You might find Robert Worthington walking around town with a wooden cane, but not necessarily because he needs help with mobility. The 77-year-old doesn't swagger, but he can swing a cane with the likes of Fred Astaire.
"The last time canes or walking sticks was ever popular in the U.S., Fred Astaire was dancing with Ginger Rogers on black and white grainy screen. The cane is not a popular thing, it's seen as a sign of weakness, you see them as an invalid, but that's not the case," Worthington said. "Older people are really, really susceptible to being attacked and having their possessions taken from them. Having the means by which you protect yourself is going to give you a much better edge."
Active in various forms of martial arts since age 28, Worthington began teaching cane self defense for seniors and the disabled three years ago. The response has been very positive and at his first class of 2013 on Tuesday morning, six seniors brought their sticks and strength to Danville's town hall to practice several ways to thwart an attacker.
There are 1,001 different ways to use a cane as protection, Worthington said, adding that most students will settle for 10 to 12 moves in their comfort level. The first class began with stretching and continued onto different ways to attack, from using the bottom of the cane to poke and wallop to hooking the handle around the aggressor's neck or legs. Cane-do users are encouraged to aim for the knees, writs, shins, elbows, clavicle or ribs for greatest effect.
"(The attacker) is going to be younger and stronger than us, so we don't want to go toe to toe. We want to end it early and make the first strike count," said John Dexheimer, a participant and third degree black belt. "We're building muscle memory because there are no rules in an assault, it will be utter chaos."
Worthington and Dexheimer also demonstrated a redeveloped military technique that uses a cane in a similar fashion as an M16 bayonet. Cane users should first warn the attacker to get away, then jab them with the cane and use the handle to strike and grab the groin area before pulling upward. Participants also practiced seated defense, how to react if an attacker rushed at them and what to do if you're approached at an ATM.
Rose Towery joined the class to learn self defense and improve her health. As the "victim" in the rush attack, Rose Towery closed her eyes instead of stepping aside -- a big no-no. Towery said she is working on overcoming her fear by practicing with her husband, who also attended the class.
"There's a power and confidence of having that cane and knowing how to use it, people gain such a degree of confidence. They were very intimidated and they take just one class and they're standing up straight with their chest puffed out," Worthington said.
But even confident seniors can fall victim to a surprise attack. James Donnelly, a tall, burly former Marine said he was attacked while withdrawing money from an ATM in Los Angeles; the experience only encouraged his participation in cane-do.
Worthington, who also lived in L.A., said he picked up cane-do after learning that senior citizens were getting robbed when picking up Social Security checks. While he wasn't looking for "the kind of respect where everyone nods to you," Worthington said he noticed people were more courteous after he learned karate.
"I love that, people won't deal with me harshly, I'm not going to pick on anyone and I can live a happy life. And that's the thing I like to bring to seniors: They're older, they're becoming frail, they're a nice target. But if they have the confidence to where they can project an air and people leave them alone and don't try to pick on them, hey, that's great I'm all for that," he said.
Cane-do classes are held at town hall (201 Front St.) from 9 a.m.- 10 a.m. on Tuesdays through Feb. 26. Cost is $65 for residents and $78 for non-residents. Call 314-3400 for more information.
"When you get done with my program, you'll be able to tell someone how to back off. And if they keep pressing you, game over, you've won," Worthington said.