamics of a gym and – because in my experience it is uniquely women dating trainers – how it affects these women as fighters.

Sylvie:  It’s a difficult line. I train independently and I’ve noticed when I go to visit gyms it’s a stepping-in, stepping-out kind of thing, like a snapshot of each place. So it’s not an in depth understanding of any gym, but a number of places I’ve gone there have been very small groups of women – three to five, something like this – and the girls who seem to have a promising future or who have a kind of power with where their future is going are often times dating their trainers –

Kru Nat: [Nodding her head] – It’s all encouraged.

Sylvie:  I don’t want to say that there is something wrong with it, but this power is coming from romantic involvement, which is very weird.

Kru Nat: Yeah, and it goes out the door the moment the romantic involvement is terminated and then everything goes out the door, which is a shame. I think that there is –  I understand two people fall in love and all that, that happens – but there is also a total power dynamic, power-oriented dynamic, wanting to be the special one, the teacher’s pet, getting involved romantically. I just don’t believe it’s a great idea in a workplace, but especially when it’s a teacher/student kind of thing. There definitely need to be boundaries. I can see how easily – because I am a teacher, I can see the dynamic can happen between teacher/student = you come to this person with kind of admiration, an awe, you get that kind of romantic awe; but it has to stay on the Platonic level, as far as I’m concerned, and that’s where the teacher has to draw that boundary. The student makes… the power dynamic is there, but ultimately I hold the teacher responsible for drawing that boundary.  The ego is getting stroked, but then it creates a whole wrong atmosphere and kind of defies the purpose of wanting to make this sport our own as far as the woman’s side of  it is concerned, and just progressing with our own power, and being sovereign women as I like to call it. With the whole dating thing, this is totally massacred.

Sylvie: I think it’s really difficult for a lot of women because there tend to be so few us in gyms at any given time. It’ll be one or two, maybe five at the most, kind of scattered, and because they don’t have consistent participation and their attendance can be spotty for whatever reason, some of the gyms that I have gone to I’ve notice that there is either a kind of near cultish or religious type feeling where women get so involved in their group.  Or maybe people in your normal life don’t understand you (as a woman) doing Muay Thai, and you kind of compartmentalize and find solace in the people who actually “get it” –

Kru Nat: Yeah.

Sylvie:  – So I can see how that happens. But, speaking about getting it, what is your approach with your students with advising or even directing women who train with you in how to have a healthy balanced training regimen with the rest of their lives? 

Kru Nat: I’m very much about that, because as a fighter I’ve never been the type to over-train or to be fanatic about anything, dieting or my training. I’ve always been very balanced about it, and it worked for me. I’m 42 and I can still fight because I have incredible balance in my life between Muay Thai as a passion.  But also I like to live and I have my relationship, my other business, you know, a lot is going on. I had to find a balance otherwise everything would be out of whack, basically. So I’m very sensitive to that issue, and anytime I train students, whether they be men or women, it’s kind of like the “over-achieving American” mentality here, and I’m not from here – I’m from France where we’re just more laid back about stuff and I can see how the quality of life is so important to us, in France, and just having a life outside whatever it is, so maybe that’s what it is, culturally maybe I’m more inclined to that; I think it’s easier for me to incorporate that into my life.

And for women, it’s even more intense because they feel that they have to perform, it’s so important for them to perform well and do everything; it’s that over achieving thing, over-training, dieting too much. And the nutrition thing – don’t get me started on that, because I can go on with that, you know, because women are really traumatized with that because of the culture, everything they see in the frickin’ magazine – everything about training is reinforcing that garbage and lacking that understanding that the woman’s body is very different from the male’s body, and there’s something you can do with a man that doesn’t work for a woman, it’s out of control. 

With me, all these things are addressed, that’s the first thing. Anybody who wants to train with me, and especially competitively… I sit them down, and I tell them exactly what they are going to get. Are you down with the program? When I tell you that you run three times a week, don’t do it five times a week. Whatever I tell you, just get down with the program. It works.  I have been piloting it for ten years, I’ve been training other people, and it worked in general, it’s just common sense. And yes, it is a case by case basis because not everybody is the same, like no women are the same, but there is a certain regimen that the body can take and will be enhancing your performance and you’ll be totally a 100%, or even 150%.  But then there’s a whole other thing, you think ‘oh my God, I didn’t do enough’, and you think, ‘ I’m going to do a little bit more over there,’ and when you do that little bit over there you can just erase everything else you are doing, because then you are on overdrive. And then you injure yourself and that’s way it’s going to catch up with you – not before, it’s never that, it’s the day of a fight and you’re going to pay for it, in the ring. As a trainer I take this very seriously, and as a coach and as a Kru, I take this very seriously. It’s all about safety, and I’m all about the responsibility I have of looking after somebody to make sure they are completely ready to get in that ring. So I am very sensitive to that, they need balance in their life.  You know, do your thing, get out, get a life, go get together with your friends, go to a movie, because people get obsessed, people get manic, they really do. And yes, there are worse addictions, but an addiction is an addiction, and an addiction is never healthy. 

I’ve personally been advised by more than one female fighter that women are prone to over-train.  I question whether this is an aspect of female psychology, that we are more willing to ignore physical pain or fatigue, or at least to use our minds to override these stresses when our bodies are telling us to slow down.  But I wonder too if this is true of female athletes in all sports, or whether it is a feature particular to sports where women are greatly outnumbered by men and generally not surrounded by experienced female peers.  I assume it’s not only the latter.

When women of Muay Thai do get together, in gyms or across gyms, there is a prevalence of positivity and support among the group.  A few months ago I organized an all female sparring circle for women of boxing and Muay Thai in New York.  The idea was that women who either don’t have adequate sparring partners in their own gyms, or who have grown accustomed to sparring the same two or three girls in their gyms could get together to have sparring experience with more and different women, and to foster support among women across gyms.  The group came together quickly (after only a few weeks’ planning) and was met with great enthusiasm from many members, as well as the generous offer of weekly space for the group – for no fee – by a gym owner in Brooklyn.  As women have joined the group and attended the weekly sessions, I have consistently been impressed by how cool women who train Muay Thai and boxing are.  I don’t know whether it is something about the sport which attracts an independent and strong type of woman, or whether the act itself – and our getting together – brings out the best in us.  There has been some resistance from trainers to encourage their female students to attend the meetings, but many women come without ever requesting permission from their gyms.  (I respect the commitment that women have to their gyms and like very much when the circle is discussed between trainers and students, as I think there is strong community and a great deal of trust between students and their trainers.  That said, a few girls have remarked what a relief it is to spar without having their trainer over their shoulder, as it subtracts a degree of stress from sparring – the circle is not training per se, but is just independent and very informal practice.)

Kru Natalie just recently attended our female Sparring Circle for the first time, bringing with her a number of her female private clients.  I was most impressed that Kru Natalie got in the ring and enthusiastically sparred with everyone for a continuous hour and a half, while giving small pointers to her students or other girls in the group. There were twelve of us total most of whom she had not met before. She was the last one out of the ring, with a smile, and seemed to give everything of herself.  As a woman who began at her gym when there were so few woman students and who has grown with that gym over the years, which now boasts the ratio of female students to be 50%, I wonder how Natalie feels about the inter-gym organization of the Sparring Circle.

 Sylvie: Do you see a benefit of, for example the sparring circle of a bunch of girls getting together even outside of their individual gyms just as a group, and sparring each other?

Kru Nat: Awesome. I mean, I love it! I commend you for doing that. I think it’s really great. I responded right away because I was so excited when Deb told me about it –

Sylvie: [laughing]

Kru Nat: I don’t come from a separatist mind, but I really believe in women working together.  Even as a gay woman I never want separatism, and it may surprise many men but I don’t have that. I believe in working together, as a woman and as women, I think it’s great.  And then also to train all together, which is equally important for me.

I do think it is good for women to spar with men, I think it really helped me a lot, but I can see that for smaller girls it’s hard. At my weight, actually, I think I benefited a lot. Not that I didn’t spar with smaller girls, because that works on your speed and that’s good for me. Just working with different people, different sizes, different experience, it’s all good, I’m for that and you have to do it. You can’t be just one way or another, that’s stupid.  You need both. 

Kru Natalie has a vision for how she wants to train her students as she has just recently left her Muay Thai alma mater, Five Points and has charted out to start her own gym and form her own team, which she calls Chok Sabai (transl: fight happy/relaxed)

Kru Nat: I’m really looking forward from this point on to more of everything I’ve told you today, to create a space where everybody works with everybody no matter what. That’s going to be my motto, my agenda. And I offer zero tolerance for anything that’s not in line with bringing a good attitude, you have to check your ego at the door and just work with everybody; just a happy place. You don’t come from a fulltime job to be harassed or bothered, you know? It should be a happy place, a place you look forward to going to, and have fun and learn something. And I can do that. This is who I am, so I want to do it, not just for me, for everybody – a real community. And I really love creating community, this is really a good thing, and teamwork is a huge thing of mine which I haven’t completely experienced, honestly… So I’m going to do it.

What is most inspiring to me about Kru Natalie and what I feel most strongly in her presence is that she makes things happen.  She comes to a river and finding no way to cross it, she builds a bridge.  She is a woman who makes opportunities for herself and through her strength and generosity she has passed opportunity to the women who have come after.  But she is not an absent architect; she is with us as we cross these bridges and build new communities.  She is a vital part of we for women of Muay Thai.