Smitten: Why I Do Tai Chi
for Maggie Newman, Tom Daly, Lorraine Reinstein, and All My Tai Chi Friends
Last week, during the final minutes of Tai Chi class, my teacher Tom Daly, asked us a simple, hard-to-answer question: “Why do you do Tai Chi? What is the main reason?”
We all looked at Tom a bit stunned and confused. Put on the spot, we brought up some of the more normal and obvious (and what I think of as dowdy) reasons at first: balance, health, and wellbeing. Then one longtime practitioner spoke of the wholeness Tai Chi had brought into his life.
I (the writer-editor) was, as usual, at a loss for words. How could I describe how I came to Tai Chi, and why was I still doing the form (and trying to get better at it) after 20 going on 21 years?
People who lack an interest in Tai Chi often ask me why I do this—to their eyes—strange-looking martial art. They often assume that I do it for self-serving reasons: to improve my health and sense of spiritual wellbeing. When I tell them the real reason, they are even more dumbfounded.
I was bewitched by the beauty of it.
When I was a student in NYU’s graduate creative writing program, I tried to stay in shape by running around the university’s outdoor track. My knees weren’t very good, so this wasn’t a very successful form of exercise. One day, inside the track’s oval, I saw a group of students doing Tai Chi. They looked like big exotic birds doing some instinctual dance. I decided that this must be a type of Tai Chi I had heard of called Soaring Crane.
My eyes were drawn to one student in particular whose movements were more graceful than the others’. When still, he was neither handsome nor fit, but when he did the form, whatever it was, he became beautiful—the way a dog’s or horse’s integrated movements are beautiful.
I wanted to be able to do whatever it was he was doing, to feel it in my body, my entire being. This was the initial allure, but the seduction was complete when I found just the right Tai Chi teacher.
By chance, my friend, poet Katrinka Moore, had been studying with Maggie Newman for some time. When I voiced interest in learning Tai Chi, she recommended that I try Maggie’s beginning class. It was being offered in a small studio in Greenwich Village on Lafayette Street. Maggie had her long white hair up in a bun. She was small and moved with great precision and gentle authority. From the beginning, I loved to watch her move. She was poetry in motion, the embodiment of grace and wisdom.
A former dancer in Paul Taylor’s company, Maggie had taken up the form in her forties—at a difficult time in her life. She had been romantically involved with Taylor, and from the rumors I’ve heard, he treated her badly. I imagine that when she broke with that dance world, she must have been bereft. At first, until she began to study the Yang form of Tai Chi with Professor Cheng Man-ching.
What I failed to realize when I started classes with Maggie was that she was famous in Tai Chi circles. She was one of Cheng’s (“The Professor’s”) “Big Six”: senior students in the United States whom he had chosen to carry on his particular Tai Chi lineage.
I hung on Maggie’s every word and movement as she slowly, very slowly taught us the 37 postures of what I later learned was the short form of Tai Chi. Very ignorant, I thought I was learning the long form because Maggie took more than two years to teach us this form.
During our one-hour classes, I also watched the senior students carefully, trying to mimic the way they moved. Their slightest movements and transitions between movements were so subtle and smooth: How did they do it? When I asked one woman, she said, “You’ll get it eventually. It takes time.” So I had to be content with Theodore Roethke’s advice in “The Waking”: “I learn by going where I have to go.”
It would be many years before I could do the form with any skill. At times I was embarrassed by my clumsiness and poor balance. Then—surprise—I would find myself doing one tiny movement a little better.
Again, every time I thought I had learned something elusive, I realized how little I really understood.
Maggie said at one of the first classes, “One thing you’re going to learn is patience.”
I had thought my study of dance as a child and young adult would give me a leg up with the fine points of Tai Chi, but it didn’t offer any shortcuts. The form was not exercise, not dance, not aerobic, though it got me breathing. It is a discipline, a practice, an art form, in which you become the art.
If you let it, the form will inhabit you: your body, your brain, your soul. And it will seldom disappoint—it stays with you and nourishes you in infinite and basic ways.
When I am down or scared or desperate, Tai Chi grounds me. I remember to be thankful for my two feet, rooting me to the earth. I am glad for the luxury of movement.
Following Maggie’s words, I try “to ride the air,” “to set something in motion and follow it.”
And though the form does feel “delicious,” as Maggie would often say, I learned that Tai Chi is not just about Tai Chi. It’s about how you exist with yourself and with others.
Maggie always wanted each of us to be in tune with the rest of the group, to keep the same timing, to move in sync with others. I love doing the form with the group. The others reassure me. Many of the more advanced students can do certain postures better than I can. They have better balance. Their shoulders are relaxed, their legs stronger, and they have more flexible knees. I am inspired to be (and sometimes am) less flawed.
I love that Tai Chi is always new and always familiar. It is like moving to the music of the spheres.