Classes on Demand
Sword Instruction Notes From Maggie Newman & Ken Van Sickle
Taken by Bob Goodwin on May 2, 1999 in New York, NY
Revised 11/07/05 by Robert G. Goodwin
It all began with a co-op class on Sunday afternoon at Newman Lao Shr's kwoon at 537 Broadway on the fourth floor in Manhattan, New York. After some push with Van Sickle Lao Shr and Don Ahn I was talking to Aunt Newman when I mentioned while studying from her in the early nineties she told me I hadn't had the sword in my hand long enough. Upon hearing my comment Uncle Van Sickle took me out on the floor, with swords in hand he proceeded to give me a fencing lesson.
The following notes were taken at the studio and on the E train back to where I was staying and the following day on the plane returning to Los Angeles, CA. The following notes came from that session with Mr. Van Sickle, as best I could remember:
• follow with the body by turning and/or stepping in the same direction as the thrust or cut.
• always move in a circle, unless forced back
• never force the blade, always follow
• wrist straight
• hold with only the thumb and second finger. Never release this grip. The other fingers can move or relax but never the thumb and second finger.
• use the hilt to parry a thrust coming into the wrist
• use the left hand to grab or slap the sword hand
While dueling with the Professor, Uncle Van Sickle grabbed the pommel of the Professor’s sword and the Professor brought his left hand up to his right hand/forearm and pressed Ken Van Sickle out.
A comment Uncle Van sickle made to me was my sword experience was revealed in my fencing.
After working with Mr. Van Sickle for about a half hour, Ms. Newman then proceeded to teach me what not to do with the T'aiji sword. The notes that follow are as best I could remember, but the experience will be one I will never forget. With sword in hand she explained the following:
• Relax and follow. Drop the elbow by rounding it. Not by pulling it in to the body.
• Never pull the pommel back to the chest.
• Never lower the body to much. Stay connected to the sword and let it (the sword) work for you.
• Keep the tip of the sword toward your opponent as much as possible. (This may have come from Uncle Ken Van sickle, I'm not sure.)
• Remain neutral with the touch. Never lift or push down. Only follow by stepping, sinking and turning the waist.
• The sword arm stays extended slightly, just as in t'ui shou, and the body responds. The sword is an antenna.
What happened next was one of the most pleasantly frustrating events in my thirty five years as a martial artist. I had felt similar experiences with Lo Lao Shr, Smith Lao Shr and Uncle Liu. But never with a real, or an imaginary, weapon in my hand.
"FINGER-SWORD" CLASS with Ms. Maggie Newman, May 2, 1999.
We had to leave the room at this point because the next session, a dance class, was ready to begin. The conversation/lesson moved to a small hallway outside the room. Mr. Van Sickle sat on the stairway and watched. The area we were now in was about four feet by six feet. Aunt Newman was on a roll and I was trying to take in everything she presented. Newman Lao Shr extended the first finger of her right hand and I touched hers with mine. Our fingers represented our swords. Her touch was filled with history and mine was filled with self.
What I felt from that point on must have been what the senior students of Professor Cheng felt while fencing with him. She moved freely and smoothly with absolutely no restrictions and yet everywhere I attempted to turn or step there was my tension, a wall, a stair step or Aunt Newman. She was smoke. I was steel.
Every now and then a Lao Shr goes to a place where they may be teaching on one level but all of their years of experience are active on such an organic level that you want to just stand back and observe. It was Ta'iji magic because she wasn't "doing" anything. She was not only teaching the sword through her finger but she was also allowing me, the “Soliari” of our art, to experience her wu wei, her innermost internal manifestation through her simultaneously living, loving and giving those moments. I was, as Nikos Kazantzakis put it, "In the presence of the presence."
Even if I could remember everything she was attempting to teach me I could not duplicate the chi, the internal connection, the touch, the "I", the shen, the totality that she was at that time. She was, in those precious moments, what we all strive to be. She was everything she could be through her "self", while standing on the shoulders of the Professor, and everyone before him.
What struck me some time later is the most important and less obvious lesson taught was the unimportance of having a sword in our hand. The sword should be an extension of not only the body but also of the embodied principles learned from practicing the form, t'ui shou and ta lu. A sword is in a sense useless if the gung-fu (time and perseverance) is not there. I believe this is why Lo Lao Shr said a student needs to study T'aiji ten years before you attempt to study the T'aiji sword.
I feel Professor Cheng could incorporate form application, t'ui shou and ta lu into his fencing because they are all the same. That is in the sense of attribute training. One aspect of our art not only compliments but also supports the other. This is why it is so important to study all the aspects of our style. Those, include the form, t'ui shou, ta lu and the T'aiji sword. You cannot have a total understanding of one area without knowing the others. “To master one branch of knowledge. You must first master those that surround it." Oliver Wendell Holmes.
These are only the moments and experiences I was aware of. I have always felt that we should touch our teachers whenever possible because we are learning on levels we are not cognizant of. I only hope that my mind/body absorbed the principles of our art that I experienced. To this day I realize I was involved with a magical mystery that can never be duplicated or truly explained with our communication limitations. I can only use words and she used chi. I can only recall and she is. I am forever grateful for Newman Lao Shr's sharing so openly and honestly. All of my experiences have been with quintessential teacher’s, role models for us all.
I will always be thankful for those precious moments that forever changed my perception of our art and instilled even more pride in my having studied our style the past twenty five years. Once again I bow to the wisdom and experience of my Lao Shr's.
The preceding notes were written with the utmost respect for Mr. Ken Van Sickle and Ms. Maggie Newman. What I have written is to the best of my memory that I perceived as being told, but these notes could be incorrect and should in know way reflect on Mr. Ken Van Sickle or Ms. Maggie Newman if I was mistaken, or mistakenly misquoted either of these generous, loving people in any way. I am forever grateful as they pointed to a door. Thus challenging me to discover the secret to unlock that door and walk through using my own research and training.
These notes are not to be passed on to anyone, or published, or copied in anyway without the express permission of the author, Ms. Maggie Newman and
Mr. Ken Van Sickle.
Robert Goodwin. August 29, 1999