You don't want to meet Laurie Shover in a dark alley, or in a parking lot, or on Burlington's Main Street at 2:30 a.m. Not if you're a mugger, rapist or murderer and see the blond woman as your next victim. One of only a handful of eighth-degree black belts in the country, Shover will take you down faster than you can holler "Bruce Lee." She may break your nose, break your femur or just break your balls. Pepper spray? Please. With two of her petite fingers, Shover can gouge your eyeballs with her fierce, twin-headed dragon move.
On a recent Tuesday evening at Villari's Self-Defense Studio in South Burlington, Shover demonstrates a series of her spins, kicks and punches to a group of about a half-dozen female students. "Makes you really want to go get another victim, doesn't it?" she says, rhetorically, to the invisible attacker. "That's how we're going to lower the crime rate," she goes on, now addressing the class. "Every time an attacker goes to grab a woman, and all of a sudden she snaps his knee - well, he's going to stay at home for a while."
In the days since the murder of University of Vermont student Michelle Gardner-Quinn and the recent attempted abduction of a stroller-pushing mom in Winooski in broad daylight, plenty of women have felt like staying at home themselves. "Being a woman and being alone is a combination that makes me nervous everywhere," says Adrienne Susinno, a 25-year-old student teacher who enrolled in Shover's Tuesday night self-defense course earlier this fall. "Recent events are a wake-up call that no place is truly safe."
Anyone who views Vermont as a bucolic, crime-free wonderland, says Shover, also needs to wake up. "They need to get their head out of their butt and realize that this is the year 2006," she says. "It happens everywhere." By sharing more than two decades of martial arts training and old-fashioned common sense, Shover is also on a new campaign to make sure that when attacks happen, it's the assailant, not the victim, who's caught off guard.
Shover knows a thing or two about seemingly bucolic places. Though she grew up in small-town Bristol, she says she was a street kid. "I was involved in all sorts of problems - the wrong kids, drugs, whatever," she says. Then her brother dragged her to a martial arts class.
"I didn't want to stay, because back then, in the '70s, it was very hardcore," Shover says. "It was about three hours long, and you'd get screamed at."
Eventually, she got hooked on shaolin-kempo karate, a style of fighting that integrates punching, kicking, felling and grappling. (Its inventor, Fred Villari, is the namesake of the South Burlington studio, along with hundreds of other schools around the country.)
"It's the most self-defense-oriented system, because you use your hands," explains Shover. "Most karate systems are kick-kick-kick, or break a board, but we're very quick with our hands, and perfectionists in all areas."
Since the mid-1970s, Shover has added so many notches to her black belt that she's surpassed the "master" stage to become one of the world's few female hachidans. "I'm Professor Shover now," she says proudly.
Professor, master or just plain Laurie to her students, Shover has been teaching martial arts for years at her South Burlington studio, in addition to offering rape-prevention classes to businesses and working with kids through Burlington's Baird Center for Children and Families. This fall, Shover began instructing the less formal self-defense class on Tuesdays at 5:30.
Fletcher Allen vascular technician Amber Klimas, who has to park in an off-site lot for her work, was among the first to sign up. "It's dark in the parking garage, and there's all kinds of people in that area," says Klimas, 29. "It's even scarier when you have kids - I have a year-and-a-half-old, and getting her in the car takes time. I felt like a sitting duck."
Practicing the first set of moves in Shover's class, Klimas looks less like a sitting duck and more like a character out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Shover wastes no time with niceties and goes right into punching and kicking.
"Straight to the nose!" she shouts. "Go - ugh! Go - ugh! Go - ugh!"
The studio is filled with reminders of the Asian roots of this practice. Small Buddha statues rest peacefully on a shelf, while cut-outs of leopards, snakes and birds decorate the eggplant-colored walls. But the techniques that Shover shares are grounded in the realities of day-to-day Western life: shopping, unlocking a car or just walking down the street. And she takes no pity on the imaginary assailants. Demon- strating the twin-headed dragon, she encourages students to use the same fearless approach.
"The body is protected downward, so go up, especially on a male - you have to bend your fingers to get in the eyes," says Shover. "A lot of people say, 'Eww!' But if a guy's trying to sexually assault you? I don't think so!"
Along with a litany of favorite moves - "Poke, poke, knee, grab his neck" - Shover seems to have a favorite word. "It's so easy," she tells the women. "It's so incredibly easy."
Later, Shover explains why she must remind women that self-defense doesn't have to be difficult. "A lot of women just don't have the confidence, and they'll put everything else first; some are in denial," she says. "But training just once a month will increase your awareness by 50 percent - and the way you walk or carry yourself might be what makes the difference."
Maria Valiente, a 30-year-old crossword-puzzle editor who attends the Tuesday night class, says that after only a few weeks, she already has a favorite move - the "hammer," which involves a fist to the forehead - and a new sense of herself and her capabilities. "Before the class, there was no way I would ever have fought back, but I think I've learned enough to throw off an attacker long enough to get away," she says. "If I was approached by someone with a gun, it might be a different story."
Shover has plenty of quick-fix solutions, such as dropping one's weight when one is grabbed from behind. But she does not offer tips, at least not to beginners, on how to defend oneself when one has a gun to one's head. She even sounds unsure of how she might handle such a situation. "I'm only human, and I could get killed or shot," says Shover, who lives in what she calls a "hideaway" in Monkton with her two kids, aged 6 and 12. "But I tell you, one thing I won't do is get raped, and if I do, they're going down with me. I would die trying and I would die fighting before I would die in vain."
Choosing whether to fight an attacker should be like choosing whether to fight a disease, says Shover. "People will fight cancer with all they can; they'll do anything to save their life," she points out. "When you're alive and healthy, no one thinks of it that way."
Some of Shover's students are former victims of crime. Others have gone on to defend themselves successfully against assailants. As a fringe benefit, several of the Tuesday-night women report feeling relaxed, invigorated and toned after their sessions, as if after an intense workout. (Every once in a while, Shover reminds them of their abs and their glutes, not unlike a fitness guru.)
This fall and winter, Shover aims to widen the circle of women who know about the twin-headed dragon, the hammer and the spin kicks. She's offered to teach at UVM and other area colleges and is working with administrators on free programs. By early 2007, northern Vermont could have a substantial population of women with whom no one wants to mess. "I'm not a miracle worker," Shover says. "But a chance is better than no chance."