At a West Hollywood gym, SHANDA DEZIEL learns to fight, tumble, climb, hang, seduce and disguise

August 1 2005


At a West Hollywood gym, SHANDA DEZIEL learns to fight, tumble, climb, hang, seduce and disguise

August 1 2005



At a West Hollywood gym, SHANDA DEZIEL learns to fight, tumble, climb, hang, seduce and disguise

IT’S 9 A.M., and there’s a knock on my hotel room door. The weapons have arrived. As a spy-in-training, I have only one skill left to learn—how to shoot a gun. The instructor, Mark Worland, a six-foot-four, 230-lb. hulk of a man, pulls a Smith & Wesson revolver and Ruger 9mm semi-automatic out of his black vinyl carrying case, placing them on the coffee table in front of us. “They’re not loaded,” he says, “but a good rule is to always pretend they are.” After a half-hour of basics—how to load, hold and aim—I’m on my feet,

revolver in hand with the TV in my sight line. The gun is heavy and the trigger hard to pull. Next, I try the semi-automatic, load it with fake bullets and face down the room’s light switches—this gun has one of those cool red lasers to line up your target. But the handle is too big for my hand. Worland assures me that once we get to the firing range, I’ll find a gun that’s a perfect fit.

Is it wrong to be just a little excited?

This weapons training session takes place on the last morning of my six days at spy school in West Hollywood. I’ve spent a week learning to fight, tumble, climb, hang, seduce and disguise. This is not some high-tech, state secrets, serious spy school, but rather a fitness program designed to give females a firm body through a series of adrenalized and fun activities that impart the kinds of skills any Bond girl or Charlie’s Angel might need: strength, balance, fighting techniques, weapons know-how and sex appeal. “Women see Charlie’s Angels movies and go into a negative spiral,” says Sascha Ferguson, owner of Absolution workout complex and co-creator of the spy

school program. “They think, ‘Why can’t I be glamorous and sexy and fight and drive cars and shoot guns?’ I was just sick of seeing people on TV learn what I wanted to know. Belly dancing is so sexy, so what’s stopping us from learning to do it?”

The term spy school is just a cute marketing tool to draw actresses looking to enhance their action-movie skills, thrill seekers keen to try the latest fitness trends, and corporate retreaters in need of de-stressing. In fact, no one at Absolution refers to real spies or how they operate—that’s left to your imagination. Ferguson comes up with an itinerary suited to your time and budget (the cost ranges from US$500 to thousands, depending on how many courses you take, for how long). Locals can draw out their experience by taking weeks or months of Pilâtes classes, self-defence, gymnastics, circus arts, rock climbing, belly and erotic dancing, and capoeira, a Brazilian martial art performed with music. Out-of-towners will have a more concentrated stint. For me, that was three weeks worth of exercise packed into one.


Groin, eyes, groin, eyes, groin, eyes—that’s where to aim when fighting off an assailant. “Getting hit in either of those places,” says David Cherkes, a martial arts expert and self-defence instructor, “stops a guy’s momentum. His reaction will be to bring his hands to that area.” Cherkes, a New Yorker who looks a bit like Ben Stiller in DodgeBall, encourages us to try it out. But first he dons

PM TOLD that once

we get to the firing range, I’ll find a gun that’s a perfect fit. Is it wrong to be just a little excited?

an impressive padded suit, complete with a massive foam-and-duct-tape helmet. And he warns us that in this incarnation, as Muggs the Mugger, he might cross the line and say something that makes us uncomfortable.

There are 13 women of all ages at a so-called IMPACT assailant defence course at the

Santa Monica YWCA. Some are here because they’ve wondered what they’d do if attacked. The teen girls have been sent by their fathers for some pre-college toughening-up. And one woman admits she wants to punch someone with all her strength. IMPACT allows people to do just that, by

teaching them aggressive techniques and then pushing them into a highly adrenalized state. When my turn comes up, Muggs approaches, “Hey, I want to talk to you.” At the first hint of trouble, a female coach reminds me to plant my feet, bring my hands to the front of my body, look directly at Muggs and respond, “I’m not interested in talking.” This is the first counterintuitive lesson of the day. When faced with a strange man in a threatening situation, I, like many other women, will ignore him and walk faster.

While showing you’re not scared will deter many would-be assailants, Muggs, of course, perseveres. “Why, bitch? You can’t just stop and talk?” I’ve forgotten that this is Cherkes play-acting; as far as I’m concerned, I’m fighting for my life. I move my hands up closer to my head, ready to block anything that comes at me. And Muggs does—he lunges, and I stop him by throwing my palms in his face. That stuns him long enough for me to knee him in the groin, which brings him to the ground. Then I finish him off with a series of kicks and knees to the head. Needless to say, it feels good.

Taking a class like this is what pushed Ferguson—who used to work as a corporate trainer in the entertainment industry—to start Absolution and include IMPACT in the spy school program. “I was three weeks into the six-week course,” says the 34-yearold former New Yorker, “when I essentially resigned my job and said, if I do nothing else but tell people about this class for the rest of my life, I’ll die happy, even if I die broke.” While it wasn’t quite as life-changing for me, I am intrigued by the advanced course, in which you learn to fight off an intruder while blindfolded and lying in bed, and how to defend yourself from five bad guys at once.


Absolution specializes in one-on-one workouts on Pilâtes apparatus. Made from beds and chairs, the “reformer,” the “cadillac” and the “wunda chair” were designed by Joseph Pilâtes in the early 20th century and offer the most intense, but least painful, workout I’ve ever experienced. Hooked up to springs and foot straps, working with levers and pulleys, your body is stretched and strengthened in unimaginable ways. It almost seems worth the $75 an hour.

After Pilâtes, it’s time for a private streetfighting lesson with Cherkes/Muggs, who’s carrying a rubber gun and taped-up knife. Until

Fitness I >

this moment, my response to having a knife or gun pointed at me would surely be complete and utter compliance. But Cherkes advises resistance. He comes up from behind and puts a knife to my throat, then tells me to press his hand tight against my chest so he can’t move the weapon. Continuing to follow his prompts, I rotate my butt away from him and, with my free arm, punch him in the groin. Cherkes’s tips for getting out of the way of a gun also seem simple—I just turn my body out of the weapon’s range and push his gun hand in the other direction. Then if I’m feeling lucky, I can wrench his wrist and grab the gun.


I must have done a few thousand cartwheels and round-offs in my life—all before the age of 14. Now, at 32, the thought of planting my hands on the ground and propelling my legs over my head is daunting—especially at 9:30 a.m. in front of a group of surprisingly acrobatic adults.

But with the assistance of head tumbler Paul Naylor, it’s like Grade 6 all over again. Naylor, though, is not so impressed with my miraculous return to gymnastics, insisting my form could be straighter. Toward the end of class, he pulls the rings down from the ceiling. “Let’s see how strong you are,” he says. “I’m not,” I reply. Despite the extreme pain from minute tears in my shoulder and arm muscles, I hang on as he brings my legs up over my torso. Then, when I fail to do anything on my own, Naylor sends me to the bench to watch.

Feeling a little dejected by the morning’s activities, nothing comes as more of an ego boost than belly dancing—a must for any burgeoning femme fatale. With a beaded sarong wrapped around my butt, I try to isolate my hips without moving my upper body. It’s not easy, but eventually I’m shimmying my way around the room, thanks to Judy Johnson—a gorgeous, full-bodied teacher/dancer who puts the hip in hypnotic. Looking in the mirror as we camelone arm raised above our heads, our bodies making a worm-like movement—I’ve never been so happy to show off my notexactly-flat stomach. After 45 minutes, the sweat is pooling. But I’m convinced I could

deflect an assassination attempt with a perfectly timed hip toss.

Now that I’ve got the moves, all I need is the look. After all, Alias super-spy Sydney Bristow wouldn’t be half as kick-ass without her wigs and disguises. In the on-site hair salon, Alice Murrell, a makeup artist, slathers on foundation before applying bronzer, dark blue eyeshadow, peach blush and a tad too much lipstick. Then stylist Kevin Scott, who’s been fussing and fiddling with a long red wig, finally sprays it with conditioner, and we yank it onto my head. Checking myself out in the mirror I look like a soap opera star. How exactly will I carry out my spy duties if I can’t stop looking at myself?

Yet, according to the artists, something’s not right—my jeans and T-shirt. Ferguson, who happens to be wearing a more appropriate leopardprint slip dress, rips it off, puts on a robe and sends me off to change. Now swimming in a tall woman’s clothes, I feel I’m walking a fine line between drag queen and stripper. Just in time for an indoor climbing lesson with two of the most attractive men in L.A.


While belly dancing gave me the basics for seductive spy behaviour, I was counting on erotic dancing to make me truly irresistible. Unfortunately, this type of exercise program is gaining such popularity in Los Angeles that the studio was closed for expansion. But other clients swear by it. After eight months of lessons, Suzanne—who’s showed her moves to her boyfriend but doesn’t want her last name printed—feels pole dancing brought her confidence and more presence. “Now when I’ve had a stressful day,” says the 24-year-old Californian, “I pull out my pole at home, put on my little six-inch heels and booty shorts and just dance.”

Instead of erotic dancing, I sit in on an aerial arts class, taught by former Cirque du Soleil acrobat Aloysia Gavre. Two students are practising a static trapeze routine, holding a series of artistic, nearly impossiblelooking positions, putting all their weight on one arm or wrist, or hanging from the tautest of limbs. My turn on the bar is a bust. While trying to pull my legs up over the bar, my

THAT stuns him long enough for me to knee him in the groin. Then I finish him off with a series of kicks to the head.

left shoulder freezes in its socket. Once again, I’m sent back to the bench. When class is over, actress Lauren Ambrose (Claire on Six Feet Under)—who’s there to videotape a friendtakes a turn. Thanks to her ongoing Pilâtes training at Absolution, she’s able to flip her legs up and over without seizing up—with Six Feet Under coming to an end this year, the fragile-looking redhead may turn out to be Hollywood’s most unlikely action star. DAY 5: AIN’T NO MOUNTAIN LOW ENOUGH

My upper body has completely shut down, forcing me to ask: what kind of spy can’t even open her own hotel room door? I’m tempted to bow out of today’s rock climbing excursion, but Ferguson, in typical L.A.

fashion, promises all will be good. She tells the teacher, James DeMalignon, to take me rappelling down the rocks instead of climbing them. He laughs: “You’ve got to go up to come down.” So here I am facing a 40-foot rock face just outside of L.A. In between panic attacks, I make it about three-quarters of the way up, twice. Then, overwhelmed and light-headed, I pack it in. But if I was going to be a real spy, I’d insist on one of those nifty, Batman-type zip wires to pull me up a mountain anyway. This spy school is seriously lacking cool gadgets.


With only three hours before I board a plane back to my relatively un-adrenalized life in Toronto, Worland and I arrive at the LAX shooting range. There’s already a crowd waiting for the doors to open at noon. Once inside, I show ID, buy a $10 membership and presto, I have my choice of guns and live ammunition. Heading into the range room, I’m feeling less like a spy than a total imposter—the only one cringing every time a round goes off. But Worland sets me up with a small Ruger semi-automatic and I go through the routine—load the bullets, pull back the slide, aim and fire off 10 rounds. Repeat. He reels in the bull’s-eye sheet, and

it seems I’m not much of a shot. Next he takes a sheet with a human figure and sends it out 12 feet, telling me to aim at the head. This time, alarmingly, I fare much better. My target loses an ear and a nose and gets the rest of the bullets in the forehead. Satisfied, we return the gun and take a stroll through the showroom. Beneath the sign that reads, “Rung fu my ass, try to karate chop a bullet,” there’s a wide variety of shiny weapons that I could own and carry if I lived in some parts of the U.S., or if I was a spy, or even if I played one on TV. But for now my weapon of choice remains the pen—and maybe, on special occasions, a red wig. [?I1