NORTH CAPE MAY – In the U.S., we are not accustomed to recognizing those who distinguish themselves by knighting them. In recent years, we have heard of British superstars being knighted and given the title “Sir,” as is Sir Paul McCartney or Sir Elton John. The equivalent title for women is “Dame,” as in Dame Helen Mirren or Dame Olivia de Havilland.
Donna Cancila Keating, of North Cape May, recently traveled to Rome, Italy, and returned as “Dame Donna” after she received the honor from Italian Duke Fabio Bevilacqua.
According to Keating, who is a fourth-degree blackbelt in Goju Ryu karate, she received the honor and title after the duke heard about her efforts to teach self-defense to women in Cape May County. She met the duke, a grand master of Wing Chun kung fu, at a tournament in Atlantic City.
“He found out I’m in martial arts,” she said.
Keating was born in South Philly and became a single parent when her children were 2 and 4. Her father was able to retire at 55 and he helped her take care of her children. Then, her parents decided to move to Wildwood, where they had a shore home, and she and the children came along. Keating ended up opening the Nail Hut nail salon in Court House, which she operated for 12 years before turning the business over to her partner.
Keating said as the owner of a nail salon, she heard a lot of troubling stories.
“I heard so many stories from customers about abuse from husbands and boyfriends,” she said.
Keating said she started trying to help some of these women, and even took in four different women who were targets of abuse. Then, at age 55, she decided that she would take up martial arts for her own benefit.
She said she walked into the former Shore Kicks Karate, in Rio Grande, and asked about learning karate.
“The guy looked at me and said, ‘How old are you?’” she said.
They then told her the studio taught karate and aikido and asked her which she was interested in learning.
“Both,” she said.
She was introduced to the man who would be her instructor and who told her, “I’m not going to treat you any differently.”
Five years later, at age 60, Keating earned her blackbelt in Japanese Goju Ryu karate. She also earned a blue belt in Nihon Goshin Aikido. It was after that she began teaching and started giving self-defense classes to women. The classes were more than learning to punch and kick.
“I told them to stay away from bad relationships,” Keating said.
She would teach them to always have their car keys nearby in case they were afraid. She said she told them to hit the alarm button on their key fob and hopefully the sound would attract the attention of neighbors. She said she taught women not to put up with abuse.
“I always wanted to help women because I was lucky,” Keating said. “I started a new life.”
Some of her customers or students started new lives, and the ones who couldn’t, she took in.
Eventually, Keating took over the running of Shore Kick Karate. She had been a martial arts competitor from her 60s, competing against women in their 40s. In 2016, she entered the East Coast-West Coast Martial Arts Tournament held at the Wildwoods Convention Center and she took first place in “kata” – from the Japanese word for “form,” kata is an established form of exercise movements from karate or other martial arts. Keating said she ran Shore Kick Karate until the Covid pandemic shut down all the martial arts schools.
However, her success and dedication and a martial arts instructor brought her into contact with many well-known and international martial artists over the years, including Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez, Jay White, Ron Van Cleefe, and Laotian-American martial artist and movie producer J.J. Stomp. This is also how she came to the attention of Duke Fabio Bevilacqua, who told her, “I’ve got to dame you.”
Keating said she is just a part of a wide community of martial artists from the Wildwood/Cape May County area, including Butch Hamer, Joe Hess, and Eddie Rankin, who taught martial arts to the Wildwood Police Department officers, and the Rev. James Hatch, who started a Navy martial arts team.
She might be the first to be offered a movie role. She said Stomp asked her to be in his yet to be released movie, “Hardcover.”
Keating made her trip to Italy from May 3 to May 8. She was damed May 6 in the Fortress of the Knights in the mountains outside Rome, under the Ordine del Redentore. Her “knighthood” comes under the Order of the Military and the Precious Blood of Jesus.
“It was a very honorable thing to happen,” Keating said. “Not too many women are damed.”
Contact the author, Christopher South, at email@example.com or 609-886-8300, ext. 128.