story and photos by Gabrielle L. Wheeler
“Great polarity,” that’s what tai chi means. Symbolized as the yin-yang which represents change from no polarity to high polarity, it is an ancient martial art based on Taoist philosophy as an integrated mind-body-spirit practice. Tai chi is often portrayed by a single person slowly going through a routine of movements, yet this is not a complete representation of all that the martial art embodies. Being a philosophical system meant to encourage self-awareness, the physical movements are used to encourage embodiment of the system’s principles, but it is much more than just that. Here in the Finger Lakes Region, as well as across the country and around the world, tai chi offers participants ways to connect to themselves and others, and bring those polarities together. These connections are not limited only to other people within the local community, but often manage to make deeper connections through teachers and the tai chi lineage itself.
More than Just One
To get a feel for tai chi, Mark and Jean Westcott, owners of Great Lake Tai Chi Ch’uan in Rochester, have graciously invited me to their mirror-lined studio on the second floor of a brick building on Clinton Ave. However, before class begins, they both impress upon me that tai chi is much more than a few physical movements and not something learned in one session. “[First] you learn the solo form. You practice that until you embody some of the principles of tai chi, at which point there’s partner work,” Jean explains. Partner work progresses in difficulty through the next two levels of mastery: sensing, or push, hands, and sword form. Regarding how tai chi is at once also a meditation in mindfulness, she adds, “As a mind-body practice, it’s about finding balance to return to the essence of who you are and then being able to move or have things change around you without losing your center.”
Connecting Through the Lineage
Mark, freshly retired from a career in optical engineering, has been teaching classes in Rochester since the early ‘80s. Jean, the owner of the landscaping company The Artful Gardner, took her first class in Philadelphia, later moving to Rochester in 2006 and has been teaching ever since. Coincidentally, both began as students under the same teacher, Maggie Newman, even across state lines.
The longer I speak with the pair, the more it becomes apparent that Maggie’s presence in their lives has profoundly impacted them, as well as the tai chi lineage she connected them to.
Maggie Newman was one of the “Original 6” students under Professor Cheng Man Ch’ing, who moved to New York City from Taiwan. “She was also the only woman among the early students, and that in itself was rather unusual in the typical Chinese patriarchy. But Professor Cheng invited her in, valued her abilities and input, and also encouraged racial diversity and ethnic diversity in ways that were not typically Chinese patriarchal,” Mark explains. After becoming a tai chi instructor herself, Maggie traveled between New York City, Rochester, Philadelphia, and other northeastern cities, teaching students the lineage.
Both Mark and Jean say it was dumb luck that they happened into one of Maggie’s classes, to which Mark says, “I had no sense that this would be a valued and continued core part of my life, but it has been.” Maggie passed on her Rochester studio to Mark and two other students when she decided to discontinue teaching in the city in the early ‘80s. Now he and Jean continue to pass the form taught to Maggie by Professor Cheng onto a new age of students.
Encouraging the Lineage to Continue
When asked about their future plans for Great Lake Tai Chi Ch’uan, both Mark and Jean express ideas to fight the ever-present conundrum of how to draw people to their classes, especially in this age of instant information. “There’s a lot of short-term competition for people’s consciousness,” says Jean, “and I think that people can heal, or at least balance their perspective and their internal world, if they have access to things that help calm them, focus them, and settle them relative to all the demands that are pulling at them … and so, what’s tai chi’s place in that polarity, you know? How can we offer something that will be healthy for people?”
Good questions. The two throw out a few ideas but say nothing has been carved in stone yet. However, a few weeks later when I am trolling their website, greatlaketaichi.com, I see that some of their ideas are being implemented already: Mark has begun teaching additional daytime classes at the studio and they are offering First Friday Open Studio nights for those who are interested in attending a class commitment-free. New sword form classes for advanced students are also on the roster. The answer to Jean’s question then is to do just as Professor Cheng and Maggie did: invite people in and connect with them.
Great Lake Tai Chi Ch’uan
700 S Clinton Ave
Rochester, NY 14620
Other Samplings of Tai Chi in the Finger Lakes Region:
Salt City Karate, KickBoxing, Tai Chi and Judo
1900 Brewerton Rd
Mattydale, NY 13211
Taoist Tai Chi Society of Ithaca
1201 N Tioga St
Ithaca, NY 14850
White Crain Tai Chi
922 Burnet Ave
Syracuse, NY 13203
USA Masters Academy
140 Village Square
Corning-Painted Post, NY 14870
407 Commerce Dr, Suite 300
Victor, NY 14564