The following excerpts are from an interview with Amy Tucci, “JKD Women,” January 2004
By Sonja Henrici
“I feel that learning martial arts is like sculpting a work of art from a block of marble – a lot of small, subtle motions over time finally reveal a beautiful work of art, but no one motion necessarily stands out”. – Amy Tucci
Amy Tucci grew up in New Jersey, an hour’s drive from New York City. She worked for the state of New Jersey government for over twenty years before turning to martial arts full time. Now she is the third female ever to become a full instructor under Guro Dan Inosanto. “JKD is a way of living life that is not bound by ideas of limitation. As female martial artists, we are already a bit outside the accepted norm for women in society.”
Sonja Henrici: Tell me a bit about yourself. When and how did you come to martial arts?
Amy Tucci: I never really pursued, or was interested in, martial arts as a child. I dabbled a little with Tai Chi when I was in college, but it wasn’t until I met my husband, Rick, who was very into martial arts that I became interested, and even then, it took me quite a few years before I began training seriously. I started to take classes he taught at our home to a small group of students, and then gradually got hooked.
SH: What was your profession before starting to teach martial arts full time?
AT: After I graduated from university, I worked for the government of the state of New Jersey as an administrative analyst specialising in data processing. I held a variety of positions, including many years doing technical writing, newsletter editing, and writing and producing a promotional video. After 20 years, and having spent every other waking hour working at the academy or training, I left to devote all of my time to teaching and running our Princeton Academy of Martial Arts.
SH: Were there any other women when you started?
AT: There has always been a shortage of women in the martial arts. There were no other females when I trained. Every now and then, a woman would join the class, but that was usually short-lived. Later on, there were a couple of women who were frequent training partners for me at our academy.
SH: What do your non-martial artist friends think about your training?
AT: Most of my non-martial artist friends seem to understand and support my martial arts training. They actually think it’s quite good. It is a little hard, and I don’t really feel a need to explain my passion to them, because I think it’s something that you can’t really understand unless you do it yourself. It’s one of those things you either do or you don’t.
SH: Do you ever fight against stereotyping?
AT: I don’t feel I’ve had to fight against stereotyping, but of course it exists for all women in martial arts to a certain extent, because it’s such a male dominated sphere. However, men have been very supportive and encouraging throughout my years of training. They often express surprise when I do something well, because they almost don’t expect a woman to hit hard, for example.
SH: What does it mean to you to be the third female full instructor under Guro Dan Inosanto?
AT: It is a huge honor. I’m truly happy that Guro Inosanto thought enough of me and my skill level to promote me to “full,” but of course, I feel like I’m constantly improving and have so much further to go with all of it. Recently, because I’ve been spending so much time training with him, I’ve started to appreciate even more how bit the arts we train in really are, and how much time he has put into them, and the level of his understanding.
Being a full instructor, regardless of gender, means that I’m serving as a role model and source inspiration for others. As a woman, I clearly serve as a role model for other women on this path, but men have also told me that I’ve been their inspiration to become better. I think we all need people ahead of us on the path so we know we too can get there.
SH: What other things do you do outside martial arts?
AT: I do quite a few other things, including horseback riding and art (right now I’m specifically into drawing and pastel painting). I’ve also very recently started to learn to play the drums, as in a 5-piece drum set. I love doing other things besides martial arts, because it helps me to be more well rounded. It keeps me fresh, and the learning process is a great mental stimulator. I’ve found that my martial arts training has carried over and hugely enhanced my other activities, especially horseback riding and drum playing, because of they physical nature. I’m much more coordinated in these activities then I would be without the training.
SH: what is your most memorable experience with a teacher?
AT: It’s difficult to say! Probably my more memorable experiences have been those that sparked me and made me enthusiastic about a particular area or a particular aspect of an art. This may sound a little vague, but I feel that learning martial arts is like sculpting a work of art from a block of marble – a lot of small, subtle motions over time finally reveal a beautiful work of art, but no one motion necessarily stands out. It’s more the gestalt of the whole process that has been my experience.
SH: Have you had any female instructors?
AT: Simo Paula Inosanto would be my primary female instructor. She has always been an inspiration to me, and I had the good fortune to have spent a lot of time with her when she was travelling with Guro Inosanto on seminars all over the U.S. for quite a few years early on in my training. She was always so impressive, and very tough, but such a good teacher and able to explain things very well. She was really the first woman I ever saw who was good at these arts, and she made a huge impression on me. Since I met her in 1987, she has become a dear friend and has supported and encouraged me as any true friend would. So having her in my life is a blessing.
SH: could you describe a typical week in terms of your training and teaching schedule?
AT: Right now, I’m spending most of my time in Los Angeles, so my typical week includes a lot of training with Guro at the Inosanto Academy. I usually do about eight hours a week in Guro’s classes, including the Kali, Jun Fan, Silat and mixed martial arts classes. Then I train one or two hours per week with Erik Paulson in Combat Submission Wrestling, and sometimes the Vale Tudo class. I’ve recently started to focus a lot more on the grappling, and have been able to train with my colleagues in the Inosanto family, who are much more knowledgeable than me in the grappling arts. I try to train outside of classes for about two to three hours a week with different training partners, or on my own. I’ve also just started to take a few classes with Rigan Machado at his Machado Jiu Jitsu school in Torrance.
Because I’m currently in Los Angeles, I don’t do as much teaching as I did in the academy in New Jersey. I teach a couple of classes a week at the Inosanto Academy, and if Guro is out of town, I will cover the classes. I’ve been teaching private lessons, and also assist at the Instructor Conferences held at the Inosanto Academy where certified instructors come for intensive training.
SH: Can you describe your experience of teaching women’s only classes as compared to mixed classes?
AT: As a woman, I’m able to influence and connect with my female students. Over the years, I’ve taught many women, some of whom never considered themselves tough enough to train with men, and now they’ve moved into co-ed classes and are doing very well, commanding a lot of respect from male students.
Some of the women just wanted to do something non-threatening and not as intense as the co-ed stuff, but ended up being totally into the whole martial arts experience. I also like to break the stereotype by not letting the women’s classes be too girly or easy, and I make it more intense than they probably expect, but they are comfortable with it, coming from a woman, whereas if a male was teaching the same thing, they may be thrown off.
One of my happiest moments teaching women was when I had about 12 of my more experienced women in my first intermediate level class, and they all had boxing gloves, headgear and mouthpieces, and they were all sparring, and basically going for it, hitting each other and experiencing all of that for the first time. These were all women I had taught, and who’d never trained in a men’s class. It was a great feeling for me to see them transformed.
SH: How has your personal life changed through martial arts? Has it changed you? Has it made you feel safer?
AT: It has been a subtle and gradual change. Martial arts are now such a part of my life that I can’t separate myself from it. It has definitely made my body very strong and helped me to feel very comfortable about being “in my body.” Many people often feel out of touch with their bodies, almost detached from them in a way. Through training, we get a real understanding of our bodies and what they are capable of doing. I also know that I feel like I’m in better physical condition than many people half my age, and that makes me feel pretty good! It has also helped me with my ability to focus mentally and direct my energies to specific goals.
SH: You recovered from a serious illness not too long ago. Do you mind talking about this period in your life?
AT: It’s something that you can’t really imagine until you go through it (it’s kind of like a very exaggerated version of the Thai boxing instructors test!) but somehow you just gather yourself up and go forward. I know I couldn’t have done it without the support and help of my husband, friends, and all the healers who came into my life, and the spiritual guidance I received from the Creator. And I thank God that I didn’t really have any physical discomfort to speak of . I was, and am, very, very fortunate. In fact, I really didn’t even miss much training because of the illness or the treatment I selected. That’s not to say I wasn’t terrified, but you just have to go on with what you need to do and trust the universe.
SH: Can you tell us whether (and how) martial arts helped you to overcome it?
AT: I think that martial arts gave me the philosophy that worked for me, which was to choose a completely unconventional and personal approach to dealing with my illness. I truly took the Jeet Kune Do approach: to absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add specifically what is your own. Also, that ability to focus and zero in on the task at hand, and just keep going, is really just an extension of training, and this is what got me through some of the uncomfortable procedures. It’s what you do when you’re trying to get through a round on the Thai pads, and you feel like stopping, but you don’t, or when you think you just can’t swing the stick anymore, but you keep going anyway, or when you are so frustrated trying to learn something that you just want to give up, but you don’t.
SH: Is there anything you would like to pass on to others in similar situations?
AT: I would say that anyone faced with something like this really has to look at themselves as a unique individual, and really look at all the options available and leave no stone unturned. Listen with a critical ear to what doctors or others tell you, and don’t let them do the thinking for you. Generally, the medical profession only has statistics and doesn’t look at each person as unique with many, many different factors that make their experience different from other people’s, and most of all, you need to be the one that is responsible for your decisions and what happens to you.
SH: What is Jeet Kune Do for you?
AT: JKD is a way of living life that is not bound by the ideas of limitation. For me, this includes martial arts, but also goes beyond into other areas of my life where I try to live outside the confines of generalities that are accepted without question. As female martial artists, we are already a bit outside of the accepted norm for females in society.
SH: A lot of martial artists “sell” their expertise on the back of other people’s fears for personal safety, etc. Do you have an opinion about that? How does martial arts fit into modern society for you?
AT: Well, martial arts is about self-defense and preserving safety. So, as long as it’s done with integrity and for the right reasons, there is nothing wrong with that. I think martial arts in modern society are, however, a lot more than that, and that most people will hopefully never have to apply what they have learned on the street. So, it becomes a way of life, a way of staying healthy, a way of keeping the mind fresh, a way of building personal character and confidence.