The following is a letter I wrote to the editor of the local news paper, the Duluth News Tribune, and to our city councilors in response to an article titled “Duluth weighs pros, cons of funding for Avalon.” The reason I wrote the letter is that Avalon Educational Institute is a non-profit organization founded by my closest friend and I’ve been involved in the organization in some form or another since its inception. Thus I have tremendous stake in its success.
Avalon Educational Institute’s programming holistically advances growth in body, mind, and spirit through the cultivation of “movement art” and wellness services. While the physical benefits of martial arts, dance, and wellness services like yoga and massage are obvious and clear, the mental benefits are perhaps more astounding. Numerous studies going back as far as 1978 have shown martial arts to increase self-reliability and self-sustainability, a greater sense of self worth, and a downward trend in symptoms of anxiety and depression. Considering the rising mental health issues in Minnesota and, more specifically, in Duluth, even indirect reduction of mental health issues will be a tremendous boon to our community. Within Avalon’s own community there has already been an expressed increase in autonomy within those with special needs. Some of the speakers at the city council meeting have already expressed that to our esteemed city leadership.
Councilor Howie Hanson betrays his own ignorance when he cites, out of context, “Under the martial arts section, it says that ‘the art of the eight limbs is an extremely dangerous and effective combat art out of Thailand.'”
Avalon is training men and women, both young and old, in an art that has significant cultural impact in Thailand. This art was passed on from father to son as tribes fought to survive migrating from the Asian steppes. As a sport it allowed the Thai to hone their art during peacetime for the eventuality of wartime. In this way it is an art that supports family and community. In fact when the king of Thailand Bhumibol Adulyadej died Avalon set up an altar in honor to him and students would bow in reverence when they passed it. This level of reverence is unheard of in US sports and martial arts such as football and MMA. This sense of reverence for our past, present, and future community is the legacy that will be passed on through Avalon’s instruction of ‘the art of eight limbs.’
Avalon’s instruction of muay thai is the direct lineage of Ajarn Sirisute Chai who brought muay thai to America. As an affiliate member of the World Thai Boxing Association Avalon preserves one of Thailand’s oldest traditions within a city that is well known for its lack of diversity. When you watch a match between MMA fighters there is often a strong sense of animosity between opponents and yet MMA is a culturally accepted art within the region. In muay thai fighters are often seen embracing their opponents regardless of who won or loss. There is no room for pride nor ego on the mats for the nak muay (thai fighter). This brotherhood and sisterhood extends beyond the school, to all schools, and to the world.
Muay Thai is not Avalon’s only culturally significant martial art that it teaches either. Capoeira is a Brazilian art that was developed by African slaves who hid their movements behind dance. For an art that is also known as the “dance of war” its movements are full of beauty and when its practitioners “spar” they call it “play” because it’s meant to be fun and promote camaraderie as the players are literally surrounded by their brothers and sisters. Capoeira also includes detailed instruction in music and language. Jiujitsu, specifically BJJ, is another art steeped in culture with its origins founded in Japan. The art evolved, however, and spread to Brazil where it quickly became a national pastime. Avalon’s western weapons course teaches a variety of sword arts with a center around the longsword which celebrates western European culture. The instruction of these martial arts provides a deeply needed exposure to culture that is otherwise nearly absent within the city of Duluth.
Councilor Howie Hanson displays an even deeper level of ignorance again quoting out of context, “I see a page with young teenage girls in scanty clothing who are learning how to pole dance, and under this page it says it’s to unleash your inner goddess.”
Only a couple of brief points need to be noted regarding the first part of his statement. The first is that all photographed students are age 21 or older and that is the average age of Avalon’s pole students. Secondly the students in the photos are all wearing attire specifically appropriate to pole. Short shorts, midriffs, and short sleeved tops are required because the exercise of pole requires skin contact with the pole itself for safety reasons. Howie Hanson may need to take a trip to the beach or to Valleyfair in the summer and see that there are hundreds of girls in those environments under age 16 wearing far less than Avalon’s pole students. Yet no one bats an eye at those culturally accepted displays of skin.
As mentioned above the city of Duluth lacks diversity. Howie seems to think unleashing the students’ “inner goddess” is a bad thing. Feminine empowerment is more culturally relevant today than it ever has been before. We, the people of Duluth, are teaching our daughters to go after and achieve their dreams, to learn, to create, to vote, and to empower themselves to nurture this same strength in others. This is the very essence of their sacred journey to explore that divine feminine within. Only misogynistic thinking would scoff at the idea of encouraging such exploration within the hearts and souls of our feminine population.
Avalon Pole teaches that its students that self liberation comes when the student gives herself permission to truly be sexy, confident, intelligent, and a force to be taken seriously. For some pole is just as spiritual as practicing yoga or engaging in prayer and meditation. Why shouldn’t it be? The art takes incredible discipline and fears must be faced everyday on the pole until, at last, those fears are conquered! This isn’t just a solo art either. When dancers engage in tandem dancing they are experiencing a level of trust in each other that simply isn’t taught in other forms of dance.
Like the martial arts taught at Avalon pole dancing is also rich in culture dating back to 12th century India with the sport of mallakhamba and China in the same century. The exotic dance involved is incredibly popular amongst women with pole parties a very popular event for groups. You’ll note the mention of exotic dance and if you’re Howie Hanson you likely misread that as ‘erotic’ dance. With belly dancing being sexy and culturally accepted I think it’s time to view pole with the same level of respect.
Ultimately it is important for Duluth staff and leadership, as well as the community of our zenith city at large, to understand the deep impact that immersion in these programs will have on our young, our old, our rich, our poor, our healthy, and our downtrodden. Avalon Educational Institute provides the best instruction in the safest of environments. This is what everyone wants for themselves and their children. This is where hope, community, and opportunity are born.