Wednesday, December 30, 2009

learning how to learn

Demo/exhibition no. two of the season went well. It was held on the national holiday which celebrates the Emperor’s birthday. My daughter and I made a day of it and enjoyed it all.

She performed two short gong fu routines, カンフー体操 1 and 2, and did well in her first such appearance before a large crowd.

It was a “light” day for me, as I was only triple entered. Started off with the 32 form of tai ji jian or tai ji sword – not much stress for me, as I have been working on that for years. The only danger is cross-over into sequences from the Sha family tai ji jian routines, but I had anticipated that and was well-prepared.

The surprise came afterward. As soon as 32 jian was finished, I found a semi-isolated corner and started working the Sha family 36 tai ji jian form, which is much newer to me and cause for more concern. During one of the many turns or spins, I caught sight of someone watching me.

I paused midway and he approached after a moment. Quite a few questions and some praise for my form. Turns out he was a professional ballet dancer for many years in Japan, but has not danced for 20 years. He has, however, recently come to tai ji quan and is quite enthusiastic.

It seems he has made rapid progress through several forms in a fairly short time. In short, he learned long ago “how to learn”, in terms of physical motions. The arts may be completely different, but his years of ballet trained him to watch a teacher’s motions carefully and immediately be able to reproduce those motions with his own body.

Look at almost any (adult) beginners’ class. People are eager and enthusiastic but are, in general, very slow learners. They don’t get it and they are not even aware that they don’t get it. Even the simplest commands – move your left arm, open your right hand - cause much difficulty and must be repeated again and again. “No, the other left hand” and all that.

Now look at an experienced martial artist (or dancer or whatever). The sense of body is already developed. He or she can watch the instructor and reproduce motions in the mirror image. When learning a new motion or a new form, they are instantly aware of whether a palm is facing up or down, or the exact position of the bent thumb, and are constantly checking and adjusting the height of the fist on the hip or the angle of the bent knee. They can also look at other students and adjust their own postures and motions – whether drawing from proper or improper examples.

This kind of body awareness and attention to detail (and the instructor) are the product of years of training and are what lead some people to make better progress than others.

Near the end of the conversation, he used the word 中心感, which I take to mean a sense or awareness of one’s own center. This is something essential to any discipline involving body motion. He is walking into the training hall with this sense already developed, whereas others around him – sometimes even those with years of experience, still don’t have it.

Yes, some people may be critical, saying he has learned too much too fast (24, 42, 48, 32 sword, maybe even 42 sword). Maybe so. He may need a long period of consolidation and separation of these forms. Yet I suspect his long-term progress will be solid. And the next time we meet, I will ask him for recommendations on my motions.

(Sorry to recycle the photo from an old blog post, but it fit perfectly. It's from a Beijing subway station in 2008)

Thursday, December 24, 2009


It is demo / exhibition season in Tokyo again, keeping us busy through the winter. Things get started with the local Mitaka tournament, which is just that – very local, and rather small. A good place to get ready for bigger things to come.

The second was, in fact, just yesterday, on the Emperor’s birthday – an exhibition / exchange involving hundreds of people who are part of the Tokyo Chinese martial arts group headed by my teacher. It was also my daughter’s first performance in front of a large group, and she did quite well if I may say (two basic gong fu routines, カンフー体操 1 and 2).

January brings a pair back to back – Saturday is another (larger?) all-Tokyo demo, and Sunday is another local gathering, this time the (richer) side of Mitaka which is on the other side of the train tracks.

There is another in February, also fairly large, and that is it for awhile (oh, gee, there is the Setagaya Ward demo, and then the all-Japans in the summer) (and a trip or two to China in the meanwhile..).

Since I am training regularly in several different classes with my teacher, I will make multiple appearances in each of these demos. There is the ubiquitous tai ji 24 form and the 32 taiji jian or sword form. And our Sha style group is getting pretty regular with Sha style tai ji jian demos.

Then there are the individual demos at some of the above. I use these as motivation, usually picking a weapon or form that has been neglected in prior months, just so I can get back on top of it.

Indeed my yuan yang yue form, learned from Liu Jing Ru Laoshi in his beloved Tao Ran Ting park, had been sorely neglected. So I started off the season in Mitaka (I was first in order in the individual demos, not an enviable position) with 鸳鸯钺 and must admit I was pleased with the result – but I also felt MUCH more polishing is needed. Read more about this pair of strange curvy weapons elsewhere in the blog…

This Mitaka demo was also significant because we finally did a group xing yi quan demo with the five basic fists, lian han quan, ba shi, even the tiger form and a short bit of xing yi spear at the end. And we’ll be doing it again later in the season, all the better.

More on the above events as they unfold. Photos above from before (yue) and during (spear).

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

small victories

I have written a few posts about my daughter’s interest – or lack of – in the martial arts. We continue going to a gong fu class together on Friday nights. These days I have been very pleased to see her interest growing and her motions and concentration improving.

We started quite young, about age four, mostly just playing rather than truly practicing. My goals were to expose her to the training environment and to do something together regularly.

Her initial excitement wore off after a few sessions, but her attachment to the teacher and some gentle nudging from us parents have kept her going for a couple years now. And it seems it is finally paying off.

During the week, I can actually get her to practice several days, if only a couple runs through the shortest of gong fu routines. But she would never practice at home before, so this is a big step for her and a great source of pride for me.

She seldom wants to practice during the week. But on Friday nights, she is (almost) always eager to go, and is always happy once inside the gymnasium. And these days, she does the entire workout (arriving early, staying until the end with all the Big Kids and assorted adults) without her customary breaks for drawing and reading.

Part of this may be because, while still the youngest in the group by a couple years, a new woman has joined and looks to my daughter for help and instruction. Fun to watch, and a boost for my daughter’s confidence.

Another part of it may be because our teacher co-hosted a couple free introductory demos with about 30 kids each and my daughter got to be a model a few times. And we have our first parent-child demo coming up later this month as part of a larger exhibition in Tokyo.

But despite my happiness with all these changes, there has been one small disappointment. My daughter informed me and the teacher that she does not want to do the demo together with me as planned, but wants to appear separately.

Fair enough. A small price to pay in the face of so many other small victories recently. My daughter may never share my passion for practicing martial arts, and her dream is to become an Olympic swimmer, but each practice we share together is a great victory for me.