By Jean Latz Griffin
Power. Peace. Compassion. Beauty.
Both have come to this geographical and occupational space from elsewhere. Lanoue was an investigative reporter in New York before becoming a karate teacher; Ludden was a California dancer and audiologist. At some point, both women realized that many of their spiritual, political, physical and aesthetic goals could be met in the practice and teaching of karate. Eventually, it also became a way to make a living.
"My mission for this dojo is to create a space where people can learn a beautiful art form and empowering practice that fosters mindfulness and helps people become more peaceful and compassionate," Lanoue said. "We need this. The world is a mess. We have to train people how to deal with violence without becoming violent themselves. Our goal is to help people in their body, mind and spirit."
Ludden, who fell in love with karate when she attended a "Karate for Dancers" workshop in 1974, sought out martial arts as "an art form that is healthy and empowering."
"When I was in ballet class, it seemed like there was an emphasis on being dainty," Ludden said. "I was never good at doing dainty. I felt like I should be the security in the back of the room. I wanted to do the lifting as well as being lifted. Ballet lacked the athleticism and strength that I saw in women."
Ludden was trained in a Kung Fu style of karate, called Kujukenbo, in Oakland. Lanoue learned Seido Karate from Tadashi Nakamura in New York. The Thousand Waves dojo is an official branch of the international Seido Karate organization. Ludden and Lanoue have learned each other's forms, and the school teaches both.
The name "Thousand Waves" refers to a Japanese Zen saying: "One wave sets thousands in motion," and Lanoue says it was chosen "to foster mindfulness of the ways our own individual actions create ripples outward, affecting others in ways we can barely imagine."
The current business is an outgrowth of an earlier venture – The Women's Gym – which was founded by Lanoue and her first partner, Jeanette Pappas, and which almost ended when Pappas died of pancreatic cancer in 1989.
"I was feeling completely unable to manage to do this by myself," Lanoue said. "I had been drawn into opening The Women's Gym by a more experienced partner who was ten years older than I was. She had the money and expertise and designed everything. When she got sick and died, I didn't think I had the skills or the will to do it."
Lanoue and Pappas had created the Women's Gym as a place where women, primarily lesbians, could exercise and relax, work on the health of the body and spirit, without many of the judgmental attitudes found in traditional health clubs or spas. They chose a corner space on Belmont St. on the north side of Chicago, where Pappas' designer skills took three floors of a former retail store and used open spaces and feminine aesthetics to create a feeling of lightness and serenity. Among plants and paintings, women practiced martial arts and self defense, took aerobics classes and lifted weights.
The atmosphere of the gym was also strongly influenced by Lanoue's own bout with cancer. At 35, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy and chemotherapy. "I didn't think it was an option to be secretive about my cancer and my treatment," Lanoue said. "I'm not the wig type. So we had the unusual situation of a woman who was bald showing clients around a gym. But it seemed to be a very good thing. Several women told me it was beneficial to them. One said she had had cancer and never told anyone until she talked to me. I started to develop a political sense about the disease."
Because of Lanoue's experience, the current spa is an especially welcoming place for women with cancer. "We have many one-breasted women who come here. Some come in with their chemotherapy bags still on, and that's fine," said Lanoue, who is one of the founding members of the nine-year-old Lesbian Cancer Project. The spa and the project co-sponsor a stress management program for women with cancer in which the spa donates a message therapy room one day a week. At first the program was used primarily by lesbians, but affiliations with two of the three major cancer centers in Chicago now bring many straight women as well who are referred by their doctors.
The transition from women's gym to spa and karate wouldn't have happened, however, if not for the dedication of a core group of
Chicago women and the support of Ludden. When Pappas was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a particularly aggressive form of the disease, she and Lanoue went to California for an experimental treatment that was one last hope to save her life. Lanoue put the women's gym building on the market, but there were no takers. A group of women rented their own space and kept the karate instruction going. Ludden came as a guest instructor from time to time, "to give them a break and to feed them and give them hope that one day they would have a teacher again," Lanoue recalled.
At the same time, the relationship between Lanoue and Ludden was changing. They wrote and visited, and gradually became lovers. By 1991, they knew they wanted to be together, so Ludden moved from California to Chicago and became a co-owner of Thousand Waves. By now, it was "a little karate school within the spa," Lanoue recalled, with a steam room, sauna and massage.
"It was my job of choice to teach karate, and financially, we had an opportunity to take a chance for a couple of years," Ludden recalled. "The goal in coming here was to work together and see if this could support both of us."
After four years of relatively peaceful coexistence, the spa and karate schools were clearly outgrowing their joint accommodations. The formerly women-only karate school now had a children's class, and the boys had to change in the laundry room. The women relaxing in the spa weren't too happy when the karate students invaded their hot tub, and Lanoue said it wasn't the best thing for karate training to have been in a sauna minutes before.
Taking a chance and a $100,000 loan, the two women rented and extensively remodeled a space a few doors down to give the karate school its own space. With classes offered six days a week, the school now has about 325 students, including 25 to 30 percent men, and 125 children as young as four years.
"At first, some of the women said they did not want to practice karate with men, but I told them that the very reasons they did not want to practice with men were the reasons they should," Lanoue said. "The more diverse your partners, the better your art."
The spa was designed to be a contrast to the usual spas, which "tend to make a woman feel that she needs to be fixed," Lanoue said. "The message in too many spas is, 'Come here and we will make you look better and weigh less.' You are even worrying about what you wear when you are there."
"Here we try to create an atmosphere where women can unwind. Many work in high powered jobs or have heavy family responsibilities. They can relax in the sauna and steam bath and then read a book in the relaxation lounge and sip tea for a while." The spa is open to all women and celebrates diversity. Lesbians are prevalent, but straight women also rent out the spa for their bachelorette parties.
"You can walk in here anytime and see a clientele that is multi-racial, straight and lesbian, young and old, and every body type,"
Lanoue said. "It is safe and friendly, but not in any way sexually intimate. No one feels threatened here."
Sometime within the next year, Lanoue hopes to open a satellite karate school in a disadvantaged neighborhood to extend the art's spiritual and physical benefits.
"We have always had a scholarship fund that hundreds of students have used over the years, and we have never turned anyone away who wanted training but couldn't pay," she said. "But there are many reasons someone from a poorer neighborhood might not walk into this place. They might not feel welcome; they might not have transportation; they might just feel uncomfortable. It should be in their neighborhood. We are looking for an agency that wants to partner with us to do this."
The benefits of martial arts go beyond the physical and include a spiritual element that is completely nondenominational and compatible with any religion, Ludden says.
"It is building your non-quitting spirit."