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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
Japan'sKarateKid:KyojiHoriguchi
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Peru'supandcomingboxingstar.

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

GerdaGeddesfirstencounteredtaichiatdawn.
WalkingthemistymorningstreetsofShanghaiin1949,sheobservedanoldChinesemanperformingslow,
meditativemovementsinanopenfield.AsaformallytrainedmoderndancerfromNorway,Geddesquickly
fellspellboundtothespectacle:AsIwatchedIhadasensationofhotandcoldstreamingupanddownmy
spineandIrememberthinking,ThisiswhatIhavebeenlookingforallmylife.
Oddlyenough,Geddeswasntaloneinherinterest.SophiaDelzaanAmericanwithherownestablished
careerindanceandchoreographywasalsocompelledtolearntheChinesemartialartoftaichiwhilein
Shanghaiduringthatverysameyear.Likemostwesternersatthetime,neitherwomenhadanyexposureto
taichi,butbothquicklyfoundvalueinwhattheywerewitnessing.Inapairoftrailblazingscenariosthat
defiedtheeraswellestablishedboundariesofraceandgender,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.
Althoughitsoriginsareoftenshroudedinfolklore,taichichuanwhichtranslatesassupremeultimate
fistmostlikelyemergedseveralcenturiesagofromTaoistmonksinChina,atatimewhenmartial
systemshadgreatrelevanceamidtheviolentsocialrealitiesoftheera.Overtimetaichiwouldevolvetobe
increasinglycharacterizedasasoftfightingstyle,whichseekstoredirectanopponentsenergyandmotion
toworkagainstthem.
Theartsemphasisonslowmovement,breathingandothernotionsofQigong(or,energycultivation)have
madeitincreasinglyappealingovertimeasahealthyexerciseapartfromanymartialcontext.While
numeroussystemsofkungfufightingstyleshavebattledforrelevanceinrecentyears,taichispopularityis
surginginthe21stcentury,especiallyascontemporaryresearchincreasinglyqualifiesthehealthbenefits
thathavelongbeentoutedbyitspractitioners.
AsmartialartshistorianBenJudkinswrites,themedicalbenefitsofpracticeslikeTaijiquanhavebeen
discussedfromtimetotimeintheWestformorethanacentury.Yetonlyrecentlyhavemedical
professionalsdedicatedtheattentionandresourcesnecessarytosystematicallytestanddescribethe
benefitsofTaijiforawidenumberof(mostchronic)conditions.

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SophiaDelzapracticingtaichi.NegativescourtesyoftheNYPublicLibrary

Clinicalstudiesinrecentyearshavelinkedpracticingtaichitoawiderangeofhealthbenefits,includingthe
reductionofheartdisease,curbingstressandimprovingtheoverallphysicalwellbeingofseniors.Lastyear,
theBritishJournalofSportsMedicinesuggestedthatthebeneficialattributesofpracticingtaichiwere
substantialenoughthatitshouldpossiblyevenbeprescribedbydoctorstoaddressavarietyofconditions,
includingdiabetesandarthritis.
Itboilsdowntorelevance,explainsJessOBrien,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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MorePhotos

BythetimetheytraveledtoChinainthelate1940s,DelzaandGeddeshadalreadylivedcolorfullives.
DelzahadbeenborntoabohemianfamilyinBrooklyn,surroundedbyartandliberalpolitics.Shetrainedin
moderndance,studyinginParisforatime,beforereturningtoNewYorkforacareerthatspannedstageand
film.In1928shedancedoppositeJamesCagneyintheGrandStreetFolliesonBroadway,andlater
performedsolorecitalsatnotabletheatersaroundthecity.InfollowingherhusbandtoShanghaiin1948,
DelzaquicklybrokegroundasthefirstAmericandancertoperformandlectureinChinesetheatersand
danceschools.

SophiaDelza.PhotoscourtesyoftheNYPublicLibrary

GeddeswasborntohighclasssocietyinNorway.LikeDelzashetrainedinmoderndanceatayoungage,
beforethenstudyingpsychotherapyundercontroversialpsychiatristWilhelmReichattheUniversityof
Oslo.AsayoungadultGeddesjoinedtheresistanceagainsttheNazioccupation,andafteraseriesof
dramaticencounterssheescapedtoSwedenhiddenbeneathacartoflumber.Bythetimeshefollowedher
husbandtoShanghaiin1949,shewasdevelopinganideatomergeherstudiesindanceandpsychotherapy
tocreatesomekindofphysicallyorientedapproachtomentaltherapy.Yetasshewatchedtheoldman
performtaichiatdawn,Geddesrealizedshenolongerhadtoinventsuchasystem,sincetheChinesehad
seeminglybeencultivatingoneforcenturies.Evenstill,thenotionofawesternwomenlearningtheChinese
martialartswasunprecedentedatthetime.
TheseChinesemenhadverygreattroublewithmebecausewomendidntdotaichiinthosedays,Geddes
wouldlaterexplain.Mostwomenstillhadboundfeet.
EvenastheywereconfrontedbyaChinesemartialartscodeexcludingforeignersandwomen,asizable
languagebarrier,andthetumultuouscircumstancesinChinaaftertheCommunistscametopower,both
GeddesandDelzastillmanagedtostudywithestablishedChinesemasters.DelzastudiedWustyletaichi
undercelebratedpractitionerMahYuehlinginShanghai,andthenreturnedtopromotetheartsinNewYork
City.Conversely,GeddeslearnedYangstyletaichiunderChoyHakPenginHongKongbeforereturningto
teachinEngland.InthesametimeandenvironmentthatateenageBruceLeewasbannedfromIpMans
WingChunschoolonaccountofhisquarterEuropeanancestry,thesewererevolutionaryrelationshipsthat
defiedthesocialboundariesoftheirera.

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SophiaDelzainPopularMechanics,October1960

BackinEurope,Geddesseffortstopromotetaichiwereinitiallymetwithconfusionanddisinterest,while
DelzaquicklyfoundtractionbyshowcasingtheartsinhighprofilesettingsaroundNewYorkCity.In1954
shestagedapublicdemonstrationattheMuseumofModernArt.AsJudkinsexplains,thiswasalandmark
momentformartialartscultureinAmerica:In1954therewerevirtuallynopublicperformancesor
demonstrationsofanysortofChineseMartialArtatall.CatchingaglimpseofLionDancingattheLunar
NewYear,orashortdemonstrationbytheChinesestudentassociationataUniversity's"international
festival,"wastheclosestthatmostAmericanmightevercometoseeingtheChinesemartialarts.The
interestthatwasgeneratedfromthesedemonstrationswouldsoonleadtoDelzaconductingregulartaichi
classesatCarnegieHallandtheUnitedNations,predatingsomeoftheearliestmodernmartialartsoutfits
inAmerica(includingEdParkersKenpoKarateschoolinPasadenacirca1957andBruceLeesteachingin
Seattlebeginningin1959).IntheUK,GeddesseffortsfinallygainedmomentumattheLondon
ContemporarySchoolofDance,whicheventuallyincorporatedherclassesintotheirfreshmencurriculum.
Withinayearofeachother,bothwomengavewhatwerepresumablythefirsttelevisedtaichi
demonstrationsintheirrespectivecountries.
In1961,DelzaalsoauthoredwhatispossiblythefirstEnglishlanguagebookeverwrittenontheChinese
martialarts:TaiChiChuan:BodyandMindinHarmony.Assheexplainedintheopeningchapter,her
intentionsweretobringtotheattentionofWesternpeoplethisancientmasterpieceofhealthexercise
whichissupremelysuitableinthesemoderntimes.ButifDelzaandGeddeshadahealthandeven
spirituallyorientedvisionforanancientartinthemodernworld,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,BruceLeesroleasKatoontheGreenHornetwasthesparkthatfinallylitthefuse.Lees
performanceswereagamechangingspectaclethatcapturedthepublicsimaginationandquicklypushed
martialartsculturetoaboomingmodernpopularity.Bytheearly70s,thekungfucrazewasinfullswing,
andthemindandbodyhealthcultureenvisionedbyGeddesandDelzatookaquietbackseattoanew
maledominatedmartialartsculture.Hyperbolicactionmoviesandpromisesofesotericfightingtechniques

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TheForgotten(Female)PioneersofTaiChiintheWest|FIGHTLAND

emphasizedthefightingcomponentoftheequation,andsoldtheAsianmartialartstothewestinabigway.

GerdaGeddes.Photocourtesyofherdaughter,HarrietDevlin

Asnewlymintedenthusiastsdevouredthelatestmartialartsmedia,thecontributionsofDelzaandGeddes
didntquitefittheprevailingnarrativeofdynamicmalefightingskills,andinturnthetwowomenwerelargely
excludedfromcoverage.DespitealmostsinglehandedlyintroducingtheChinesemartialartoftaichitotheir
respectivecontinentsaswellasconductinglongtermcareersthatspannedfourdecadesandthousandsof
students,neitherDelzanorGeddeseverreceivedanysignificantcoveragefromBlackbeltMagazine,the
perennialpublicationofrecordforthemartialartscommunity.
Popularcultureismadeupasmuchbyforgettingthingsasdiscoveringthem,explainsJudkins.Delzawas
essentiallyerasedfromthepopularmemory.WecouldonlyhaveBruceLeeandthekungfucrazeasanew
andexcitingphenomenonifweallkindofpretendedthatDelzahadntalreadyshownusmanyofthese
things15yearsearlier.
Infact,whenDelzasnamewasmentionedwithinthemartialartscommunityasanearlyproponentoftai
chi,itoftensurfacedintheformofcriticism,contendingthatherlackofmartialemphasisconstitutedan
incompletesystem.
JessOBrien,whosebookNeiJiaQuanprofilesadiversegroupoftaichimasters,defendsthelegaciesof
DelzaandGeddesbyassertingthatthedefinitionoftheChinesemartialartsisntonedimensional.People
wanttheChinesemartialartstohaveadefinition,butthereisnoonesingulargoal,explainsOBrien,taichi
ismultifacetedandcantakeyoudownmultiplepathways.Andtherearepeoplewhosaythatitneedstobe
aboutfighting,butifitsembracedasameditativeorhealingartthereisabsolutelynothingwrongwiththat.

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SophiaDelza.PhotocourtesyoftheNYPublicLibrary

Asdancers,bothDelzaandGeddeshadinitiallyembracedtaichiasanalternativeandfarmoreholistic
approachtodanceandmovement,essentiallyatangibleantidotetotheprevailingharshphysical
expectationsoftheirindustry.Intime,Delzawouldcontinuetopromotetaichithroughahealthoriented
perspective,whileGeddeswouldincreasinglyembraceitasanavenuetowardsspirituality.Evenstill,both
womenwerekeenlyawarethattheywerepracticingsomethingthatultimatelywasamartialart,evenif
fightingwasnevertheirgoal.
Inthelongrun,despitecriticismandobscurity,DelzaandGeddesappeartohaveprevailedintheirvision.In
thecourseofsowingtheseedsfortaichiintheWest,theirstudents(andtheirstudentsstudents)now
teachincountriesaroundtheworld.SincetheirpassingDelzain1996andGeddesin2006taichis
popularityhasonlyskyrocketedaroundtheworld,whileitshealthbenefitsareincreasinglybackedbyclinical
studies.Conversely,somanyofthekungfufightingstylesthatoncecommandedthespotlighthavesince
struggledtoattractfollowersinthe21stcentury.
Theresaveryfitting,softstylelogictothis:DelzaandGeddeswerequietlysuccessfulintheirvision,
evenastheirloudermartialcounterpartshavefallenonhardtimes.
CharlesRussoisajournalistinSanFrancisco.HeistheauthorofStrikingDistance:BruceLeeandthe
DawnofMartialArtsinAmerica,whichchroniclesthepioneeringmartialartssceneintheSanFrancisco
BayAreaduringtheearly1960s.

Checkoutthisrelatedstory:
RememberingLouReedtheMartialArtist
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Writtenby:CharlesRusso
Mar292016
Tags:taichi,G erdaGeddes,SophiaDelza
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2Comments

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HenrySteffenRiceUniversity
Iamonlybarelyfamiliarwithtaichi.Itsoundslikesomethingyouarefamiliarwithor
maybeengageinyoursself.
LikeReply3hrs

DanielDochertyTaiChiconsultantatSelfEmployed
MyoldDonegalGranpausedtosaytherearetwokindsoffolksyouneedtotread
carefulaboutwhenthey'rearound,'Champdancersanddamnedchancers'.These2
fineladiesbelongedtotheformercategory.
LikeReply4hrs
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