It was the summer before my last year of college, and I was at work waiting tables on a slow weekday night. I took the microphone at the piano in the jazz lounge, as the boss often let me do when customers weren’t in the mood to take advantage of open mic time. I was halfway through an old Fats Waller tune when I started to struggle with my chest voice and unexpectedly drifted flat on the high note. Though I was still almost two years away from abandoning life as a starving artist, that was the moment I knew that although I’d spent a decade as a kid and young adult singing on amateur stages, I would likely never do so on a professional one. That night at the mic with the Fats Waller tune was the last time I sang in public.
Tuesday at school, I began preparing in earnest for the next kung fu tournament, one in which I can afford to compete in more than one event. When I reached the spin section of the sword form, my bicep screamed out in protest. It wasn’t the first time the spins had damaged me. My forearm was first stressed by the move as long as three years ago, and I relieved that discomfort with a brace that’s often given to folks with tennis elbow. It worked well enough to get me through the sword form I had to master to pass from brown sash to red. But a year of enthusiastic staff training (enough to cause shoulder issues shortly before the last tournament) has altered and expanded the problem. It’s now moved up the arm to the muscles most used with staff.
Sword is my best under sash form. I loved it for so long that you could never have convinced me it would be replaced in my kung fu affections by the staff. There’s a beauty to it that doesn’t exist with staff. The flow of the sword and the choreograph y of the jumps and lunges that accompany the “cuts” can be like watching an urgent ballet. The common reaction to a good sword form is “oooh,” while the common reaction to a good staff form is “whoa!” It’s beauty versus brawn.
The very first time I competed it was with the sword form, and I did pretty well. The last time I competed with sword it was okay but greatly overshadowed by the new skills with staff. I was looking forward to bringing sword up to staff level, but that’s simply not going to happen if I want to keep using my right arm.
Last night, alone in the basement at the guan as wushu class began, felt like being back at that mic in a DC piano bar some twenty-five years ago. I can forever do the sword form for fun, for the pure love of it, but not in competition. Skipping the spins would be like skipping a song’s crescendo. Doing them slowly and unevenly would be like coming in flat on the high note. It would just never knowingly be done – not in public.
It took a total of three executions of the form, two more attempts to get through the arm pain on the spins after the initial bicep scream, to admit and accept it. My sword days are over.
I will mourn those days but only for a little while, for it could easily have been worse. I could have lost my sword skills without anything to replace them. I could have all together lost the ability to do kung fu.