Sometimes, the best encouragement you can get in a martial-arts class is silence.
Once a month my school, which normally teaches a combination of wing chun kung fu and Philippine blade/stick fighting, gets a visit from Sifu Jerry Devone, who teaches pure traditional Wing Chun at a level a bit higher than our Sifu Dale Yeager.
Sifu Jerry is a nice guy, but it’s not difficult to find videos of him almost casually destroying other kung fu players in ring fights. He shows the same soft/hard combination as an instructor – never yells at anyone, but demands precision and perfection and often gets it, even from unpromising students.
Tonight he told the four senior students (including Cathy and myself) to line up facing him and do the Siu Nim Tao form with him watching for defects. From some instructors this would be a terrifying prospect, with anticipation of a humiliating ass-chewing to follow. While Sifu Dale wouldn’t exactly humiliate someone who screwed up, he might make snarky theatrical jokes about bad performance in a half-laughing-with, half-laughing-at manner. Neither of these is Sifu Jerry’s style – he’d just quietly correct in a way that would make you grimly determined to get it right next time.
Still, I felt rather stressed. I know the motions of Siu Nim Tao – it’s not a complex form, and it doesn’t require anything I’m bad at like high kicking – but it’s subtle. There are fine details in it, and the devil is in those details, and in getting the overall flow and timing right.
You have some subtle stylistic choices about how to do forms, and one of them is power vs. grace. At the power extreme you do it in crisp, hard motions that deliver power in each movement. At the grace extreme you do it as a continuous flow with beautiful motions and smooth, inevitable transitions. The failure more of power is to be abrupt, herky-jerky and disconnected; the failure mode of grace is to be pretty, limp, and pointless.
What’s tricky is that there is variation among instructors among what power-to-grace ratio they actually want. It’s not even a constant; instructors may want slow and graceful one day, to isolate a motion they want to improve you on, but fast and powerful the next day to emphasize a combat application.
I wasn’t really worried about grossly screwing up a move, I was worried about doing Siu Nim Tao with good energy and style – and I was especially worried that the way I find natural to do it, which is definitely on the power side, might not be right. Or, anyway, not what Sifu Jerry wanted.
I suppressed my misgivings and did my Siu Nim Tao – crisp, snappy, a little fast, real power in the punches and cocked-wrist strikes and the one blade-hand move near the end meant to break up a wrist-grab. We all went through it, three or four times, with Sifu Jerry strolling back and forth in front of the line watching us narrowly.
Five or six minutes later, three of the four students had received minor corrections of their form. Amazingly, none of them was me!.
I got it right! While I managed to refrain from grinning like a fool, I felt almost absurdly triumphant. Especially when Sifu gave a mini-lecture on doing the form moves with definition, like you’re using them in a fight. That lecture wasn’t meant for me – I might make other kinds of mistakes, but I hadn’t fluffed that one and it’s unlikely I will.
Of such quiet victories, built up over years, are expertise and confidence made.