Watching Kung Fu

-Debbie Shayne

I love Kung Fu, yet you could fit all my physical experience of it in one Chinese boot. However it has been my privilege, for almost twenty years, to watch it.

Some of that time has been spent behind a camera. The nice thing about a lens is that it focuses. It has taught me what to look for in the practitioner, the essence of the move or the performance. Initially, sitting on the sidelines, I paid attention to the separate parts of the static body: feet, hands, shoulders, head, etc. If you watch much kung fu, you don’t need more than your eyes to tell you where the performer’s tension lies. In the worst cases, you see the hunched shoulders, the locked elbows, knees, or wrists, the thrust chin. But what are you seeing in the better cases? It’s not just the correction of the above tensions. It is the involvement of the waist. When the waist engages, the separate parts now work together. The tip of the left willow palm talks to the toe of the right foot in its bow stance. The shoulders, relaxed, allow the two extended arms to become one long arm connected across the back. And in every posture you see, also, the mind.

Photography with a still camera makes you very sensitive to movement. After observing the body I next look for the qualities, such as timing, fluidity, familiarity, etc. One of my favorite performances was by an 80 year-old man in China, wielding a Kwan knife. While he was not as "beautiful" as the young, springy wushuist who preceded him, his movements were some of the most graceful I’d ever seen. His obvious familiarity with his weapon enabled him to move that heavy kwan as though he were cutting the air with his own arm. His waist guided each step and seemed, also, to support his limbs in their complicated maneuvers. His timing was unhurried, and each move poured into the next like water. He made no attempts at fancy stances, his footwork almost casual, yet each bow stance was perfect, each cat precise. The majority of my spectating is done, not at tournaments, but at schools. I watch students from twenty to seventy years old practice their forms and basics in small classes. Although most of the students have less experience than the ‘masters’ at the demonstrations, they are fascinating to observe.

You can sometimes see the seeds that will grow into great art, and it’s not just the talent that shines, but work and attitude. A student who looks forward to the opportunity of a new exercise, the work of a new form, is a student who moves more freely with less tension, a student who is not bounded by the daily restrictions that may inhabit the rest of his life. In a funny way, watching a student like this is like seeing the physical manifestation of his trust—not just in himself, but in his teacher and in his art. It’s a willingness to push past his own expectations—to surprise himself—and from this grows engagement: of the limbs, of the waist, of the mind.

This, ultimately, is what satisfies in a fine performance. Talent is not as rare as this attitude which, along with hours and hours of work, is at the foundation of fluid movement, expert timing, even strength and endurance. When you see a performance that takes your breath away, part of the excitement is sensing the lingering presence of the obstacles overcome, alongside the polished product. That’s why, for me, an old man with a heavy kwan is a hundred times more interesting than a young wushuist with her paper thin sword, no matter how quickly she whips and twirls it.

So, I raise my camera and focus. If I am lucky—if the martial artist is good—I will be able to find that holographic spot which contains the "energy" of the move. I shoot, then lower my camera, and watch, and watch, and watch.