When I first trained in dance, in 1987, everything was about action and speed. All my Laban teachers were fast, and most of them half my height – so when they did tricky choreographies, going down to the floor and suddenly up again, I was still hitting the ground when they had bounced back up again and were off, like the White Rabbit, down an ever-disappearing corridor, and into something new…It was bewildering, such frantic, perpetual motion, for this long, lanky body of mine.
But the same year I lost my soul to movement and music, I also began training in T’ai Chi, with a wise, calm, Greek man called Andreas Demetriou. He saved my giddy soul! He still teaches in Brixton and remains my slow-movement mentor. Because T’ai Chi (literally peaceful energy) is everything that a lot of contemporary dance, and indeed contemporary LIFE, is not. It is grounded. Considered. Balanced and quiet. Like swimming through the air, it brings mind and body into an altogether more even and harmonious state.
T’ai Chi has followed me, for the past thirty years, through personal crises, changes of home and direction, through losses and re-discoveries, and offers a sweet, wordless philosophy, encapsulated in the reliable twenty minutes of its beautiful, graceful form.
It works for all the people I have taught – from jumpy drama students at the Oxford School of Drama, to mercurial actors in Hungary, to all shapes and sizes of folk who have come to me in draughty village halls – and now at West Yorkshire Playhouse – to learn its ineffable magic. The oldest person I’ve worked with has been well into her eighties. And Gerda Geddes, the person who first brought the T’ai Chi, Yang Style Long Form (the style I practise) over to the UK in the 1950s (and was my teacher’s teacher), was still passing on its bodily treasures when she was over ninety. At 58 years old, I take great comfort from that.
Just look at the elderly Chinese people calmly practising their movements in China’s early morning outdoor spaces, and know that old age doesn’t necessarily mean getting hunched over, smaller, tighter, stiffer. It can mean just the opposite. Graceful movement and fluidity need not be confined to the very young!
Breathing Space. That’s what T’ai Chi offers. It brings our “monkey minds” into stillness, brings our worried selves closer to our own silent centres, and gives a little respite from the onward competitive survivalist surge.
The picture accompanying my post is me dancing. Not doing the T’ai Chi. Just having a play in a recent dance class. But even when improvising – or skipping the light fantastic! – the spirit of calm and breeziness first learned from my quiet Greek teacher somehow stays with me and reminds me… mostly… that it’s OK to expand into the present moment, to simply enjoy being on my own two feet. Still standing. Still breathing. Moving steadily into spring.
‘Old Dog’ by Barney Bardsley is published by Simon and Schuster (£7.99)