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TheForgotten(Female)PioneersofTaiChiintheWest|FIGHTLAND

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THE FORGOTTEN (FEMALE) PIONEERS OF TAI CHI IN THE WEST

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F E AT U R E D

GerdaGeddes(left).Photocourtesyofherdaughter,HarrietDevlin/SophiaDelza(right).PhotocourtesyoftheNYPublicLibrary

GerdaGeddesfirstencounteredtaichiatdawn.

WalkingthemistymorningstreetsofShanghaiin1949,sheobservedanoldChinesemanperformingslow,

meditativemovementsinanopenfield.AsaformallytrainedmoderndancerfromNorway,Geddesquickly

fellspellboundtothespectacle:“AsIwatchedIhadasensationofhotandcoldstreamingupanddownmy

spine…andIrememberthinking,‘ThisiswhatIhavebeenlookingforallmylife.’”

Oddlyenough,Geddeswasn’taloneinherinterest.SophiaDelza—anAmericanwithherownestablished

careerindanceandchoreography—wasalsocompelledtolearntheChinesemartialartoftaichiwhilein

Shanghaiduringthatverysameyear.Likemostwesternersatthetime,neitherwomenhadanyexposureto

taichi,butbothquicklyfoundvalueinwhattheywerewitnessing.Inapairoftrailblazingscenariosthat

defiedtheera’swell­establishedboundariesofraceandgender,GeddesandDelzatrainedseparatelyunder

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TheForgotten(Female)PioneersofTaiChiintheWest|FIGHTLAND

renownedtaichimastersbeforethenbringingtheChinesemartialartbacktotheirhomecountries.Ina

curiousmirrorimageofoneanother,thetwowomenplayedpioneeringthoughwidelyforgottenroleswithin

theearlymartialartscultureoftheWest,spreadingtaichifarbeyondChina,andlaunchingittowardsits

currentincarnationofathrivingglobalculture.

+++

Taichiiseasilyoneofthemostpopularmartialartsintheworldtoday,withdailypractitionersaroundthe

globenumberinginthemillions.Yet,ifthecenturies­oldChineseartiswidelyembracedacrossculturesand

agegroups,ithasbeenmoreforhealthandrecreationthanforitsmartialapplications.Inthisregard,itcan

beeasilyforgottenthattaichioriginatedasafightingart,andthatitfallsunderthewideumbrellaofChinese

kungfu.

Althoughit’soriginsareoftenshroudedinfolklore,taichichuan—whichtranslatesas“supremeultimate

fist”—mostlikelyemergedseveralcenturiesagofromTaoistmonksinChina,atatimewhenmartial

systemshadgreatrelevanceamidtheviolentsocialrealitiesoftheera.Overtimetaichiwouldevolvetobe

increasinglycharacterizedasa“soft”fightingstyle,whichseekstoredirectanopponent’senergyandmotion

toworkagainstthem.

Theart’semphasisonslowmovement,breathingandothernotionsofQigong(or,energycultivation)have madeitincreasinglyappealingovertimeasahealthyexerciseapartfromanymartialcontext.While numeroussystemsofkungfufightingstyleshavebattledforrelevanceinrecentyears,taichi’spopularityis

surginginthe21stcentury,especiallyascontemporaryresearchincreasinglyqualifiesthehealthbenefits

thathavelongbeentoutedbyitspractitioners.

AsmartialartshistorianBenJudkinswrites,“…themedicalbenefitsofpracticeslikeTaijiquanhavebeen

discussedfromtimetotimeintheWestformorethanacentury.Yetonlyrecentlyhavemedical

professionalsdedicatedtheattentionandresourcesnecessarytosystematicallytestanddescribethe

benefitsofTaijiforawidenumberof(mostchronic)conditions.”

benefitsofTaijiforawidenumberof(mostchronic)conditions.”

SophiaDelzapracticingtaichi.NegativescourtesyoftheNYPublicLibrary

Clinicalstudiesinrecentyearshavelinkedpracticingtaichitoawiderangeofhealthbenefits,includingthe

reductionofheartdisease,curbingstressandimprovingtheoverallphysicalwell­beingofseniors.Lastyear,

theBritishJournalofSportsMedicinesuggestedthatthebeneficialattributesofpracticingtaichiwere

substantialenoughthatitshouldpossiblyevenbe“prescribed”bydoctorstoaddressavarietyofconditions,

includingdiabetesandarthritis.

“Itboilsdowntorelevance,”explainsJessO’Brien,authorofthebookNeiJiQuan:InternalMartialArts,

“NorthernPrayingMantis[fightingstyle]isnotforeveryone,buttaichiiswell­suitedtothepublicneed.For

mostpeople,theappealisinitsmind/bodytraining.”

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TheForgotten(Female)PioneersofTaiChiintheWest|FIGHTLAND

ThismodernappealisespeciallyfascinatingtoconsiderinthehistoricalcontextofDelzaandGeddes,who

bothenvisionedtaichi'srelevanceandpotentialhealthbenefitsmorethanahalfcenturyago,butwere

eventuallyforgottenamidmoremasculinemartialartstorylines.

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BythetimetheytraveledtoChinainthelate1940s,DelzaandGeddeshadalreadylivedcolorfullives.

DelzahadbeenborntoabohemianfamilyinBrooklyn,surroundedbyartandliberalpolitics.Shetrainedin moderndance,studyinginParisforatime,beforereturningtoNewYorkforacareerthatspannedstageand

film.In1928shedancedoppositeJamesCagneyintheGrandStreetFolliesonBroadway,andlater

performedsolorecitalsatnotabletheatersaroundthecity.InfollowingherhusbandtoShanghaiin1948,

DelzaquicklybrokegroundasthefirstAmericandancertoperformandlectureinChinesetheatersand

danceschools.

danceschools. SophiaDelza.PhotoscourtesyoftheNYPublicLibrary MorePhotos

SophiaDelza.PhotoscourtesyoftheNYPublicLibrary

danceschools. SophiaDelza.PhotoscourtesyoftheNYPublicLibrary MorePhotos
SophiaDelza.PhotoscourtesyoftheNYPublicLibrary MorePhotos

GeddeswasborntohighclasssocietyinNorway.LikeDelzashetrainedinmoderndanceatayoungage, beforethenstudyingpsychotherapyundercontroversialpsychiatristWilhelmReichattheUniversityof Oslo.AsayoungadultGeddesjoinedtheresistanceagainsttheNazioccupation,andafteraseriesof dramaticencounterssheescapedtoSwedenhiddenbeneathacartoflumber.Bythetimeshefollowedher

husbandtoShanghaiin1949,shewasdevelopinganideatomergeherstudiesindanceandpsychotherapy

tocreatesomekindofphysically­orientedapproachtomentaltherapy.Yetasshewatchedtheoldman

performtaichiatdawn,Geddesrealizedshenolongerhadtoinventsuchasystem,sincetheChinesehad

seeminglybeencultivatingoneforcenturies.Evenstill,thenotionofawesternwomenlearningtheChinese

martialartswasunprecedentedatthetime.

“TheseChinesemenhadverygreattroublewithmebecausewomendidn’tdotaichiinthosedays,”Geddes

wouldlaterexplain.“Mostwomenstillhadboundfeet.”

EvenastheywereconfrontedbyaChinesemartialartscodeexcludingforeignersandwomen,asizable

languagebarrier,andthetumultuouscircumstancesinChinaaftertheCommunistscametopower,both

GeddesandDelzastillmanagedtostudywithestablishedChinesemasters.DelzastudiedWustyletaichi

undercelebratedpractitionerMahYueh­linginShanghai,andthenreturnedtopromotetheartsinNewYork

City.Conversely,GeddeslearnedYangstyletaichiunderChoyHakPenginHongKongbeforereturningto

teachinEngland.InthesametimeandenvironmentthatateenageBruceLeewasbannedfromIpMan’s

WingChunschoolonaccountofhisquarterEuropeanancestry,thesewererevolutionaryrelationshipsthat

defiedthesocialboundariesoftheirera.

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TheForgotten(Female)PioneersofTaiChiintheWest|FIGHTLAND

TheForgotten(Female)PioneersofTaiChiintheWest|FIGHTLAND SophiaDelzainPopularMechanics,October1960

SophiaDelzainPopularMechanics,October1960

BackinEurope,Geddes’seffortstopromotetaichiwereinitiallymetwithconfusionanddisinterest,while

DelzaquicklyfoundtractionbyshowcasingtheartsinhighprofilesettingsaroundNewYorkCity.In1954

shestagedapublicdemonstrationattheMuseumofModernArt.AsJudkinsexplains,thiswasalandmark

momentformartialartscultureinAmerica:“In1954therewerevirtuallynopublicperformancesor

demonstrationsofanysortofChineseMartialArtatall.CatchingaglimpseofLionDancingattheLunar NewYear,orashortdemonstrationbytheChinesestudentassociationataUniversity's"international festival,"wastheclosestthatmostAmericanmightevercometoseeingtheChinesemartialarts.”The interestthatwasgeneratedfromthesedemonstrationswouldsoonleadtoDelzaconductingregulartaichi classesatCarnegieHallandtheUnitedNations,pre­datingsomeoftheearliestmodernmartialartsoutfits

inAmerica(includingEdParker’sKenpoKarateschoolinPasadenacirca1957andBruceLee’steachingin

Seattlebeginningin1959).IntheUK,Geddes’seffortsfinallygainedmomentumattheLondon

ContemporarySchoolofDance,whicheventuallyincorporatedherclassesintotheirfreshmencurriculum.

Withinayearofeachother,bothwomengavewhatwerepresumablythefirsttelevisedtaichi

demonstrationsintheirrespectivecountries.

In1961,DelzaalsoauthoredwhatispossiblythefirstEnglishlanguagebookeverwrittenontheChinese

martialarts:T’ai­ChiCh’uan:BodyandMindinHarmony.Assheexplainedintheopeningchapter,her

intentionswere“tobringtotheattentionofWesternpeoplethisancientmasterpieceofhealthexercise…

which…issupremelysuitableinthesemoderntimes.”ButifDelzaandGeddeshadahealthandeven

spiritually­orientedvisionforan“ancient”artinthemodernworld,itwasanentirelydifferentmartialarts

futurethatsooncommandedthespotlight.

+++

Bytheearly1960s,martialartscultureinthewestwasstillinitsinfancy,thoughpoisedtotakeofftowards

asubstantialpopularity.Sincetheearlypartofthecentury,theJapaneseartofjudohadbeencrossing borders,andwasthefirstAsianmartialarttonoticeablytakerootintheWesternworld(infact,President TheodoreRoosevelthadtrainedwithaJapanesejudomasterforatimeattheWhiteHouse.Inhismore overzealousmoments,RooseveltwasknowntoexhibitjudotechniquesonyoungmenvisitingtheOval Office).DuringWorldWarII,manyservicemenwereexposedtotheOkinawanstrikingartofkarate,and returnedhomeresolvedtocontinuepracticingitandpromotingitsculture.EdParkerheldhisfirstLong

BeachInternationalKarateTournamentin1964,thesamesummerthatjudowasfirstintroducedinto

competitionattheOlympicGames.In1965,LosAngeles­basedkungfumasterArkWongassertedinprint

thathewouldnolongerrestrictteachingonlyChinesestudentsandthatenrollmentwasnowwideopento

anyonewithdedicatedinterest.

In1966,BruceLee’sroleasKatoontheGreenHornetwasthesparkthatfinallylitthefuse.Lee’s

performanceswereagame­changingspectaclethatcapturedthepublic’simaginationandquicklypushed

martialartsculturetoaboomingmodernpopularity.Bytheearly70s,the“kungfucraze”wasinfullswing,

andthemindandbodyhealthcultureenvisionedbyGeddesandDelzatookaquietbackseattoanew

male­dominatedmartialartsculture.Hyperbolicactionmoviesandpromisesofesotericfightingtechniques

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TheForgotten(Female)PioneersofTaiChiintheWest|FIGHTLAND

emphasizedthefightingcomponentoftheequation,andsoldtheAsianmartialartstothewestinabigway.

GerdaGeddes.Photocourtesyofherdaughter,HarrietDevlin

GerdaGeddes.Photocourtesyofherdaughter,HarrietDevlin

Asnewly­mintedenthusiastsdevouredthelatestmartialartsmedia,thecontributionsofDelzaandGeddes

didn’tquitefittheprevailingnarrativeofdynamicmalefightingskills,andinturnthetwowomenwerelargely

excludedfromcoverage.DespitealmostsinglehandedlyintroducingtheChinesemartialartoftaichitotheir

respectivecontinentsaswellasconductinglongtermcareersthatspannedfourdecadesandthousandsof

students,neitherDelzanorGeddeseverreceivedanysignificantcoveragefromBlackbeltMagazine,the

perennialpublicationofrecordforthemartialartscommunity.

“Popularcultureismadeupasmuchbyforgettingthingsasdiscoveringthem,”explainsJudkins.“Delzawas essentiallyerasedfromthepopularmemory.WecouldonlyhaveBruceLeeandthe‘kungfucraze’asanew andexcitingphenomenonifweallkindofpretendedthatDelzahadn’talreadyshownusmanyofthese

things15yearsearlier.”

Infact,whenDelza’snamewasmentionedwithinthemartialartscommunityasanearlyproponentoftai

chi,itoftensurfacedintheformofcriticism,contendingthatherlackofmartialemphasisconstitutedan

“incomplete”system.

JessO’Brien,whosebookNeiJiaQuanprofilesadiversegroupoftaichimasters,defendsthelegaciesof

DelzaandGeddesbyassertingthatthedefinitionoftheChinesemartialartsisn’tone­dimensional.“People

wanttheChinesemartialartstohaveadefinition,butthereisnoonesingulargoal,”explainsO’Brien,“taichi

ismulti­facetedandcantakeyoudownmultiplepathways.Andtherearepeoplewhosaythatitneedstobe

aboutfighting,butifit’sembracedasameditativeorhealingartthereisabsolutelynothingwrongwiththat.”

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TheForgotten(Female)PioneersofTaiChiintheWest|FIGHTLAND

TheForgotten(Female)PioneersofTaiChiintheWest|FIGHTLAND SophiaDelza.PhotocourtesyoftheNYPublicLibrary

SophiaDelza.PhotocourtesyoftheNYPublicLibrary

Asdancers,bothDelzaandGeddeshadinitiallyembracedtaichiasanalternativeandfarmoreholistic

approachtodanceandmovement,essentiallyatangibleantidotetotheprevailingharshphysical

expectationsoftheirindustry.Intime,Delzawouldcontinuetopromotetaichithroughahealth­oriented

perspective,whileGeddeswouldincreasinglyembraceitasanavenuetowardsspirituality.Evenstill,both

womenwerekeenlyawarethattheywerepracticingsomethingthatultimatelywasamartialart,evenif

fightingwasnevertheirgoal.

Inthelongrun,despitecriticismandobscurity,DelzaandGeddesappeartohaveprevailedintheirvision.In thecourseofsowingtheseedsfortaichiintheWest,theirstudents(andtheirstudent’sstudents)now

teachincountriesaroundtheworld.Sincetheirpassing—Delzain1996andGeddesin2006—taichi’s

popularityhasonlyskyrocketedaroundtheworld,whileitshealthbenefitsareincreasinglybackedbyclinical studies.Conversely,somanyofthekungfufightingstylesthatoncecommandedthespotlighthavesince

struggledtoattractfollowersinthe21stcentury.

There’saveryfitting,“soft­style”logictothis:DelzaandGeddeswerequietlysuccessfulintheirvision,

evenastheirloudermartialcounterpartshavefallenonhardtimes.

BayAreaduringtheearly1960s.

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Writtenby:CharlesRusso

Mar292016

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Addacomment2Comments Sortby Newest maybeengageinyoursself. HenrySteffen · RiceUniversity

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maybeengageinyoursself.2Comments Sortby Newest Addacomment HenrySteffen · RiceUniversity

Iamonlybarelyfamiliarwithtaichi.Itsoundslikesomethingyouarefamiliarwithor

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carefulaboutwhenthey'rearound,'Champdancersanddamnedchancers'.These2Like · Reply · 3hrs DanielDocherty · TaiChiconsultant at Self­Employed

MyoldDonegalGranpausedtosaytherearetwokindsoffolksyouneedtotread

fineladiesbelongedtotheformercategory.

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