When Erin Cruz enters the martial arts studio, she begins her day of teaching and training by first bowing to the mats, which is the studio’s learning space, its center and its heart.
“It’s a show of respect to what we’ll learn and what we’ll teach today,” she said.
She and her students then move onto the mats and there they warm up by jogging around the perimeter of mats, after which they do various crawls, rolls and falls. After the group is warmed up, they then get into groups of two and together practice their falls and their throws. Cruz spends a few minutes with a new student who is still practicing his falls. A few minutes later, she moves to two students who are practicing their throws and she steps in to demonstrate a leverage position that will produce a more efficient and effective throw.
Cruz teaches Jiu-Jitsu at Lake Powell Jiu-Jitsu. Jiu-Jitsu is a Brazilian martial arts fighting style that emphasizes grappling, throwing and submission moves, rather than kicking or striking.
It wasn’t too long ago that Cruz was a student at the studio. The studio was originally opened in 2007 by Brendan and Billy Barlow. Before a person can open a Jiu-Jitsu gym, they have to become affiliated with a black belt master. The Barlow brothers opened their gym under the blessing and guidance of Felipe Costa, a BRASA affiliated black belt master.
After the Barlow brothers moved to Phoenix in 2013, the studio was taken over by Marcus Bigman, and after Bigman moved earlier this year, Cruz took over the studio and its classes in May.
Taking over the studio was a big commitment. Cruz is the mother to two boys ages 5 and 7, who kept her plenty busy already.
But too much had been put into the young school and its students to watch it and the students hard work just fade away.
“I couldn’t allow it to close,” Cruz said. “It means too much to me and the other students. There is so much talent in this school.”
Cruz first entered the Jiu-Jitsu studio in October 2014.
“I knew Billy and he would tell me to come in and try it,” Cruz said, “so one day I tried it, and I fell in love with it.”
Since that first step into the studio, Jiu-Jitsu has become more than a class for Cruz, it became a lifestyle, she said.
Because of the rigors of her Jiu-Jitsu classes, it prompted Cruz to get into better physical shape so she could train longer and with more intensity. The second big change it brought into her life was added discipline, she said. She found that the discipline of the art spread into the rest of her life.
“Jiu-Jitsu is all about counter-moves,” she said. “For every move my opponent uses on me, there is a counter-move to get out of it. It’s quite similar to chess. They make a move; I make a move.”
As Erin progressed in her classes, she found she had started adapting that same philosophy into her greater life.
If life put her in a position she didn’t like, she moved quickly with a counter-move to get out of it.
“Everything I’ve learned from Jiu-Jitsu has been empowering,” she said. “It’s an amazing feeling. Jiu-Jitsu changed my life. I hear that from most people who do it. It helps you realize how much strength lies in a person. It teaches you how to use your body, whatever shape or size it may be, and use it to your best ability.”
After training for five months, her instructors challenged her to attend her first tournament. She accepted the challenge.
The tournament was in Phoenix. The tournament space was filled with dozens of mats and hundreds of competitors and spectators.
Cruz was still a white belt and she was matched against other white belts in her own weight class. She won her very first match. Then the next and the next and the next until she had won her belt and weight class.
“It gave me a tremendous feeling of accomplishment,” she said.
A month later her instructor awarded her a blue belt. In Jiu-Jitsu, a belt advancement can only be given by a black belt master and it’s given when the master recognizes that his or her student has mastered the necessary skills to advance.
Cruz’s belt advancement ceremony was very simple. Her black belt master, Brendan Barlow, called her to the front of the class at the end of their day of instruction.
“He just took out a blue belt and wrapped it around me,” Cruz said. “It was just awesome! That promotion was one of the best feelings in the world!”
Cruz marks the accomplishment as one of her proudest life moments. It took a lot of hard work, sacrifice and pain to reach that point. Now, whenever one of her students receives a belt promotion she tears up.
“I know how much work and dedication it took to achieve it,” she said.
Cruz won her second Arizona State Champion title the next year in 2016, this time competing in the blue belt class, and last month she and Cassandra Dodson traveled to California to compete in the Jiu-Jitsu world championships.
She didn’t place but says she found the experience very inspirational.
“Watching the best of the best from all around the world compete motivated me to improve and return next year and try it again,” she said.
Cruz is a Hopi. She grew up in Page but considers Hopi to be her true home. She says she would like to eventually make her home in Hopi. She’s getting her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and wants to be involved with the youth when she returns to Hopi. She thinks the lessons she’s learned from Jiu-Jitsu will go a long way helping her reach the Hopi youth.
“I want to help them embrace themselves and empower themselves, and show them ways to resist negative outlets such as drugs and gangs,” she said.
Lake Powell Jiu-Jitsu is open to adults and children 4 years and up. For those who are curious but may not be ready to commit, the studio is open for them to come in and watch a class or you can even get on the mat and dabble and see if it’s for you, Cruz said.
Cruz would encourage more children and women to attend her classes.
“Jiu-Jitsu is a great form of self-defense for kids and women,” she said. “It’s huge for a kids self-confidence and get’s them out of that feeling of vulnerability. I wish more women would attend too, so they can feel just how strong they really are.”
Lake Powell Jiu-Jitsu is located at 687 S. Lake Powell Blvd. next to Page Lumber.
Youth classes are taught Tuesday and Wednesday from 5:30-7 p.m. Adult classes are taught Monday-Thursday from 7-9 p.m.