The art of war

The art of war

Ed note: On June 17, we presented the C-VILLE 20, some 19 individuals whose work involves the human body in often unexpected and unusual ways. And we asked you, the readers, to round out the count by nominating others in the community who do the same. After weeks of consideration, we have chosen Gordon Emery, a martial arts teacher and lifelong Charlottesvillian, as the final member of the C-VILLE 20, Class of 2008.

I’d like to nominate Gordon Emery for the 20th body at work. He is the head instructor at Charlottesville Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. [He has] students ranging from high schoolers to people in their 60s. His classes bring together a true cross-section of the Charlottesville culture—townies, immigrants, yuppies, cops and grad students.—e-mail from Matt Hunt nominating Gordon Emery.

Jiu-Jitsu, what Emery calls “a very modern form of self defense,” is all holds and chokes and locks. “When I find that life is really boring,” he says, “I always come back to Jiu-Jitsu.”

Gordon Emery didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he was 20 years old and started practicing Kung Fu. “It was the first thing,” he says, “I’d ever really been good at.” For four years he drove to Richmond to pursue this thing he could do, until one day he attended a seminar in Charlottesville on Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and found something he liked even better. “Jiu-Jitsu,” he says, “is kind of like playing a real life chess game.”

Soon Emery was the top student at the Charlottesville Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school, even teaching classes himself. When the instructor announced that he was moving to Ohio, he asked Emery to take over, and he did, teaching two classes a night, two nights a week, in a small, preschool-themed room at the Piedmont Family YMCA.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is descended from the original Japanese martial art and, like its source, does not involve punches or kicks, focusing instead on joint locks, submission holds, and chokes. The Brazilian version emphasizes ground fighting, literally on your back, allowing a smaller, weaker fighter to defeat someone much bigger and stronger.

With Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu you learn “to push your limits,” Emery says, “so that [you] can still win a losing battle.” It teaches endurance and flexibility, and what Emery calls “grappling muscle,” that is, whole body strength. “All of it translates to self-defense,” he says, “a very modern form of self-defense.”

In high school, Emery had a bad temper and got in a few fights, which led him to martial arts. And martial arts, he says, helped calm him down. “When I find that life is really boring,” Emery says, “I always come back to Jiu-Jitsu.” It relaxes him, energizes him and fills his mind. “There’s always something to learn. It’s like a never-ending story.”

Emery is lithe—even skinny—and soft-spoken. He doesn’t look like a fighter—or a teacher. During the class, there isn’t much small talk or joking around, only Emery’s voice as he gives commands, the pat, pat, shuffle of bare feet on a gym mat and hard breathing. He doesn’t teach via a loud personality; he is confident and casual. He’s the teacher because it’s so obvious that he can do this stuff and he really does make it look effortless.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is not for the haphephobic, those of you who fear being touched. It involves a lot of physical contact. We’re talking faces smashed against faces and legs wrapped around necks. Watching fighters sparring (“rolling” it’s called) is like watching a pitched battle between two spiders, or a game of Twister gone terribly wrong. A good fighter, like Gordon Emery, can envelop you. He can control you, throw you to the ground and render you unable to move. And when it’s all over, he will unwrap his body from yours, letting you breathe again, and pull you to your feet, leaving behind a portrait in sweat of a grimacing face and desperate hands.
The first time he taught a class, “it was just so great to show people how I did Jiu-Jitsu and have them get it.” Now, the mat is getting crowded and he wants to expand to five days a week and a bigger venue. To pay the bills, Emery works as a carpenter. He’s married and has an infant daughter. When asked if Jiu-Jitsu is the most important thing in his life, he says, “Yeah. That, and my family.”

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