Previous month:
April 2007
Next month:
June 2007

Best Thing That Happened to This Martial Artist

Chicago_gold I've been writing about people who have been important to our school during this emotional time when we close it down and move South. There are people I haven't saluted due to time limitations--people like Vicky Arratia, Deb Thompson, Gary Whitcanack, Eric Schlichte, Xixuan and Conan Collins, Colin Frye, and of course Kim and Chris Miller. There are many more, too.

Since 2002, however, the most important person of all has been my wife and best friend Nancy. I've never known a woman like her. We started dating in August of 2002. By January, she started into the tai chi class and loved it. As time went on, she encouraged me to buy the building for our school. She got in there and painted and worked so hard.

She also encourages my tournaments and enjoys the road trips. The picture above was taken at a Chicago tournament after I won the gold medal in Advanced Hsing-I forms.

Having Nancy in the classes gave me someone to flirt with, and I enjoyed using her as a "dummy" to demonstrate fighting applications. The class enjoyed it, too, I believe.

I'm moving to Florida with my best friend. The school didn't really work. We lost hundreds of dollars every month but she never complained. We were both very proud of the effort we made. We realized that it's just too difficult to work full time and try to run a school, especially when you don't teach kids.

It took me nearly 50 years to find her. It's a shame it didn't happen sooner, but we're enjoying every moment. We laugh our heads off every day. We enjoy spending time together. She's the most dependable woman I've ever known. And I love it when we're at home and she turns to me suddenly and says, "Can we go over that tai chi move again?"

I'm a lucky man.  :)

Tai Chi - An Athletic Art

There's an amazing story in the New York Times on Sunday, May 27, 2007, titled Learning to Dance, One Chunk At a Time. Reporter Diane Solway writes about Angel Corella, a dancer from Spain who has a gift. He can watch a dance performance onstage and after seeing it only once, he can recreate all the dance steps--not only the lead dancer, but the steps of every supporting dancer.

There is a lot of tai chi in this article. It discusses the path that dancers take to learn a routine. The article says:

...most dancers share a relatively similar path, first learning the choreography and then adding layers of detail and color. Finally, they absorb the work so completely that its elements literally become automatic, leaving the dancer's brain free to focus on the moment-by-moment nuances of the performance.

The story also says that learning the choreography is just the first step in perfecting it:

They must also convey the intention and feeling of the works they perform.

In practicing tai chi, the first step is to learn the choreography. It isn't easy for most people to remember each movement of the form in order. It takes practice just to remember the order of the movements.

I've always admired good dancers. Gene Kelly was my favorite. He was a great dancer but also athletic. I enjoy watching his movies, especially Singing in the Rain but also An American in Paris. He made it look easy, but anyone who has learned a kung fu form for a tournament knows just how much work it must take for one dance routine in a play or a movie. It's a very athletic endeavor. It starts with learning the basic movements.

In my own tai chi practice, the easiest part is to remember the movements in order. I have learned an entire form in just one day. But that's just the beginning.

I'm still working on every movement in every form I've learned. I still see flaws in all of my movements. Sometimes, when I'm practicing in front of a mirror or if I videotape movements, I feel as if I got it right. But the next time, I feel as if the quality I was seeking escaped me.

One of my students, Greg Surrierer, said it very well in class about a month ago. He said, "Tai Chi is like playing 18 holes of golf. If you make three good shots in 18 holes, it's enough to bring you back to play more."

As I prepare to leave the Quad Cities in a few days, I would urge my students to do what I do, and what I plan to spend a lot of time doing in Florida: practice each movement over and over and over. Try to "get" the intent. We've gone over the fighting applications of each movement. Work on whole body connection and the silk-reeling in each movement, starting with the ground, spiraling through the leg, guided by the dan t'ien, and manifest in the fingers.

When we first learn the movements, we're jerky and disconnected. When I ask people to watch themselves in the mirror as they practice a movement, too often I see them looking down at themselves or at the floor. They don't see how disconnected they are, and their minds tell them they're doing the moves correctly when in fact, they aren't.

The number of forms you learn isn't important. All you need is one form. In fact, all you need are a couple of movements. Hold your stances, build your leg strength, work on whole body connection and silk-reeling, work on maintaining peng jin throughout all your movements in a relaxed way, and you'll have the key to tai chi.

And never forget the intent of each movement. Let the tai chi teacher down at the YMCA or across the city tell his students that they need to become "one with the universe" as they do tai chi. Let other tai chi students try to do their forms with "no mind." We're practicing a martial art. Every movement in our tai chi is a fighting move. If you're not thinking of the body mechanics it would take to do that move effectively, you're not doing tai chi.

The beauty of this art is that you only need one form. Keep practicing each movement in that form. When you perfect it -- if you ever do -- you'll have achieved something that few people have done.

Do you know how many people take dance classes, and how few end up on a Broadway stage? It's no different with tai chi. Many start classes. Few end up performing successfully in tournaments, and very few end up with quality in their movements.

The difference is practice, practice, practice, until you add the layers and color and absorb the form so completely that you can recreate it without thinking. That's what self-defense is all about.

A Great Group of Friends

Chris_ken_jay_blog Jay and Penny Stratton were kind enough to host a Going Away Party tonight for Nancy and me. I think I'd be very disappointed if my teacher left town. This Friday, Nancy and I will leave for Florida.

This isn't easy. My students have become our friends. The weather was perfect for tonight's barbeque at the Stratton's. And you should see the woodwork this guy does. What an artist!

Grill_king_blog2Jay is also an artist on the grill. Also at the party were Skip Hackett, Vicky and Boris Arratia, Greg and Carol Surrierer and their daughter Rhiannon, Chris and Kim Miller, Kim Kruse (now married but I'll be darned if I can remember her married name), Chris and Kat Lierly, Doug and Jane Outterson, Jon Stratton and his friend Taylor, and Colin Frye. John Morrow also stopped by.

Over the years, a lot of students have left me, but I've always been there. Vicky said tonight that she always knew the school was there, even if she wasn't, and it gave her comfort. I understand that.

Ken_kim_kim_blog  Working full-time and teaching about 7 hours a week (10 hours for more than half the year in 2006) has been very difficult. I've put off a lot of activities I had planned, including videos and books about the arts. Since I don't plan to teach at this pace after we move to Florida, I'll free up a lot of time to study, practice, and produce more teaching materials. Another thing that will help -- I'll live only 8 miles from work instead of the 65 mile distance between my home in the Quad Cities and ACT, my employer the past 8 years.

Ken_colin_blog2 The Internet makes it very easy to share information. In the coming weeks, I plan to explore ways of teaching through the Internet. Hidden pages the public can't see, but students can access them for written material and videos. I'll teach a lesson and the students here can practice.

I promoted several worthy students during the last class yesterday, and tonight I handed out sashes. Each one can achieve a black sash if they just keep practicing. John Morrow attended the party tonight, too. He's such a good man, and a great friend and martial artist. I'm hoping my students can drop by his school to workout sometime.

Ken_rhiannon_blog Rhiannon was there tonight. Her parents, Greg and Carol, started in class last year and they've been wonderful additions to the school. I love people who are interested, dedicated, and would drive over an hour just to come to class. Lately, they've done that twice a week. The photo above shows Rhiannon, who doesn't want a piece of me. No she doesn't. I have a black sash and I can whip a 10-year old girl. I'm not kidding.

Nchris_ken_greg_blog Her father, Greg (shown here on the right) said something very nice to me as I was leaving tonight. It caused me to reflect philosophically for a while as Nancy and I drove home. It's hard to understand the impact you have on other people sometimes. I'm just a martial artist who is a little farther down the path than my students, and my responsibility is to share what I know so someday they can pass me by. Time isn't stopping. I'm getting older every day. Sometimes it's hard to realize that I want to become very good at Chen tai chi, but in 6 years I'll be 60, and in 16 years I'll be 70. Realistically, there's only so much time left to maintain a high level of physical strength. You can run, but you can't hide.

Ken_vicky_boris_blog The best thing I can do is to keep working and trying to maintain physical strength while improving the subtle skills that it takes to be really good at Chen tai chi. As I continue down this path, I'll maintain contact with these wonderful people as long as they want.

Ken_nancy_skip_blog_2 Teaching martial arts has many benefits. It forces you to practice harder. It gives you insights into the art that being a student can't give you--in teaching, you're forced to think deeper, and when students suddenly ask you questions about a form, or the meaning of a movement, you better have the answer. But the best thing about teaching is the opportunity to bring people into your life who enrich it. I've been very lucky to know these people and to be their teacher. As I told several of them tonight--it's not over.

Baby Steps are the Key to the Internal Arts


The past 10 years have brought changes that I didn't imagine when I began teaching in 1997. I worked for a long time in TV news and moved a lot. In the 90's I settled in the Quad Cities and in 1997 decided to start teaching. Little did I realize what would happen when I did. Basically, I realized that something was missing from my Hsing-I, Yang Tai Chi, and Bagua. I began reading a listserve--the Neijia List--on the Internet, and I read discussions by people like Mike Sigman, using terms I hadn't heard before such as peng jin and ground path. I asked if there was someone in my area that could show me what it meant. I was guided to Jim and Angela Criscimagna, in Rockford, Illinois.

After meeting Jim, I realized within an hour that I had to start over. Chen tai chi was so different, and the body mechanics were so much better than what I had been doing, my martial arts changed direction instantly. I explained to my students that our arts weren't complete, and they followed me as I grew, learned, and brought home new concepts and a new art--Chen tai chi. Before long, I tossed Yang tai chi aside forever.

Jim and Angela introduced me to the Chen family, notably their teacher, Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang. They are both indoor disciples now.

The photo above was taken in their backyard, during a visit to Rockford by Grandmaster Chen. Like a few other students, I paid an extra fee for a one-hour private lesson, apart from the 2-day seminar he was holding, which I also attended.

It's a valuable opportunity to have one-on-one coaching from the direct descendant of tai chi's creator. During most of the hour, he corrected my posture in standing and in the first few movements of Laojia Yilu. Each time I thought I had a posture correct, he would make another correction and it would feel completely different. When he truly gets you into the right posture, you usually can't hold it for very long. We Americans don't have time to spend getting our legs as strong as they need to be to really do it well for long periods. It's the price we pay for our lifestyles.

Even though I learned a lot attending seminars over the years by Chen Xiaowang, Ren Guangyi, Chen Bing, and Chen Xiaoxing (who I also had private lessons with and hosted him for a week in my home), my best training and most valuable lessons came from my American teachers such as Jim and Angela. Americans have questioning minds, and they probe deeply into the meaning of the movements and the proper body mechanics. Because of this, and because they were able and willing to explain things in plain English, I could learn more in an hour from folks like Jim and Angela than I could in several seminars by a Chinese master.

I've also tried to do that with my students. I question and probe and explore the movements, and I explain as deeply as I can. We experiment to see what works and what doesn't. As the years have passed, and I've begun to understand the concepts of internal strength and body mechanics, I've realized that all it now takes is many more years of study and practice to get better.

Taoism teaches us that nothing is certain but change. Everything is constantly changing and moving. When it comes to life, careers, and martial arts, persistence is crucial, and an ability to adapt to new information. One of the reasons my career has been successful is because of my desire to get better and improve my skills every day. Success in the martial arts is no different. Little by little, baby-step by baby-step, we improve.


The Heart of Our School

Skip_correction_3As our school comes to a close with final classes this Saturday, I'm honoring some of the people who have helped me during the past 10 years of teaching.

Marilyn "Skip" Hackett joined our tai chi class shortly after I began teaching in Bettendorf in 1999 (I began teaching in Muscatine in 1997). She loved tai chi so much that she added the kung fu class to her schedule, even though she was nearly 60 and had never done martial arts before.

Skip quickly became the mother hen of our school, recruiting many new students from her vast number of friends around Bettendorf. She became a publicist, mentioning the classes many times in her Pet Peeves column in the newspaper 50+ Lifestyles. She talked the publisher into giving me a column to discuss philosophy. She was a tireless promoter of the school, and kept student names, phone numbers, and email addresses organized for her dis-organized teacher. She bailed me out many times when I needed to contact students.

Skip became much more than a student. She became a good friend, and saw me through the darkest period of my life--a 20-month period after my marriage fell apart in 2001 (before I met Nancy). I struggled to recover and deal with it, and as I was trying to get through it, I suffered a serious shoulder injury that led to surgery and a long, painful recovery. I dang near lost the will to live, and shut the school down for six months. When I reopened, Skip was right there, attending every class, recruiting new people, and helping the new students.

Young people who joined the school accepted Skip and came to love and respect her. She was an inspiration to them all, and took everyone who walked through the door under her wing. She sometimes helped students with entry fees for tournaments if they couldn't afford it, and I think she even helped them with their monthly class fee, but she did it quietly.

Along the way, Skip learned tai chi and kung fu. She competed in tournaments. At her age, the media turned out to cover her first sparring competition. How could they resist a kung fu fighting grandma?  She even went with us to a huge tournament in Chicago and brought back a 6-foot tall 1st place trophy. What an amazing achievement for a 60-year old!!!

Just as she had been there for me, the school was there for her during the illness and death of her beloved husband, Charlie. Her knee and hip replacement surgeries have taken her out of action in recent months, but her presence is still felt in each class.

The school wouldn't have lasted this long without her. I'm very glad to have this opportunity to tell the world, and to say "Thanks, Skip," for what you've given me personally and as a martial artist.

Students Who Become Family

Ken_chad_richweb1 There are two great benefits to teaching martial arts. One is the way that teaching makes you a better martial artist. It pushes you to improve your own skills. That was driven home to me the first night I taught classes--October 1, 1997. As I stood in front of a small group of young guys, I realized that they were looking to me as an expert, and if I made a mistake, I would lose their respect. The pressure to be perfect is intense for a teacher.

The other great thing about teaching is friendship. A few students along the way become much more than students--they become family. The first week I taught classes, two young guys came in to see what was happening. Richie Coulter and Chad Steinke were teenagers. Richie had a brown belt in TKD but was curious about kung fu. The photo shows Chad on left and Richie on right.

They took to the training and became obsessed, rarely missing a class. After four months, Richie said that he had already learned more from me than in 2 years of taekwondo. It was an amazing compliment and one I'll never forget. Over the next four years, he became a legend on the tournament circuit. I've seen him memorize a complex form and compete with it, winning first place among a large group of karate and TKD students, and all within two weeks! He was a natural.

I didn't know how to take Chad at first. In the early classes, he seemed a little resistant and kept comparing the art to karate and other arts. He developed as a martial artist, too, and brought me a lot of pride. Over time, I realized what a wonderful person he is with a huge, generous heart.

These two guys became like sons to me, but also, despite the age difference, like best friends. After Rich got his black sash (still my only one), he became involved in college, fatherhood, and the pressure to pay the bills. Chad began work, got married, and now is studying at Iowa State University. We still email each other all the time.

Rich came back after a long absence, only to tear his ACL while doing a sword form, putting him out of action for another year. He now lives in Pella and has put together a wonderful life with his son and soon-to-be wife. Chad came back to classes last year and it was a wonderful little stretch of time training together until he went to Ames.

These are the kind of students all teachers hope for.

I believe all teachers are disappointed when students join the class, become part of your school, and then suddenly vanish without even a goodbye or a thank you. It is one of the things that has disappointed me most about people. I give all students as much as I can. The ones who just vanish after becoming a student and friend don't quite understand the relationship.

This fall, ten years will have passed since Rich and Chad walked into my class. They pushed me forward, and helped me develop as a martial artist and a teacher. A lifelong friendship began that night, and we didn't even realize it.

The Day Pat Got Her Polka-Dot Sash

Patpolkadot Pat Putz joined our tai chi class in January, 1999, when she was in her late 60's. She had been a pioneer in TV advertising in Des Moines back in the 50's. She did one of the first live TV commercials in Des Moines.

Pat has a fiesty personality and a great sense of humor, and heckled me from the back row, which I called the "remedial" row. I don't know that she ever memorized a form all the way through, but that wasn't the point of her joining the class. Her blood pressure dropped and her balance improved. She stayed with us, heckling and having fun, until earlier this year, when a medical condition made it difficult for her to do the forms anymore. She's in her mid 70's now. Her heckling was funny and she sometimes had a slightly bawdy tone to her comments.

Pat always joked from the back row that she was expecting a sash at some point, maybe a "polka dot sash," so one night around 2004, we surprised her with a white sash with pink polka dots. We took a picture when I presented her with the sash (see above).

Pat's one of the people who made my teaching experience fun in Bettendorf. I made a lot of friends in the 10 years I've taught, and each one is important to me. I'll never forget them.

Chen Xiaoxing One Year Later

Cxxblog It's been a year since Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing stayed in our home for a week. He came to Moline partially as a favor, because I sponsored his visa to visit the U.S. and teach seminars around the country. He held a 2-day seminar on Laojia Yilu at our school and I received some good private training in my basement. It was fascinating to host a man like this and to see a true master up close and personal.

Grandmaster Chen is in charge of all tai chi training in the Chen village. He has trained some talented young masters. We're about the same age. He's the younger brother of Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang. He's the uncle of Chen Bing.

It was difficult for us to communicate, since he doesn't speak English, but when he trains, no words need to be said. One day we did push hands in my basement for a while. Each time I tried to attack him, he relaxed and suddenly, I found myself on the floor. We were both laughing--I was laughing because it was amazing to feel what he was doing but still be unable to defend against it. He was probably laughing because he enjoyed watching me fall. :)

I learned to see my basement carpet in a whole new way.

Until you feel someone really do it, it's difficult to grasp the concept of relaxing when force comes at you. Our natural tendency is to tense up. A lot of martial artists who have studied other styles--even becoming black belts--have come into my school to study, and the one thing that I have to continually remind them to do is to relax. When force comes in, you relax and neutralize it, deflect it, re-direct it, let it pass, and then counter, often by using the opponent's sudden lack of balance against him (he's off-balance because you didn't stop his force).

One of the best memories I have of the week Grandmaster Chen stayed in my home is the sight of him laughing while playing magnetic darts in my basement. He loved the game, and was very good. He kicked my butt. Then, as he was preparing to leave, I rolled the magnetic dart board up and handed it to him, along with the darts, as a gift to take back to the Chen village. He giggled like a little boy as he went over to his suitcase to pack his new toy. He's probably the grandmaster of magnetic darts in the Chen village now.

Grandmasters like this are amazingly talented. They're like olympic athletes. They've trained in this one thing all their lives. Naturally, when we are with them, we look like schmucks because we are Americans and haven't practiced tai chi for 8 hours a day since we were very young. It's silly to expect to take on Michael Jordan in a one-on-one basketball game, and it's silly to think of entering a homerun contest with Roger Maris. We shouldn't feel bad because we aren't as good in martial arts as people from the Chen village. The chance to practice, study, and improve slowly is something to be enjoyed and savored.

Another important realization is that like any athlete, Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing is also just a man. A simple man with a narrow view of the world. He's interested in tai chi and he wants to be in the Chen village, and that's about it. Having him in our home for a week was a great reminder not to hold these guys up on too high a pedestal. They may be internal arts masters, but their training shoes stink as badly as ours, and they step outside for a cigarette just like the smokers at work. There's nothing mystical or deep about them. They've just developed great skill at tai chi.

This type of training was impossible until the past 15 to 20 years, and until very recently, you had to travel to Chen village to meet and train with Chen Xiaoxing. His brother, Chen Xiaowang, urged him to go to America to help spread the art. If you have a chance to train with him or other Chen masters, don't pass up the opportunity.

A Kung Fu Life


This picture was taken in 1974, when I had earned my green belt from Grandmaster Sin The in Shaolin kung fu. I'm holding the "Staff of Death," which I and my students still use in our school. This staff has made dozens of moves with me--it has traveled with me to homes in Kentucky, Ohio, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and soon--Florida.

Our school is closing at the end of May. I'm taking a position as director of media relations at a major university in Florida. I'll be the university spokesperson and I'll work to get publicity for them, as I have done for ACT--the company that produces the college admissions exam--for the past 8 years.

It's a little strange to look at this picture, this 21-year old kid 33 years ago, and think of the journeys I've taken through the martial arts and through life. Even though it's 33 years later, I feel as if I've only scratched the surface of martial arts. There is so much more to learn.

When I take the Staff of Death to Florida, I'm excited at the prospect of being able to train outdoors year-round. I don't plan to ever teach regularly scheduled classes as I have the past 10 years. Instead, I might recruit one or two college students and teach them as I work to improve my own skills. I want to explore Chen tai chi much deeper. Instead of spending so much time teaching, I'll use some of that time to study the movements, body mechanics and fighting applications in-depth. I'll continue the website, the blog, and I'll continue writing and making instructional videos.

At the heart of Taoism is the simple thought that everything changes. But that doesn't always make change easier to handle. Leaving the Quad Cities is something I didn't expect to do when we bought our building. I'm going through major guilt over leaving my students. But I haven't always lived in the same town or state as my teacher, but I made it work.

After the move, I'm toying with the idea of giving up bagua completely. Years ago, one of my teachers--Jim Criscimagna--urged me to give up the extra arts and focus on Chen tai chi. I wasn't ready to hear it at the time. Now it makes perfect sense. The more arts you study and practice, the less quality you can expect to have in each one. It's really true. I think I'd rather try to be much better in tai chi than mediocre in 3 arts. For now, I plan to continue practicing Hsing-I because I'm pretty good at it, but my main love is Chen tai chi, and over time, I might phase out of Hsing-I.

There are literally hundreds of fighting applications inside of the Laojia Yilu form alone--punches, elbows, knee strikes, kicks, chin-na, throws and takedowns, and much more. I want to explore every one of them. If you have such a complete fighting system right in front of you, why not really dive into it, instead of dividing up your mental energy into several arts? Let's face it, in our crazy modern lives, we don't even have time to master one art, let alone three.

I hope you stay with me, and continue reading the blog, as we explore all this together.