Why Are the Forms on Your DVDs different …

… from the Way My Teacher does It?

At Plum we get this question all the time. On one level the answer is obvious as a spinning heel hook; different people teach differently. But that is not the whole story. 

Even the question of what is “teaching the same” as another instructor is ultimately a problem of tradition versus traditionalism. Traditionalism is an almost superstitious belief that all rituals must be duplicated exactly. Real tradition is often far more flexible, emphasizing the importance of essence over detail. Two qualified teachers watching the same two form might disagree as to their traditional authenticity. Rote imitation is insufficient.

Consider some of the key reasons your DVD and your teacher might vary.

1. Authentically different versions. Of course everyone thinks his version the gospel, condemning all other variations as aberrations. Even coming from a single source the form might have gone through diverse evolutionary stages. Yang Chen Fu, the creator of the most popular Yang Tai Chi form, is recorded as having changed movements and postures throughout his teaching life. We have the photographs to prove it. Like different drafts of a novel, there may be huge alterations in the ideas and arrangements of the creators each, of these attended by a generation that learned this or that version.

2. Student limitations. Yes, Virginia, every teacher was once a bumbling student. Yet he or she ended up teaching other students. The original teacher may have adapted some moves in consideration of the student’s skills and abilities. Then those students become teachers and pass that on. One well known Sifu told me that when he assisted his famous teacher they had eight versions of the same form. For every venue the teacher would specify: the police were taught one way and the college students another. This is not considered teaching wrong versions, but teaching the right way. One thing you should understand about true traditional forms is that nothing is off the rack; everything is a custom fit. We’re not looking for standardization but unique expression.

3. Forms are not what you think. Is there any real use to forms? Long before I came to the martial arts the debate was raging and it still is. The problem is that not enough people see the triad of form, student and teacher as one unit. The form is the map, showing not only the destination but the routes one may take to reach it. The student must actually take the journey but he has the guidance of the instructor who, through his experience and knowledge, suggests alternative routes based on abilities, understanding, persistence and more. The teacher who does not alter the form at different points of the study is just not paying attention. That variation you see on the DVD might very well be your future version or, conversely, a bypath you will never see.

I have actually seen students who were resistant to this constant variation. Inevitably the teacher just ignored them, letting them pay their dues and wander off on their happily elliptical ways. Very sad.

A form is a series of movements, of course. But more importantly it is a series of skills and qualities. If this section is performed quickly the teacher has the perfect right and responsibility to find a variation that will get you up to speed. That section of the form is the speed section, not the move 135-136-137 section. Experience and knowledge allow him to do this.

4. Mastery is about change, not repetition. If you never expect to master the art you will not expect to change it. But, as in a graduate program, true mastery requires a contribution from the teacher and that means rearranging and rethinking the form. Real martial arts is not a slavish repetition. Creation is part of the traditional formula and that means both teacher and student.

In the interest of completeness you might also consider some more mundane possibilities such as…

5. Your teacher is a fake. It happens. He is claiming an expertise he doesn’t have. This is not that unusual and people with little martial experience are particularly vulnerable to this type of exploitation. If you feel that way a change of teachers isn’t just a good idea, it is mandatory.

6. Your perceptions are just wrong. You may think you are spotting differences that really don’t exist. I can’t tell you how many times students claim a teacher is doing this or that which they have completely misinterpreted.

7. You are mistaking intent and performance. You might be mistaking anecdotal changes, such as power issuance, for precise technique. Often we see teachers and students who are performing and vary the form according to audience or competition. This is not the way they practice “at home” and it can be very misleading to the spectator.

In a round-about way these are some of the reasons we created PLUM. We felt that if people exposed themselves to the wide range of art and interpretation in classical Kung Fu they would more readily look past the particulars and see the core of each style and every teacher.

8 Responses to “Why Are the Forms on Your DVDs different …”

  1. charlie says:

    Thanks for this article, I cant tell you how many times I’ve bought the dvd and learned the form before my Teacher finished teaching us. Most of the time my teacher has a different way to do certain forms,but at least I get the basics of it and then adapt to his changes. There is no way of knowing how your Sifu will want you to do forms, Thanks

  2. Jeff says:

    Something I have noticed on many of the videos I have purchased – the full form is different than the form broken down into its sections. Yes, even within a single video the form is performed differently.

    Often these changes are slight, often they are due to the form being slowed down for teaching and thus different than the form at full power and speed.

    But I have a seen a few that leave out entire combinations and even whole sequences. I blame the video editor.

  3. Elliott F. Monds says:

    WOW! What A Wonderful Lesson and Article. A Big Thanks to You. Elliott.

  4. patrick hodges says:

    of course. Also if one saw how I did forms in my 20’s compared to now in my 60’s one wouldn’t ask that question =) People don’t think before they ask such questions. Too bad. Sometimes things are left out cause they are difficult to do physically or hard to apply. We are dealing with an art that has a human factor in it and there’s the problem. Good advice!

  5. Margie Van Praag says:

    Excellent, excellent article. Thanks so much.

    Before this article, I asked the question about the same style forms being performed so differently in videos. I was told that you can expect that to happen. It does not matter that the forms have variation; what does matter is that the spirit is the same.

  6. SS says:

    Fantastic article by Ted on Forms and DVDs. I thought he did a great job compartmentalizing the reasons for the differences. We often joke at our school, our teacher is ‘changing it again’ when he is really just getting us to work on different things (either individually or as a group) be it for health, martial or other purposes. I have seen teachers who are not at all flexible and others who are, shall we say, on the overly creative side. I am a huge fan of the DVDs at Plum and I like to view many versions of the
    same or similar styles and even view vastly different styles to see what parallels I can find with what I study (even though I personally only play at a few forms as I have enough challenge working on those). I find that I can learn much by watching other interpretations of the same form/style and even others. Ted’s succinct reasons for differences in form (and their positive and negative origins and implications) clearly show his experience
    and I really appreciated his insights. Really well done…

  7. Charles C. says:

    Great Article! You’re right on target.

  8. Joe B says:

    I heard another reason is so that judges at Wushu competitions can spot the performers who learned from a video.

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