Mina at the Kung Fu Tournament

The noise in the Kung Fu tournament hall never lets up. The waves of brass and drumming rolled along the ceiling fabric only to crash against an opposing wave of raucous sound from the opposite direction. To me, it vibrated like someone in leather and beard revving a Harley directly between my ears, but I guessed the same effect was probably felt at every spot covered by the tent.

The crackling, popping and crashing of an anxious sound system blared at the beginning of each performance, like cannons bombarding a citadel. By the time I had covered my ears and shaken the sound stuffing out of my brain, it was gone–almost as large a shock as the initial explosion.

I watched the contestants line up, staring at one another and the ground with all the concentration that a ten year-old battalion could muster. They warmed up by spinning and jumping, bumping each other and flipping the tin foil weapons like snapping a belt. From my vantage point I could see how the costumes had evolved during my decades-long absence from this kind of public competition. The classic and expected black satin uniform top was now skillfully embroidered with a dragon or a tiger or just a sequin design, laden and sparkly as a new bike.

I noticed all this while the next group of performers stood rod rigid, listening to the bent over officials delivering the rules. Thin and flexible necks kept up a constant ducking motion as the intricacies of competition were explained to them.

One girl in particular caught my eye. She was a little taller than most of her fellows but it was a height nullified by her stooped shoulders. Her hair was dyed to a color like brick, an unfortunate choice for her sallow complexion. Her costume was loose and shapeless, matching something intangible about her body as though she had been poured into a sack, then firmed upright.  Her eyes already gave the impression of someone who had followed a crowd through the wrong door. I thought of her as a perfect Mina though, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember in my life ever having known a girl named Mina.

Each child mounted the steps to the raised platform and then, in a perfectly and fulsomely rehearsed manner, made a clockwork salutation. From that point on, each highly drilled contestant started with a “hook” move to wake up the audience. Sometimes it was a high jump and a crashing staff, sometimes it was the full run-with-a-flip-flop ending, sometimes a vertical split with one foot held directly upward and the other directly down, right before the child–literally–toppled to the mat, still in the splits pose.

Regardless of the clamoring sound system, each child was a tempest all on their own. Continuous slapping of the mats, spirited yells timed with powerful movements (given that they were kids), all contributed to a lively dramatic effect. At some point, prearranged as a military charge, each performer’s school yelled out encouragements like “Push Harder! Push!” thunderous until the suddenly immobile, snap-fast posturing child froze for an imaginary photo-shoot. Then, each warrior turned and filed back down those steps through a forest of high-fives.

Watching this pattern of presentation over and over I realized that my Mina had almost escaped my attention and was already on stage and moving through her form. For several reasons, this was tough going. She seemed unfamiliar with the whole routine. You could spot the moments when she tried to rally herself and add some definition–not to mention precision and power–to her presentation. But, like a leaky balloon, the pressure always defeated itself, and she then noticeably deflated.

None of this was helped by the fact that the ever-present chorus of yells and slogans had disappeared. No one called out for this particular performer. I imagined her mother somewhere in the audience, sitting in the first rows, with no clue as to what she should do or yell, even if she chose to do so.

Mina’s moves just kept flowing despite the lack of a cheering section. The entire room seemed to me to be suddenly, deathly quiet. And I realized that the speakers were out. Yet this muted performance kept right on marching along, revealing a horrible truth: her form was now sans speaker system accompaniment. Glancing again, I saw that it was no more dramatically silent than it would have been with “musical accompaniment.” I felt like yelling encouragement, but sensed that a single voice raised for her might be more depressing than inspiring.

And, just about at that moment, I changed from a mildly interested observer to a sort of negative cheerleader. I hoped, desperately, that her performance was reaching that point when everyone can see the performer folding her tent and packing to leave. And it was precisely at that moment something changed. It was as if she had been captured and fascinated by her own performance.

kung fu tournamentNow, instead of a worried face atop a too-tall lanky and unresponsive body, she was caught watching her own hands, suddenly as graceful as whirling leaves in a playful breeze. There was no stage-fright because there was no longer a stage. I looked but could not determine–in her eyes or posture–any clue to signify that this was an unexpected experience, or some unusual flower-like opening. It was as though she had plunged into a swimming pool and now floated on her back, buoyant, as one of those aerial leaves now fallen, riding the ever-expanding rings of water.

Previously she had been a girl held in the steaming box of her house through an endless hot summer. Abruptly, she was let out to wander her front yard, feeling the breeze play patty cake with her cheeks.

When her form was done, as she walked down the steps, her eyes lowered and her hand barely responding to the light pats from her fellow competitors, I could not for a moment see if she was truly rewarded by her experience. But I found myself nodding, realizing how much boredom, doubt, and anxiety had left me while watching what she had brought to her moment on that stage.


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