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Thousand Waves marks 30 years of mission-driven work
Thousand Waves to host spring trainings
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times

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Thousand Waves Martial Arts & Self-Defense Center, located in Chicago's Lake View neighborhood, kicked off a year of celebratory events in February, marking the 30th anniversary of its founding.

The milestone brings up feelings of "pride, happiness, joy," said Nancy Lanoue, the lesbian founder and current co-executive director of the non-profit, which sprang from feminist roots and now serves a broad demographic of Chicagoans, including adults of all genders, teens and youth.

But it has not always been an easy go. In fact, things looked bleak for the organization early on. "Lots of bad things happened in the early years, including the death of my first partner, Jeannette Pappas, who I had started the venture with," Lanoue said.

The two women moved to Chicago together to build a women's fitness center and start a karate program dedicated to women's empowerment and safety. Two years after the Women's Gym opened, Lanoue learned—on her 35th birthday—that she had breast cancer. Two years later, Pappas got pancreatic cancer and only lived eight more months. So, after only four and a half years in business, they had to close the Women's Gym ( it later re-opened with new owners ).

However, their karate program survived.

In 1990, Lanoue reopened under a new name, Thousand Waves. A year later, her new partner ( and now spouse ), Sarah Ludden, also a martial arts instructor, moved here from California to help run the fledgling organization.

In 1985, "the fitness world was very, very different [than it is today]," Lanoue said. "The only gyms that existed were dark and dingy places where bodybuilders and powerlifters went to use free weights. There were no fitness facilities for everyday people. So the idea of a beautiful, welcoming, serene place for women to learn to relate to their bodies in a healthy, positive way was a new idea at that time."

The original location of the Women's Gym was at 1212 W. Belmont Ave., two doors down from where Thousand Waves is now located. It was a two-floor, 5,000-square-foot facility that they had gutted and Pappas had redesigned. Their third business partner was Mary Morse, who died several years ago.

The first five years were "very rough," Lanoue said. "The Women's Gym was a programmatic success. I think the women who came there got something really valuable. Many, many women who never would have walked into a fitness facility got a chance to relate to their bodies in a positive way. But financially, it was not a success. We spent too much money trying to build the building, make it suitable for our purposes, and it just never paid for itself."

After Ludden joined forces with Lanoue, the new Thousand Waves started to take off. In 1990 they started a children's program for girls and boys. And in 1995, they moved into their current location—1220 W. Belmont Ave.—expanding again to include adults of all genders in their training community.

Thousand Waves Martial Arts & Self-Defense Center is now a successful not-for-profit organization with a mission to foster fitness, healing, empowerment and healing through violence prevention, self-defense and traditional martial arts programs for adults and children of all ages.

One core program at Thousand Waves is Seido Karate, a traditional martial art that strengthens the body, mind and spirit. Four age-based Seido Karate programs for children and an adult program currently serve close to 400 members. A new program, HIIT It Fitness, offers high-intensity interval training classes on weekday mornings and Sunday mornings.

"Some people are drawn to martial arts because they're afraid, or they're alienated from their body and have never felt athletic," Lanoue said. "So they come to Thousand Waves, where it is profoundly non-competitive and very welcoming, and they enjoy being part of the diverse group of people practicing here. Others are quite healthy and fit already, but are seeking more camaraderie than a gym provides. Our close-knit community, combined with being on a path to black belt, makes it easier for our members to be consistent in their workouts. No matter how they start out, we support people to be healthier by giving them the tools to be active, stronger, more flexible."

Others find their way to Thousand Waves because they have been impacted by violence. Thousand Waves is well known for its empowerment-based self-defense and violence-prevention work. Five Fingers of Self-Defense workshops and weekend intensive courses are offered quarterly at the center, and they also partner with schools, other non-profits and businesses to bring self-defense skills to their students and staff.

Reminiscing about the unexpected path her life has taken, Lanoue, who started out to be a journalist after completing a joint master's degree at Columbia University in journalism and international affairs, said: "I thought I was going to be the next New York Times correspondent in New Delhi. That's how silly I was in my early 20s."

She did manage to get a job at the New York Post, but lost her enthusiasm when the paper was bought by Rupert Murdoch soon after, she said. Meanwhile, she signed up for a self-defense course, hoping to learn something to help her feel safer travelling all over the city, day and night, on the subway, while on assignment. To her surprise, she fell in love with the movements and the feeling of being totally competent in her body. "I just knew that's what I really wanted to do—teach martial arts and self-defense," she said.

Thousand Waves has 14 employees, with LGBTQ people in many key leadership positions. The clients in the early years were almost all lesbians. "People joked we should have been called the Lesbian Gym," she said. The early male members included many gay men who wanted to train in martial arts but didn't want to deal with the homophobia that was tolerated in most dojos back then. Thousand Waves also trained the Pink Angels street-patrol group in the early 1990s. "We specialize in LGBTQ safety issues," she said.

In its early years, the center had a presence in the annual Chicago Pride Parade, and Lanoue said Thousand Waves will again assemble a large group of members to march and perform martial arts in this year's Pride Parade. Other 30th Anniversary celebratory events include a multimedia martial arts performance, "Art with Heart," Oct. 3 at North Side College Prep High School's theater, followed by a buffet dinner back at the center.

One way Lanoue and Ludden, both 62, are marking this milestone is by working on transitioning away from their co-executive director roles into just being head instructors by the end of 2015. "We want to focus on the things that we do best and that we love the most and are the most passionate about," Lanoue said.

So what's with the name?

"It comes from a Japanese saying that means one wave sets thousands of waves in motion," Lanoue said. "The idea behind the phrase is, you don't really know the impact of your individual actions. They could be a lot larger than you think they are, and what kind of waves do you want to set in motion?"

Thousand Waves to host spring trainings

Thousand Waves Martial Arts and Self-Defense is offering two self-defense trainings this spring that are open to the public.

The first is Saturday, March 28, at 1:30-3 p.m. Students in this 90-minute program will gain an overview of self-defense, including mental, verbal and physical skills that are effective in both preventing and confronting violence. Individuals can choose to pay anywhere between $15 and $25.

The second spring offering is a 12-hour intensive course specifically for women and girls more than 12 years old. Billed as a "Mother/Daughter Weekend Intensive Self-Defense Course," this course goes more deeply into issues of violence and its prevention, and also offers extended practice time of the skills introduced.

Intensive trainings for adults of all genders and teens of all genders will be offered later in the year.

For more information or to register for a self-defense workshop or intensive weekend training, go to, or call 773-472-7663.

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