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.