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Year four of my taichi experience -- the most exciting yet

It was year four of my taichi journey, and now…Now I had a weapon.


It was a lovely weapon, to be sure, this folding fan, but a weapon all the same. Historically, blades were attached to the fan’s ribs. Imagine a fight with such a thing—treacherous! Of course, the fans used in taichi are blade-less. The fan was quite large, about 25 inches long and 13 inches wide in maximum dimensions, bright red, with “Kung Fu Fan” emblazoned on its front in big, white Chinese characters.


The first time I handled it, I discovered that there is a right way and a wrong way to open the fan. If you choose the right way, it will spread out into a nice, complete half-circle. If you choose the wrong way, it will open to the shape of a wedge and go no farther. It took some experimenting, but I figured out how to do it and put masking tape where my thumb should go to help me get it right every time.


Then I started trying to use it the way I’d seen other taichi students do it. A flick of the wrist, a loud cracking sound, a burst of color, and then that perfect, half-moon shape. Only it didn’t happen like that for me. I flicked my wrist, and the fan catapulted out of my hand and flew across the room. I tried again. This time, I was successful in holding onto the fan, but it opened only part way. Clearly, this would take considerable practice.


I had to miss the first three group lessons of our Taichi 52 Fan Form class on account of family vacation, but our teacher was able to meet for private lessons before we left so I wasn’t behind when I returned. Over the next several weeks, she patiently worked with me as I learned the fundamentals of fan handling and the beginning of the form.


I managed well enough until we came to the part where you open the fan upside down. I could not get it to open fully no matter what I tried. I would attempt the movement, fail, reposition my arm, fail, change the angle of my wrist, fail, visualize myself doing it correctly, fail. Failure every single time. For months and months and months and months. My teacher was supportive, telling me (while looking at my partially-opened fan), “That’s fine for now. Don’t worry. You will get it with more practice.” But I didn’t have much confidence in myself. I thought this spelled the end of my foray into fan. What a shame. I was enjoying it.


But she was right. Eventually, I did learn it. I was also working with one of the advanced students at the time, and she told me, “You have to sort of let go of the fan.” It didn't make sense to me at first, but as I practiced, I began to see what she meant. Loosening my grip on the fan combined with the proper arm throw proved effective.


Learning to open the fan was not the only hurdle. I had some minor balance issues, but even more problematic: I broke fans. Lots of them. The first time it happened, I was opening the fan above my head. This movement, like all of the fan openings, requires swift force, and while doing this, I accidentally let go. The fan came crashing down onto our wood floor and broke into two parts. One time, it broke in mid-air during class doing a routine maneuver, and I still don’t know why. The day of my first fan performance for World Taichi and Qigong Day, I got up early to practice, and upon opening the fan, the screw that holds all of the ribs together at the base of the fan fell out, and the whole thing fell apart. My teacher was amused by all of this. She said that, in all her years of teaching, no one had ever broken this many fans. It became my unique “talent.”


Even still, I loved taichi fan. In fact, I loved it most of all of the forms I knew. It reminded me of the kind of dance I’d done in childhood and adolescence: bold and dramatic but also beautiful, elegant. Plus, the music was so exciting. It starts off slow but gets faster and faster until your heart is really pumping. I got where I could tell, just by feel, if I was successful in opening the fan all the way, and the feeling of satisfaction I felt when I did put me in an excellent mood the rest of the day.


The 2024 Asian Festival in downtown San Antonio was to be my first big public fan performance. I was so excited. I practiced as much as I could and, at night, before going to sleep, I would do it in my mind.


The day was sunny and warm with a moderate amount of wind. One of the advanced students commented on this, saying, “It will be interesting doing this in the wind. Hold onto your fans!” This is all I could think about when we lined up to go onstage. Hold onto your fan. Hold onto your fan. Hold on.


We walked out and took our positions. I took a moment to enjoy the view. We were at the Arneson River Theater in San Antonio’s picturesque La Villita, with the gently curved river before us, the audience across the river, a historic-looking arched bridge to my right, and an occasional riverboat gliding by. I was wearing my new, all white taichi uniform; new, white taichi shoes (of which I was so proud); dangly black and white yin yang earrings given to me by our teacher; and a yellow Taichitoday magnetic button. I was ready.


But then, just before the music started, my mind went blank. I’d been thinking and thinking and thinking about the wind and, suddenly, I couldn’t remember the steps. What to do? I had no idea.


Fortunately, my muscles remembered what my brain had forgotten. When the music started, they sprang into action and “saved the day.”


It wasn’t a flawless performance for me (the open-the-fan-upside down-and-backward movement gets me every time), but I enjoyed myself. There is something powerful about everyone opening the fans at the same time. The first time we did it—in perfect unison—the audience gasped loudly enough that we could hear it from across the river, and onlookers from a passing riverboat gave out a spontaneous cheer. I felt, as I always do when doing taichi with the group, a bond with these people who love the practice as much as I do.


Now I am ready to move into year five. Looking back over the last four years, it has been a fantastic journey. I feel so lucky to have discovered this practice, such skilled and friendly teachers, and a group of students I feel happy and proud to be a part of. I now cannot imagine my life without it.

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