Thursday, February 17, 2011

Got time for a salsa lesson?


 My martial arts career began more than 30 years ago.  Starting with self-defense , I moved on to Shodokan Karate, dabbled in Kung Fu for a year, and finally graduated to Tai Chi eleven years ago.  My self-defense sensei was Air Force Colonel Jerry Robinette (Retired).  Among other postings, he was Commandant at the Air Force SERE (survival, evasion, rescue and escape) School for two years.  When Vice President Lon Cheney wanted to set up a CIA program to torture information out of al Qaeda suspects, he reached out to the SERE School for instructors.  The SERE School  trainers modeled their tactics after those used by ChiComm interrogators during the Korean War.  The instructors intended to prepare present U.S. pilots for whatever detention tactics, including torture, they might encounter if shot down over enemy territory.  One of the Colonel's tasks included making sure the trainers received the support they needed to carry out their assignment.

     Colonel Robinette was a strict sensei who demanded excellence. Aspects of the the Colonel I admired included the fact that although he understood the power of carefully applied violence, he did not share the military's disregard for human life.  For example, Major General Johnson, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq's Anbar province, described civilian deaths as a "cost of doing business".

     The Colonel had sayings he had accumulated over a lifetime in the martial arts.  He would show us a move, and then say "OK, now repeat 10,000 times."  

Or:  "The more sweat on the practice field, the less blood on the battlefield."  

Or:  "You're not a loser until you quit."  

Or :  "What you're trying to do is replace your opponent's consciousness of you with the consciousness of PAIN."  

Or:  "If you can sit up and get out of bed the morning after a fight, you weren't fighting hard enough."  

One of the Colonel's comments profoundly affected my life.  His advice:  "Spend at least one hour a day on a subject, any subject, and after a while (he didn't say how long) you will become a world's expert on that subject."  I followed that advice in my day job, and ended up with six patents.

      As a former F-4 fighter pilot in Vietnam who flew close air support for ground troops, the Colonel liked the brutal, linear attack style of Shodokan karate.  Anyone knowing the nature of the Japanese schools of martial art, including karate,  would not find the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor surprising.  Do not telegraph your intent, just attack as hard as you can, as fast as you can, and as soon as you can.   After the Colonel passed away, I continued my study of  Shodokan Karate with the Colonel's sons, one of whom was Micheal Dell's children's bodyguard.

     One Tuesday evening, the Colonel stopped by to check on our progress.  The tempo of the dojo quickened when he entered the room.  He slowly made his way around the mats, asking each of us individually how things were going.  

When it was my turn, I said "Yes, Sir, my skills are progressing, although more slowly than I want."  

About six months before, the A.P.D.   S.W.A.T. team had invaded our school for a year's training in proactive self-defense, and I had been sparring with them on a regular basis.  

"I have a hard time keeping up with these younger guys,"  I continued.  

He smiled at me, and said   "Robert,  young men as a rule are faster, stronger, and have more endurance that us old guys.  So, in order for us to win, we have to cheat."  

 "Oh," I said, and returned to my workout, an enlightened grin on my face.

     Eleven years ago, I began studying the Chinese martial art of Tai Chi, which is a slow-motion form of kung fu.  Guy Forsyth, the Austin singer, songwriter, and musician, leads a free class every Monday and Thursday at ten o'clock at Strange Brew.  Want a one word description of Tai Chi?  Subtle.  The Tai Chi masters operate under the assumption that a beginning student has already spent twenty years or more studying other forms of martial art, and now stands ready to study the fundamentals underlying martial movement.    One day after class, I discussed the nature of karate, kung fu, and tai chi with Guy, who agreed with my assessment.  Using karate, you take your arm, and beat your opponent to death with it.  Using kung fu, you take your opponent's arm, and beat them to death with it.  According to the tai chi master's world view, to oppose your opponent's force with force is considered rude and uncouth.  Rather, one merely assists one's opponent in moving in the direction they were already going; preferably face first into a tree. Using tai chi, your opponent takes their own arm and beats themselves to death with it.  Subtle. 

     Eight years ago, I stumbled across salsa dancing. Salsa has has now joined martial arts as my main hobby.  I really love the universality of salsa.  The salsa dance floor represents the most integrated piece of real estate in the City of Austin .  On any given night, every race, every nationality, every religion, and all five sexes, including heterosexual male and female, gay and lesbian, and cross-dressing transsexuals (you can do amazing things with duct tape) are accounted for when the music starts.   Come to the clubs, and you'll see what I mean.

     After a while, I began to understand how my study of Tai Chi could inform my enjoyment of salsa.     Many martial art moves embed themselves in salsa, like the pattern called Wax On, Wax Off.   Tai Chi, for me, involves foot placement, so that if one gets one's foot in the right place, the rest of the move flows naturally.  The same insight applies in salsa.  Another similarity between Tai Chi and salsa revolves around the sparring mat and the crowded dance floor.  In salsa, you not only have to dance with your partner, anticipate her moves and lead her to the next one in a smooth fashion, but you also have to interact with the other dancers on the floor.  Avoiding collisions in salsa is just as hard, and takes just as much concentration, as sparring in the dojo.  Multiple dancers and multiple sparring partners impose the same requirements for mental anticipation and  physicality to perform safely. 

 "Louie", a former A.P.D. under-cover narcotics officer, was my karate instructor for two years while he studied for his black-belt exam.  At the beginning of each class he would say:

 "O.K., Ladies, listen up.  We didn't come here to practice bleeding, so take care of your partner".  I try to do the same on the dance floor.

     Soon after I began dancing salsa at Ruta Maya, I said to myself, 'Self, you can work out at the dojo, and wrestle with hot, sweaty men, or you can work out at the clubs, and dance with hot, sweaty, beautiful women. What's it going to be?'  

Now when I get home after a night of salsa , my hands smell like women and perfume, instead of boxing gloves and sweat.  Verdict ?  See you at the clubs.