Self-defense class helps those vulnerable to attacks

June 23, 2009 By DANA KLOSNER   Special to Newsday

The attacker reached across the coffee table with a knife in his hand, ready to stab Christine Vigliotti. Determined not to let this happen, she deflected the weapon, pulled the attacker by his elbow and pushed him onto the couch. Maneuvering for control, she then elbowed him in the neck until he dropped the knife.

Vigliotti, 49, of Copiague, was not in any real danger. The attacker was played by martial arts instructor Phil Messina and the struggle was part of a self-defense training class called Silverbacks, designed for people 55 and older and those with permanent disabilities who are often more physically vulnerable to attacks.

“People commit predatory crimes on people they perceive to be weaker than themselves,” said Messina, a retired New York City police officer who is the owner-instructor at Modern Warrior inLindenhurst, where classes are held. “People don’t have to be in good physical condition to do these moves,” Messina said. “It depends on tricks and deceiving the other person. You can use an attaché case or a water bottle. You have to learn how to use these things as a distraction.” he said.

Silverbacks students wear street clothes and practice in a simulated living room and bedroom, complete with rubber furniture. Messina doesn’t always recommend fighting back. It depends on the circumstances, he said.

“If it’s a robbery and the person takes the precaution to wear a disguise like a ski mask, he probably intends to let you go,” he said. “If a person stops you and asks you for your wallet, you give it to him. If he asks you to get in the trunk of your car, that’s a different story.”

While in some situations, Messina’s approach is more aggressive, the Nassau and SuffolkCounty police departments advise against fighting back.

“Look around,” said Nassau police spokesman Det. Lt. Kevin Smith. “If you see a dark corner with people that look threatening, leave and call the police.”

A Suffolk police spokeswoman, who wouldn’t give her name, offered this: “The elderly need to take greater control of their own personal security. They should walk or shop in busy areas, during busy times of the day. They should walk down busy, well-lit streets and avoid shortcuts. They [women] should carry handbags close to the body and not carry unnecessary cash.”

If you are attacked, she said, “Be alert. Look for distinguishing characteristics . . . such as scars, tattoos, accents or a limp. Compare the robber’s height to your own.”

While Messina doesn’t disagree with the police departments’ advice, he believes one of the best ways to reduce crime is to toughen the targets of crime.

In the Silverbacks class, students learn what they can do if an intruder breaks into their home. But clearly, these actions are not for the fainthearted. For example, Messina demonstrates how students could defend themselves if someone was coming at them with a knife. He grabs a nearby chair – one hand holding the seat and the other holding the back of the chair. With a firm grip, pick up the chair with the legs facing the intruder. Charge the intruder while twisting the chair to better deflect the knife and get the attacker off balance, Messina said. Put the chair across his body and kick him.

Even a book can be used as a deflector, Messina said. Hold it closed with the pages facing your palm., then use the spine of the book to hit the intruder’s eye, chest or the bridge of the nose. A strike in the right place can affect vision and leave the attacker winded.

“With an older person, running away is not an option,” Messina said. Messina, who has been doing martial arts for 50 years, teaches the class three times a week to students who pay $59 a month.

Christine Vigliotti takes the class with her husband, Joe. “They really teach you how to use your surroundings,” Vigliotti said. “As a woman you’re always taught to back off. This teaches you to be more assertive. It’s easy to learn and it becomes common sense.”

Joe Vigliotti, 53, said, “I always wanted to take a self-defense class . . . This gives you a little more self-confidence in different situations. It makes you more aware.”

There also are other martial arts that can be used in self-defense, such as Tai Chi Chuan. Bob Klein, owner-instructor at the Tai Chi Chuan School in Sound Beach, teaches traditional forms of the art along with a “Push Hands” technique. Klein’s theory is similar to Messina’s. Keep your center of gravity low and throw your attacker off balance. Klein’s class is open to all ages, but he also teaches older adults in senior centers in Setauket and St. James.

At Klein’s school, soft music plays while students go through the forms that look like dancing. But the students are learning to use the attacker’s force to make him lose balance.

“You use every part of your body,” Klein said. “If somebody stronger is attacking you, you can stop them by weaving around and throwing them off balance.” His classes are $75 per month for one class per week and $125 per month for two classes per week.

For retired dietitian Janni Van Steenbergen, 79, who has been taking Tai Chi Chuan for 13 years, the lessons had a practical application.

“It’s very good for balance,” Van Steenbergen said. “I don’t think anybody easily gets me off center.” She used what she learned while taking care of her late husband, who had Parkinson’s disease, helping him in and out of bed and lifting him out of chairs.

“I knew how to use my body,” she said. “I used my lower body and legs. Tai Chi prepared me for that.”

Dana Klosner