Ker-pow! Meet the Tae Bo Women Warriors

Ever in search of efficiency, the Manhattan female has discovered a one-stop shopping exercise that whittles her abs- and empowers her inner female ! Sculpts her thighs- and teaches her self-defense tricks ! Lets out her anger- in controlled 27-minute segments ! Then she can shower off that ugly sweat and begin her day slimmer and thinking that she just might be able to beat the crap out of the guy in the next office.

With a fervor not glimpsed since Jane Fonda first donned pink leg warmers, otherwise sophisticated New York women who would have scorned Ms. Fonda’s cheesy middle American esthetic are plunking down $59.95 (plus shipping and handling) for a set of four Tae Bo workout tapes and painstakingly re-enacting the punchy aerobic routines in the safe confines of their cramped apartments. “Tae” means “leg” in martial arts parlance and “bo” derives from “box.” The videos feature lots of tacky pink carpeting; glistening, anonymous abdominal muscles; and Solid Gold -esque dancers flailing and lunging to one-step-away-from-porno-soundtrack music. Those New York women sans air-conditioning are filing determinedly into gyms, crowding into classes with fierce-sounding names like Cardio Kick, Gotham Box and simply Pow! They’re hiring personal trainers and whaling away at thin air. Men who gamely join the classes have been known to slink away after they realize they are in a room with 30 or 40 very angry women.

Last year’s fitness trends-yoga and Pilates-were based on a sense of internal control, with the subtext that if you trained your mind, your body would follow. Tae Bo is pure external assault, an auto-exercise for would-be warrior princesses. It’s dumb, cheap-an hour at a Pilates studio runs around $80-and wet . Primal.

Among the combatants is Calista Flockhart, a former New Yorker who has returned, suspiciously scrawnier, to star in Bash , a series of one-act plays written and directed by Neil LaBute. (Both made their names in 1997, when Mr. LaBute released In the Company of Men , a film that some critics thought misogynist, and Ms. Flockhart debuted in Ally McBeal , a show that some critics thought antifeminist.)

“I love the punching part,” Ms. Flockhart told a reporter in late April. “The trainer holds up a pad for me to hit. I visualize someone’s face. It changes daily. I just punch ‘em.”

“If you walk up to most women and say, ‘Put up your dukes,’ most of them wouldn’t know how to do that,” said Billy Blanks, the Los Angeles-based inventor of Tae Bo. “Because of Tae Bo, now women are getting the chance to put their dukes up.”

“Literally, I saw the ad on TV one night and I actually kind of believed it!” said Rebecca Schanberg, 27, a husky-voiced honey blonde who does charity work for Polo Ralph Lauren, lives on the Upper West Side, and belongs to Equinox, which she called a “chichi, la-la” gym. “I’m much more of an outdoor-sports person,” said Ms. Schanberg. “I’ve never bought anything off TV before. It was actually really out of character, I think! I did it alone, and it was actually really good. Like, it was really a dream workout. I did the beginner tape and it was so easy that I did the next tape. It was a great sweat and I felt really empowered afterwards. And I was laughing the whole way to work. I was like, ‘I can’t believe I did this.’ Looking in the mirror, punching, you know. That kind of thing.”

“Literally-this is going to sound fake-I never watch those commercials,” said Lynne Granat, a 35-year-old Upper East Side resident who is the director of special programs at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School. “It was the first time I ever saw it, and I called up and ordered.” While she uses a private trainer once a week, Tae Bo seemed to offer something else. “I just liked the kicking,” said Ms. Granat. “It was just like a different movement and it made my heart pump and feel good. It was almost like doing wild dancing, just like fun, like whooo !”

“Men are more attracted to me, and I’m not just saying that,” said Najla Said, 25, an actress and daughter of Edward Said, author and Columbia University professor. “They think it’s really cool, you know guys, if you start punching and kicking-and you know what you’re doing-they think it’s really cool, you’re like the tomboy.”

It Began With Rocky

At the heart of the latest workout to sweep the city is the inevitable middle-aged male multimillionaire. Meet Billy Blanks, 43, who grew up poor in Erie, Pa., the fourth of 15 children, a seven-time karate world champion who became the San Fernando Valley fitness guru he is today. Mr. Blanks’ Horatio Alger tale is broadcast ad nauseam on late-night cable TV, part of the infomercial advertising his wares, sales of which have grossed his company close to $100 million since last August. Mr. Blanks broadcasts from his eponymous World Training Center in Sherman Oaks, Calif., now offering valet parking. He knows New York is a huge market; he recently led a seminar upstate at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck. He does not yet have a live outpost in Manhattan. “Soon,” he said.

“I’m the originator of it, all the cardio martial arts,” Mr. Blanks told The Observer . “Everybody’s copying what Tae Bo is.”

He described how the seeds for his workout were sown a decade ago when his wife brought home the soundtrack to Rocky ; Mr. Blanks began grooving to the beat and found himself panting . “I thought, Sheesh, I need to get my cardio down,” he said.

After blending music with hand chops, kicks and boxing moves, Mr. Blanks began to suspect he had something chick-friendly on his hands. “I was always wondering why women wouldn’t come to karate studios,” he said. “When you talk to them, most said in order to take karate you had to be too strong , it’s too masculine , and it’s too hard , you know, you get bruised up. I wanted to see them be able to protect themselves. My wife was always by herself, driving, getting out of parking lots.”

Mr. Blanks-a devout Christian of unspecified denomination, occasional B-movie actor, and former bodyguard to Dukes of Hazzard ‘s Catherine Bach-has trained the recently divorced Neve Campbell, who plays the battered, lip-nibbling Julia on Party of Five , and the recently divorced Brooke Shields, who plays the beleaguered, scatterbrained Susan on Suddenly Susan .

But some martial arts experts sniff at Mr. Blanks’ mass marketing approach. “Let me say this,” said David Baker, a fifth-degree karate black belt who’s been teaching at the Midtown Karate Dojo on Lexington Avenue for two decades. “Billy Blanks is a well-respected, legitimate martial artist, but some of the techniques are just not correct! He does this punch over his head to the side, sort of a reach , and each time he does it he lifts his outside heel away from the punch. Now that’s the opposite of what you would do. You would never bring your heel up, because that’s your foundation .”

“In a sense,” said Mr. Baker, with evident disgust, “it’s almost like taking a martial art and defanging it.”

‘Oh, Those Two Girls’

“To the ribs! To the face !” barked Ilaria Montagnani. “Think of your hand as a blade .”

It was noon on the hottest day of the year thus far, and Ms. Montagnani, a 31-year-old karate black belt, was in a padded room along the icy aerie of the Reebok Sports Club, leading 29 women and one man in the 45 minutes of vicious jabs, undercuts and roundhouse kicks that she calls Powerstrike.

Twenty-nine hands slashed at the air; 29 faces frowned in concentration; 29 sets of buttocks fiercely clenched. The lone man, with his bald head and blue biker shorts, had fled.

Downstairs by the carrot juice bar after class, Ms. Montagnani took a sweaty pause to talk alongside Patricia Moreno, a tall, lithe, olive-complected aerobics expert who’s been her teaching partner for four and a half years. They normally conduct Powerstrike together, but Ms. Moreno, who at 34 is pursuing her own black belt, injured herself recently tripping over a street sign on 58th Street.

The pair said they created their martial arts-dance hybrid independently of Mr. Blanks.

“We had never heard, honestly, of Tae Bo and all that fashionable stuff,” said Ms. Montagnani. “It’s been hard. In the beginning, we were pioneering it in New York City. When they talked about martial arts and fitness it was like ‘Oh, those two girls . ‘ Now with Billy Blanks, now everybody’s like, ‘Maybe it is good.’”

“But it’s been amazing for us in the sense that it’s opened everybody’s eyes to this great concept of fitness,” said Ms. Moreno.

Asked what Mr. Blanks had that they didn’t, the two responded in unison. “Money,” they said. ” Money .”

“Of course we wish it was us!” exclaimed Ms. Moreno, a tiny rhinestone twinkling in her right nostril.

“It would have been nice,” said Ms. Montagnani dryly. “He was in the right place at the right time.” The two hope to have their own video out by October.

“He saturated the market with that infomercial, which is good ,” said Ms. Moreno firmly. “It’s a great thing for us, because now everybody does it.”

Gyms aren’t the only place Tae Bo aficionados are turning up. At the Hospital for Special Surgery at 71st Street and York Avenue, physical therapist Tim Stump was tending to two new patients with injuries caused by Tae Bo maneuvers. “One of them tore a muscle in her hip,” said Mr. Stump. “A lot of this is focused on high, energetic kicks; she didn’t have the flexibility necessary. She’s young, healthy and active. And then I have another young active female who hurt her back doing a twisting type of motion.”

Down the street at the Beth Israel Medical Center, Robert Gotlin, a specialist in sports medicine, said he has seen lots of hamstring or thigh pulls, lower back strains and general tendinitis. Dr. Gotlin owned up to a certain affection for Tae Bo. “My wife does it!” he declared. “She’s nothing, she’s a housewife; she huffs and puffs.” But he, like Mr. Stump, had his caveats. “It’s two workouts in one, almost like Certs,” said Dr. Gotlin. “The movements of martial arts are not like the normal ones you do in a gym setting.”

And what of Tae Bo’s purported self-defense advantages?

“Basically, I think Tae Bo is all fine and good, but the problem is, a lot of people think they’re doing martial arts, and they’re being sold a package that will just not fly in a real-life situation,” said David Herbert, who teaches hapkido at the New York Martial Arts Center in SoHo. He added, “Martial arts is about developing your whole being so that you have a better life. It’s more philosophical.”

No More ‘Cute Shirts’

But for many in Manhattan these days, a better body seems the quickest route to a better life.

“The world I grew up with was all about being skinny, and I was pretty skinny. In fact very skinny,” said Ms. Said. “And this sort of filled me out a lot. I think it teaches you to kind of take up space and be O.K. with that and be a sort of a powerful woman.”

“It totally pumps me up,” said Mary Abrams, 24, who sells ads for CNN and lives on the Upper East Side. “Especially with the punches and stuff and the kicks.” The 5-foot 1-inch, 102-pound Ms. Abrams, who calls herself “a midget,” said that Tae Bo had made her feel strong and brave. Her boyfriend grumbled in the background.

“He laughs,” said Ms. Abrams. “I tell him he should do it, because he’s the one who’s out of shape.”

” What ?” called the boyfriend, who sells ads for the Yellow Pages.

“‘You should do Tae Bo, ’cause you’re out of shape !’” yelled Ms. Abrams.

“No I’m not,” muttered her beau.

Lizz Pawlson, 22, a publicist at Morrow who kickboxes in Hoboken, N.J., shrugged off the naysayers.

“My shoulders have gotten more broad,” she said. “None of my cute little shirts fit anymore, but that’s O.K. It’s great with tank tops and, you know, that awful top-of-the-arms tricep thing that most women hate.

“O.K., I couldn’t beat anybody up, let’s be honest,” said the 5-foot 4-inch, 118-pound Ms. Pawlson, who said she occasionally envisions “annoying authors” as she kicks. “But I feel that perhaps I could defend myself a little bit better, and I think as a woman living in New York City that’s a definite bonus.”

Indeed, Tae Bo has inspired some women to trade up to the actual martial arts.

“It’s weird, because I can hit a bag, and I can hit the air,” said Ms. Said, “but in karate, I really have trouble when we actually start fighting . I start crying. It’s weird, because a lot of us have this problem. Sometimes I miss being the helpless girl, because that was easy.”