“Bow this way. Bow to your partner. Begin.”
Feet and fists fly by me as I shift my weight: front to back, side to side; I am watching, waiting, in a word: hesitating. We spend the last few minutes of each kung fu class this way, engaging in “no-contact” sparring. We pair off and assume a sparring stance, hands up as if to punch or block and feet planted in a wide stance for balance, yet ready to shift for a kick or evasion, and then we throw kicks and punches toward our opponent without actually touching them. We watch. We circle. We wait. We strike. We react. We reset. We try to intercept the message of our partner’s body and deliver one of our own. We use this small part of each class to integrate our forms into our natural reactions, to essentially become the forms that we have been living with in practice. We spar for a minute or so and then slide down to a new partner, bow, and begin again.
Though no score is kept and no contact made, I can tell that I always lose these matches.
The first couple of weeks I simply talked my opponents down. I would grin or giggle, say something silly or make an off-the-wall observation. My partners would shake their heads, trying to clear them of the babble that was cluttering up the space between us. I made myself utterly non-threatening and at the same time incapacitated my attacker. Then one day while working with a kids’ class, Sifu Paul barked out, “No talking during sparring!” He didn’t exactly cut his eyes at me, but I could tell he was hoping that I could take a hint.
I vowed never to speak during sparring again, but sometimes my partners make this a real trial.
I sparred with an older man I had not met before. He complained to Sifu that my hair getting in my eyes was preventing him from making eye contact and was distracting him. I have no response to this.
At the next class, Sifu was running through his drill as we sparred, “Stay light on your feet, remember your fore block, watch their eyes, not their feet, watch your partner, try to anticipate their next move,” and I mumbled, “Can you ask them to stand still while you practice your sparring techniques?” The young blue belt across from me looked confused for a moment and then said, “Would you like me to?” I considered taking him up on it. Pathetic. I know. I declined and continued getting theoretically pummeled. Mouth closed. Hair out of my eyes. Not distracting.
I once had a partner with five eyebrow piercings and an almost threateningly quiet and serious demeanor settle into sparring stance and then turn his front hand palm up and flick his fingers up in a “bring it on” kind of gesture. I fell out of stance in my surprise and broke my promise to remain silent. “What is this, The Matrix?” Sifu rolled his eyes. Whether at me or my partner, I’m not sure. Back in sparring stance, I strangled the urge to mock my partner further, though he got his revenge by touching my face as we sparred – proving undeniably that he could move through my defenses with ease.
Another time I squared off with a student with whom I’ve been friendly in an acquaintance sort of way. He is obviously committed to his practice as a fighting art and is even a little scary in the force with which he executes his forms. His devotion seems child-like in its determined single-mindedness, and I tend to hold him in my mind as both adorable and psychotic. I waited, expecting him to put on his usual “mean” face as he turned to me, but instead he came up from his bow, raised one eyebrow at me, grinned, revealing ever so slightly his broken front tooth, and looked for all the world as if he was going to say, “So, what’s your sign, baby.” I was unable to recover in time to salvage the exercise, and my friend had the good grace to at least look abashed for his part in the debacle.
I’m surprised that Sifu continues to let me spar. While I wouldn’t cut that piece from my martial arts practice, it isn’t why I take the classes. I want control, flexibility, focus, stress-relief, a physical outlet, and the opportunity to learn something not just new, but outside of my experience entirely. Growing up, I had health problems that prevented my participation in sports or serious physical activity, so I became a watcher. I am accustomed to sizing up a person’s personality, their mental strength and weakness, their spiritual generosity and meanness. Learning to engage physically has felt like retraining my brain, and I enjoy the combination of mental and physical challenge that learning a new form presents.
So, considering I have chosen this course of physical activity, and I profess to enjoy it, I have to wonder why sparring provokes me to throw up shields. Is it facing someone as if you are going to hurt them? Is it the arrogance inherent in attacking someone? Is it the fear that I can’t do it well, so I may as well make it silly? Probably.
My daughter spars magnificently. She is all of 6, and I have seen her press a full-grown man, a brown belt, no less, back to the wall with the forward drive of her punches and kicks. As she faces someone easily twice her height, three times her weight, four times her age and as close to the black belt end of the spectrum as she is to the white, she furrows her brow in concentration. She scrunches her nose and bares her teeth like a rat, and her hands tighten into tiny fists of fury. She advances in a fluid flurry of motion, and I can’t help but notice that her hair, like mine, tends to fly in her face and obscure her eyes. Powerful. Confident. Focused. And, of course, just a little bit difficult to make eye contact with.
She has offered to teach me. I wonder whether she can. Can she teach me to fight with the fearlessness of a six year old? To engage life in this moment without thought to appearance or consequence? Am I too experienced to learn not to be intimidated by people who are larger or higher level than I am? Watching my daughter, I consider: what might it be like to face every task I undertake with sincerity instead of cynicism?