From My Perch

I am sitting on the stairs of our studio, watching my husband, Ted Mancuso, teach his Bagua class. I have been sitting on these steps—not continuously, of course—for more than 20 years, and before that, in fold-out chairs; on warm or damp grass; on a hard wooden bench in a perch2community hall; on an ugly green carpet at a community center; standing, crowded, in a corner of a basement school. Over 35 years I have observed A LOT of martial arts schools.

Back on the stairs, I can hear students for the next class gathering in the foyer, and something about the familiar sound of it inspires me to think about my love of martial arts schools.

And I make my list:

1. I almost always notice the sounds of a school before the sights. Right now, the subdued greetings and conversation of the students coming in for Tai Chi class are warm, friendly, intimate. Many of these students have been studying for years, and they know enough about each other to ask after jobs, travels, family. They keep their voices low, but I can hear one mention an exercise that Ted is teaching the class already on the floor. There is a moment of silence as all watch, then the conversation starts back up. THIS is the sound of community in our school; this is a sound I love.

2. On the other hand, the Bagua students on the floor make different noises. I once told Ted that I could tell the success of any particular class by the sound of it: if I am upstairs working and hear laughter, I think it must be a good class: hard-working, concentrating, puzzling-out students responding to one of Ted’s jokes or his exaggerated examples of how to do the move wrong. I can hear the students working out the moves, sometimes murmuring to themselves, sometimes talking with their partners; they are engaged.

3. Of course, sometimes their concentration goes silent and this becomes great to see. Now they are brow-furrowed, repeating the move or one part of the move over and over to get the correct motion, experience the energy of it, slow the spot they are rushing past (an indication of the knot in the move.) This silence is pregnant with attention. FromKFTedMichNick my perch, just watching a student “get” what they are striving for makes me want to clap.

4. In front of me, now, there is a switch of partners. It is a short dance to turn from old to new, commonly accompanied by two quick, sincere bows: one to the previous, one to the prospective. This address, ritualized and almost off-hand, reminds me of tradition. Here, in my own town, thousands of miles and years from Kung Fu’s origins, I witness a gesture that encompasses history. I also see this as students bow in and out of the class room, but this exchange between partners somehow evinces the human part of the equation: we are here, together, honoring the art, honoring our own work, honoring each other.

perch15. Partners touch arms. The way martial artists touch embodies a whole world: skin against skin, intent against intent. As Ted has taught them classically, they are listening with their bodies. There is a comfort here uncommon in everyday life. They touch reiteratively: they feel themselves making contact and if they are practiced they may also feel their partners making contact with them. This skin-against-skin is something to remember when they are back home, practicing on their own, so its sense is cultivated in the school. Whether it is later used for health practice or self-defense, the sight of it is the thing I most like to photograph on those occasions when I pull out my camera.

6. One of the students is laughing at herself, knocking her head with a fist as though to bang in the idea she’s just understood. Ted laughs and a neighboring student, without stopping his own circle-walking, smiles. Across the room another circler stops, mid-step, with the most puzzled look on his face. Bagua’s hard! It slips in and away so easily. When he starts up again, he is better, as is the head-banger when sheperch4 takes her next step. To actually make progress is one of the exceptional joys coming out of a martial arts school. Not every time, of course, but the idea that a school is a big laboratory where experiments occur and progress is sometimes made is an achievement of great proportion.


Bagua class is over, Tai Chi students fill the emptied room and immediately take a Wujishi pose. I remain sitting on the stairs, listening to the Bagua students leave and call their good-byes to each other in the parking lot. I have focused only on this school, because it is in front of me, but how many schools have I seen across the country and in other countries that have evoked these same feelings in me? Hundreds, surely: on comicdebbiea back street in Merida; on a wide public veranda in Taipei; at a kid’s class in Oregon; at a park in Cupertino, California; at a large school outside Washington, DC; in a basement in San Francisco. Each school, different environments, similar elements. Have I seen schools I didn’t like too? Sadly, yes, too numerous to mention, but I re-assign those as after-school programs, or military preparedness classes, or entertainment centers. Snobbish of me? Of course, but I have been so lucky to see the true spirit of a martial arts school that I indulge my prejudice. After all, this is my list!

3 Responses to “From My Perch”

  1. Willis says:

    Nice commentary!

  2. J. Andrews says:


    I love your photos! From stiff and uptight at the top to joyful and funny at the bottom, just like the progression of our progress! And I like the last photo of you looking out from your “perch”.

    It is wonderful to be reminded of the bigger picture of the community of sifu and students: my view of being a student has just shifted a little. Thanks.

  3. Robert Kwan says:

    …I liked your most recent column about the joyful sounds of a martial arts studio because this is about learning for its own sake, and the students are there because they want to be there. A concrete, present day example of what the Master said in the Analects, Book One, “To learn and then have occasion to practice what you have learned–is this not satisfying?” Anyway, we get so wrapped in our own little world, that we forget, or overlook, how good being able to take a lesson and learn for its own sake really is, and your piece was a good reminder of that (and also how hard martial art is).

    P.S. To attribute the quote above: The translation is from Confucius, The Analects, translated by Edward Slingerland.

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