ZEPHYRHILLS, Fla. — Pay no mind to the groans that come with stretching, to hair that is gray or gone altogether. Ignore the cautiousness of their steps and the canes in their hands.
These seniors are ready to fight.
A rainbow of martial arts belts dangles above the mirror along one wall of this small dojo; swords, nunchuks and sickles hang near the front. Punching bags and torso targets line the room, but they'll need none of these. Their weapons are their canes.
At the helm of the class is one of the country's most recognized cane fighters, Mark Shuey, a slight man who, at 62, has hair and skin starting to show signs of age. He has traveled from Lake Tahoe, Nev., to teach this group of 16 how to protect themselves from attackers.
He calls it Cane-Fu.
Cane fighting classes have popped up all over the country, in part due to the influence of Cane Masters, the company Shuey founded that sells wood canes made of harder, thicker wood, to sustain wear and wider crooks to fit around an attacker's neck. Now, it's being offered at dojos and increasingly in senior centers and retirement communities.
"You don't have to be powerful, you don't have to be fast," said Gary Hernandez, who runs the dojo here northeast of Tampa where the session was held and where he teaches cane fighting classes himself. "It's a piece of hard wood. It hurts."
The session starts simply enough, with seniors gathered on the red and black mat twisting this way and that, stretching with their simple wooden canes over their heads and behind their backs. They combine long rubber tension bands with their canes to do bicep curls, leg presses and chest rows _ exercises aimed at keeping the seniors fit.
Fitness alone won't ward off those who might hurt them, though, and Shuey talks briefly of recent attacks on elders. His hazel eyes look severe as he points to the cane and delivers his message.
"When you put this little crook around someone's neck, their whole attitude changes real fast," he said.
And in a moment, Shuey shows it. With another instructor, Merle McAlpin, playing the bad guy, Shuey hooks the cane around his neck and thrusts it. The result is a guttural groan of pain from McAlpin.
When it's time for the students to try a bit later, Shuey shouts: "Be gentle!"
In the two-hour session, participants are taught a sampling of moves to use in different situations. The cane can simply be swung in circles, used to grab a foot or neck, and fashioned into a bat or poker. Advanced techniques even show a senior how to use a cane to ward off someone with a gun or knife.
It takes years to master cane fighting like Hernandez or Shuey, but they say they can teach a senior several crucial moves in an hour. Perhaps more importantly, though, it gives them confidence that can help them escape a dangerous situation.
"You don't think about carrying it other than for somebody who needs help," said 63-year-old Joan Kirkman, a nurse from Zephyrhills. "But after taking this class, you realize you could do so much more with it."
It isn't an entirely new use for the cane. In ancient Rome and Egypt, canes were used as weapons. In the 13th century, swinging a cane before a member of royalty would assure your beheading. In the 17th century, canes required a permit.
"Things changed 200 or 300 years ago. You don't want to take a cane to a gunfight, so the cane became a crutch and it's been visualized as that for the last couple hundred years," Shuey said. "Today when you carry a cane, they think you're a gimp."
Vic Cushing, 68, of Roaring Brook, Pa., has twice used a cane to defend himself. Once, in London, he said he simply pushed his cane into the chest of the aggressive man approaching him. Another time, in New York, he hit his potential mugger, who then hobbled away.
"I just smacked his legs a bunch of times and his legs gave out," he said.
Cushing has studied hapkido and teaches self-defense himself. For others who are less agile, some question whether some aspects of Cane-Fu might be too complex.
John Perkins, who authored "Attack Proof" and teaches self-defense classes, says for fairly fit seniors, he would encourage a cane more than any other method, but emphasizes jabs and strikes over using the crook of the cane. Shuey included using the cane's crook in his class.
"If you're a frail person and you're trying to hook somebody," he said, "it's great in the classroom, not on the street."
Shuey began learning cane fighting in the early 1980s while practicing hapkido. He started developing a program solely based on the moves in 1995 and came out with his first instructional tapes in 1999.
Most seniors who take such classes never have to use the methods, but Shuey says there are plenty of examples where they have. Perhaps the greatest benefit of cane self-defense, he says, is that a cane can be brought anywhere, including airports, without raising an eyebrow.
Most of the day's participants _ all but two of them are men _ don't use a cane regularly, but after seeing its defensive potential, at least a few were considering it.
"You just don't realize how much pain you could put on somebody really quick," said 61-year-old Ed Smoak of Pinellas Park. "Nobody thinks of a cane as being any kind of an impressive weapon but even a person like me _ I'm disabled, like I said I don't move real well _ and even me, I could do this."