Kicking out: Thai boxing is the most dangerous of all martial arts. And now women can play too. Dolly Dhingra follows in the warrior tradition

Sean Toomey says that it was an episode of Whicker's World which inspired him to take up the sport seven years ago. 'They were in Thailand and a nine-stone Thai guy challenged to fight anyone who dared. A sixteen-stone westerner volunteered and was out cold in seconds. I thought that's my kind of sport.' Sean is 5ft 8in, weighs nine-and-a-half stone and, although his fighting career is over, remains as agile as a puppet and stings like a mosquito.

He runs a club called Lumpini (named after the famous boxing stadium in Bangkok) and teaches Thai boxing (of which the more popular kick-boxing is a derivative). The only protective items permitted in a Thai boxing match are 8oz gloves, a groin guard and gum shield. Unlike kick-boxing, the use of knees, elbows and kicks above the waist are all permitted. The sport was devised 2,000 years ago as a self-defence form for Thai warriors fighting the neighbouring countries of Laos, Burma and Vietnam.

Master Sken, who holds classes in Manchester, believes that Thai boxing 'enhances your life, instils a feeling of well-being, discipline and respect. It aims to turn a boy into a man, a man into a gentleman.' Uncertain of what it might turn a pacifist girl into, I attend a class for enlightenment.

Ten laps around the sports hall and 20 minutes of stretch exercises later, the real action begins. On comes the classical Thai music. Standing with the weakest foot forward and 60 per cent of the body weight on the back foot, assume the position exclaiming 'Soo'. Then clench fists each side of the face while staring at the opponent from under the eyebrows. Basic arm movements involve hitting the opponent with jabs, fists always coming back to protect the face, straight crosses using the strength of the shoulder, and, to finish, an upper cut packing enough power to send your rivals' teeth through the roof of his skull.

It is the most dangerous of all the martial arts and is becoming increasingly popular with both sexes: performed correctly it is as graceful as ballet. A number of deaths have occured in Thailand where it is the national sport and some 200,000 people practice regularly. As yet, there have been no known fatalities in this country.

Kelly Inkin who has been attending classes for the past three months considers it preferable to the mindlessness of aerobics and says, 'Although I haven't had to use it on the street, my confidence has increased by 100 per cent.'

Lil Lees, press officer of Civic Leisure Ltd, believes that women are less interested in beauty than with ways to develop their bodies. 'Thai boxing,' she says, 'seems to offer them a strength and elegance.' Be warned - this sport does not carry a government health warning, yet.

Walnuts Sports Centre, Orpington, Kent, 8-10pm Mons; Lewisham Lions Centre, Bolina Road, London SE16, 6.30-8.30pm Tues, Thurs; Darrick Wood School, Lovibonds Ave, Orpington, Kent, 2- 4pm Sats (contact Sean Toomey 0689 861856)

Grundy Park Leisure Centre, Cheshunt, Herts, women-only from Feb (John Ainge 0992 623345)

Sitnarong International Muay Thai Assoc (SIMTA), Manchester (061-429 9660)

Bolton Thai Boxing Assoc (0204 395807)

(Photograph omitted)