The Long Island School of Tai Chi Chuan formed my first experience in learning Tai Chi Chuan as a martial art. I was a formal student of Bob Klein's from the fall of 1984 to the summer of 1988 when I moved away for my first trip to China.
In the fall of 1984, during my sophomore year at college, SUNY Stony Brook, I saw a flyer in the student Union for the Long Island School of Tai Chi Chuan which advertised Tai chi as a martial art. (For the back-story see my article: My First Tai Chi: Sophia Delza Wu Style.)
When I called inquiring about classes, I was invited to an upcoming school party. And so... my first experience with this school was participating in a "Taoist Forest Wine Ceremony".
The "Taoist Forest Wine Ceremony" involved all adults in attendance, which was maybe about 30 people that day. We sat in a large circle on the lawn outside the school, each with a glass of wine. We took turns going around the circle saying something we were thankful for. This was followed by a hearty "Ho!" and everyone taking a sip of wine. This continued until all the glasses and bottles were empty and everyone was overflowing with thankfulness! And as I learned later, this was a fair introduction to the temperament of the school: easy-going and prone to laughter.
Kungfu Magazine.com has an e-zine article, a kind of mini- Tai chi autobiography by Bob Klein titled: Animal Fighting and Animal Chi-Gung. I suggest you read this so you gain an insight into the influences on Bob's approach to Tai Chi Chuan. Bob's primary Tai Chi teacher was Grandmaster William C.C. Chen.
When I started classes, Bob gave me a booklet he wrote titled, "May I Have Your Attention, Please". (Does anyone still have a copy of this?) Then his first major book came out, Movements of Magic: The Spirit of Tai-Chi Chuan (1984). He began filming his first videos during the time I was there. His "Zookineses" was there is spirit but was not yet named nor codified.
Once each summer, Bob would bring out a six foot boa constrictor or two to push-hands class and we'd practice "pushing hands" with the boa, feeling the fine, wave-like muscular movements of this big snake.
Feel how human muscular movement is coarser than the snake's. How can you apply the strength and power of the snake's movements in push hands?
I remember during these sessions that we'd also practice snake staring. Getting nose to nose, eye to eye with a boa is an amazing experience even if it was "tame" and used to human contact!
One experience I vividly remember during one of these sessions was asking Bob, "Am I seeing a deeper wisdom in the snake or is the snake reflecting my own deeper wisdom back to me?" The answer he gave was, "You'll have to figure that out yourself." Working with large snakes in this way is an experience that has stuck with me.
Bob used to encourage us to watch and imitate animal movements. I spent a lot of time in the woods behind my dormitory practicing forms and observing the small animals. I even made a few trips to the Bronx Zoo. Most interesting was observing monkeys playing with momentum as they'd swing from branch to branch, up and down, and around and around. My girlfriend at that time had cats which I enjoyed observing and learning from. I would then try to bring the movement qualities of these different animals into my form, push-hands and sparring.
Bob wasn't one for teaching or drilling individual mechanical techniques or applications like I remember from Judo class or Chin-na seminars at the Tai Chi Farm. Rather, I remember the focus was on learning a way to move and blend and flow.
Regarding sparring, as Bob says, he learned fighting from William and then flavored that with animal movement. I wish I could find an old clip of William sparring to be able to compare apples to apples.
Bob tended to keep the temperament of sparring classes light-hearted, more game-like than competitive or war-like. Occasionally tempers flared but we worked through it. Sparring was like an extension of free-style push-hands but with boxing gloves. In sparring, like push hands, he emphasized looking for gaps and openings, appearing and disappearing, striking where the opponent wasn't paying attention; avoiding or brushing aside incoming punches and kicks while simultaneously delivering a punch or kick.
Here are a couple clips of William C.C. Chen instructing push hands. I learned these exact same exercises and body movements in Bob's classes.
I remember Bob teaching us these exact same push hands lessons of yielding.
Now, this first clip is from Bob's video, Chinese Kickboxing, 1987, which is now a two DVD set. Bob is instructing Joe and Rick. I was operating the camera. Notice the same push hands principles at work in these sparring exercises. A walk down memory lane for me...
This following clip was filmed after I left the school. However, this clip shows (in slow motion) what our beginning sparring classes looked like. Taken from the DVD "Internal Energy in the Martial Arts".
We were a great bunch of steady, long-term students all of whom I really enjoyed! Here's a photo of our "core group" in 1988. We all played forms, push-hands and sparring together. Where are they now?
Many of us also participated in various activities outside of school as well. We attended the summer Tai-chi Farm festivals in up-state New York. We went in to William's school for a T.T. Liang workshop. We did fire walks and multiple sweat lodges with Bill Elwell (Native American Indian Sacred Purification Sweat Lodge Ceremony) in some very scenic settings.
By the time I left the school I had learned the 60 movement Yang form as pictured in the 1983 book: William C.C. Chen's Tai Chi Chuan. I also learned fixed step push-hands forms, fixed step free-style push-hands, free style sparring and a Tai Chi sword form. In addition, I learned spear, staff, monkey, and mantis forms from a relative of William's whom Bob invited out from New York City on Saturday afternoons.
Toward the end of my time on Long Island, I spent some time hanging out with Ralph and Frank outside of class. On occasion, we'd polish off a half bottle of Tequila and spend hours practicing push hands which at times got really fast. Sometimes we'd stop and laugh in amazement at how our bodies responded before the mind had time to process what was happening, "Wow! Did you see that?" I was pretty impressed with the skills I had developed!
Later after leaving the school, I encountered players from many schools including other Tai-chi styles, Xing-yi, Ba-gua, Yi-Chuan and also my now longtime teacher and friend, Rick, who I've watched develop the Wujifa system. Through meeting and practicing with other people from other disciplines, I slowly came to realize that I had more to learn about internal strength and internal connectedness.
Getting back to the "Taoist Forest Wine Ceremony".... I am thankful for the unique experiences and all I learned from Bob and my classmates at the Long Island School of Tai Chi Chuan, particularly, I'm thankful I learned how to tap into an element that has imbued my Tai Chi with a qualitative smoothness and flow that I notice is lacking in many other Tai Chi players.
Snakes, cats, and monkeys...