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Lady Sensei: Forging the Future for Female Fighters

Numerous Black Belt readers have contacted our staff to ask for more information about Gerry Chisolm, the martial artist who is perhaps better-known by her nickname — which happens to be the name of her column: Lady Sensei. This bio is for all who have wondered about the origin story of one of the most accomplished and visible women in the American martial arts.

— Editor

lady sensei

by Gerry Chisolm

Popularly known as “Lady Sensei,” Gerry Chisolm is a martial artist on a mission. The

founder of the Women’s Martial Arts Network, she has dedicated her life to creating greater awareness of the accomplishments and contributions of women in the martial arts — and to getting more women on the path to proficiency with respect to selfdefense. Chisolm is not just a facilitator; she’s also a

teacher. She has traveled around the United States, Europe, Canada, Bermuda and the Caribbean to offer instruction in personal protection, empty-hand combat and weapons.

She has lectured as an independent scholar, presenting her research on African-American women at the Martial Arts Studies Conference at Cardiff University in Wales and at Chapman University in California. The portion of her life that qualified her to take on those tasks is impressive. She holds

rank in three systems and speaks often of her primary teacher Ronald Duncan, the man who is often called the “father of American ninjutsu.” Chisolm is his last black belt and the highest-ranked active female instructor in his art.

Chisolm was a private student of Duncan’s for years, and during that period, she devoted all her resources to cultivating her selfdefense skills. The motivation to do so stemmed from the domestic violence she had experienced and her vow to never let it happen again. She devoured every combat curriculum to which she had access — ninjutsu, combatives, traditional weapons and firearms.

Before Duncan passed away in 2012, she received her third degree from him. The most important lesson she learned during her martial journey, she says, is one that all masters know well: The mind is the primary weapon. Everything else is just a means to an end.

With encouragement from Duncan before he died, Chisolm began training simultaneously at the Vee Arnis Jitsu School of Self-Defense under Scott Stewart. She still trains — and teaches — at the Staten Island, New York, dojo. The subsets of martial arts that she specializes in there include street defense using Filipino stick-fighting techniques and knife techniques, along with jujitsu. “Between the two systems, I train regularly four to six days a week,” she says.

Anyone who knows Chisolm will tell you she’s not one to rest on her laurels. At the Staten Island school, she became the first female black belt. By age 56, she had earned her fifth degree. She continued training in ninjutsu under Dan McEaddy, one of Duncan’s earliest students, and became his first female shihan. By 2018, she’d earned her sixth dan in the system. And because she

knows weapons skills are just as perishable as empty-hand skills, she continues to train in defensive shooting and executive protection with Lateif Dickerson at the New Jersey Firearms Academy.

Along the way, Chisolm noticed something was lacking, however, and the observation proved to be life changing. “I remember seeing very few women students or instructors, and perhaps only one or two on the seminar circuit as presenters,” she says. “For a long time after O Sensei [Duncan] passed away,

I kept looking for opportunities to meet or train with other women, but I really didn’t have much luck. I had pretty much developed without warrior-sister camaraderie and grew accustomed to being the only woman in a class or teaching at a seminar. “These types of experiences led to the establishment of the Women’s Martial Arts Network in 2018.”

For Chisolm, limiting her outreach to just people she could contact face to face was never an option. Her network quickly established a chapter in Ontario, Canada. Over the years, she’s worked with an organization called Black and Missing Families and taken her message to the masses via Black Girls

Rock, the Urban Action Showcase & Expo, the Museum of the Moving Image, and the Fist and Sword Martial Arts Film Series, to name a few.

“We have annual women’s celebrations and conduct campus-safety seminars for colleges,

universities, and community and civic organizations,” she says. “We feel like we are making a difference.”

When it comes to making a difference with respect to promoting personal safety, she’s always thinking outside the box. Years ago, Chisolm and Duncan discovered that she had a natural talent for wielding edged weapons. After fine-tuning her skills, she performed her first knife demonstration with him at Aaron Banks’ 43rd Oriental World of Self- Defense show in New York. Years later, the blade skills she’d learned from Duncan paid off in a way she never could have anticipated. Casting directors from the History channel’s Forged in Fire: Knife or Death series saw images of Chisolm on social media, posing

with a kukri knife. They reached out to ask if she would like to audition for the show. “I honestly thought someone was trying to prank me, so I ignored them for a time,” she says. “At some point, I investigated and realized that it wasn’t a joke.”

Chisolm auditioned — and passed. She was flown to Atlanta, where she wound up being the only woman on Season 2, Episode 4 of the series. Her appearance was such a crowdpleaser that the producers invited her back for a Thanksgiving special titled Forged in Fire: “Bladesgiving” Marathon.

Fast-forward to 2020: For all that she had done — and is still doing — to promote the martial arts as the solution to so many of the problems faced by women in modern society, Chisolm became Black Belt’s Instructor of the Year.

Months later, she started writing the magazine’s Lady Sensei column. She says that she’ll continue to shine a spotlight on the accomplishments of others who are striving to educate the public on all things martial. “The future of the martial arts rests in the hands of the women and girls — not just as students but also as teachers, leaders, representatives, proprietors and event organizers,” she says. “Congratulations to all who support and encourage their development, safety options, health and self-expression through martial arts.”

This article originally appeared in a 2022 edition of Black Belt Magazine.

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