Friends Team Up to Empower Women

Photo | Submitted Women in Uriel Casas’ self-defense class enjoyed a wine and cheese happy hour at Bella Ballet afterwards.

Photo | Submitted
Women in Uriel Casas’ self-defense class enjoyed a wine and cheese happy hour at Bella Ballet afterwards.

Bella Ballet is typically filled with bubbly little girls dressed in pink leotards and tutus, working on perfecting their plies and tendus. However, this Saturday afternoon the mood was more serious, as the Kentlands ballet studio hosted a self-defense class for women.

Bella Ballet’s owner, Hope Bingham, decided to offer the class free to ladies in the community after she was followed into a store after leaving the gym one evening last fall. The experience left her unnerved. After a few days of reflecting on her experience, Bingham had an idea. One of the elements of Bella Ballet’s mission is empowering their young students. Helping to empower their students’ mothers was a natural progression.

Bingham reached out to longtime friend Uriel Casas. Casas, owner of Ascend Institute of Martial Arts in Bethesda, offers self-defense classes to women outside of the classes the studio offers. After seeing his college sweetheart suffer traumatic effects after a sexual assault, as well as witnessing the pain after a colleague was attacked, Casas decided he wanted to become part of the solution and help women protect themselves.

The session, attended by 40 women, began with Casas offering some sobering statistics: One in four women will be a victim of sexual assault and one in 50 men are predators. The average predator will assault 13 women, and 50 percent of all rapes occur in homes that the victim has already been in.

Casas went on to ask the attendees what their typical reaction is if your skirt is riding up and you notice a man watching. The response was unanimous: women sheepishly adjust their skirts and avert their eyes. Casas explained how predators identify potential victims by the behavior they exhibit, specifically vulnerability and insecurity. The discomfort women show in such a situation is a clue to the bad guys. A central tenet of Casas’ message is that women need to use their voice and express how they feel in the situation. How do any of us feel if we are ogled? Casas encourages women to speak out at moments like that and call men out on their impropriety because communication is the best tool. When he first started teaching, Casas said that many women were anxious about expressing themselves more openly, fearing “I will come off as a b^&ch.” Casas pointed out the double standard that women face every day, and that men would never have to consider the consequences of being outspoken.

Casas stressed the importance of communication, especially in the workplace. If someone is inappropriate (or worse) at work, it’s crucial to notify Human Resources and create a paper trail to refer to if the situation escalates. Casas stressed that making other people aware of situations that made you uncomfortable is important because it deters predators. Additionally, listen to that inner voice, that weird moment that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. This is nature’s way of telling you that something is off. Casas insisted, “If someone touches you, it’s time to act.”

The second half of the class consisted of some basic techniques that women can use to protect themselves when confronted with a predator. The basic stance to protect yourself is step your dominant leg back, put your hands up with palms open to protect your head, and keep your chin down. Another important thing to do is say “STOP.” This indicates that anything that
happens after is not what you want to have happen.

At the end of a very intense two hours, there was an opportunity to unwind and socialize. In Bella Ballet’s typical spirit of fun, a post-lesson happy hour included such offerings as “SelfDefending Sauvignon Blanc,” “Kick Butt Cabernet,” and best of all, the “Momma Bear Moscow Mule.”

Bingham’s sunny, friendly personality is matched with a fierce desire to help women of all ages be all that they can be. The message on the pink walls of the studio, “building confident ballerinas one twirl at a time,” is not mere lip service. “I want to empower all women of all ages to feel confident in all aspects of their life. Our self-defense class taught women how to protect themselves and their family, but also gave them a better sense of awareness and self-confidence that reinforces the importance of using their voice and speaking up if you feel uncomfortable.”