A BRIEF HISTORY OF CLOUD HANDS
In the early 1970’s, a few members of Columbia College’s Dance Center were performing in a Meredith Monk production at the University of Wisconsin. During rehearsal breaks, one performer used the time to practice Tai Chi Ch’uan, leaving a couple of us who had never witnessed Tai Chi before completely mesmerized. We were so captivated that when we returned to Chicago, we sought out a Tai Chi teacher, soon discovering that at that time, none were to be found.
Lacking a Tai Chi teacher, I instead turned to Aikido-a Japanese descendent of Tai Chi modified and translated into a traditional Japanese form of self-defense. The initial Japanese instructors were immersed in the exceedingly formal and ritualistic discipline and were wonderful teachers. Deaths and departures lead to instructors who were Western, brutal and lacking in the cultural depth and sophistication of the original teachers.
Coincidentally, one of the original producers of ABC‘s Wide World of Sports events took an interest in Tai Chi and decided to do a mini-series on the subject. At the time, I was gainfully unemployed and decided to pursue this opportunity. After being hired, I spent the next two years travelling around North America and visited many teachers and schools of Tai Chi. This was a fabulous opportunity for me and provided the foundation for what would become Cloud Hands. The most profound instruction came from several modest, self-effacing and unpretentious masters, who taught Tai Chi not because there was a market for it, but because their hearts were in the art.
At the time, the Drama and Dance Department at Columbia College began preparing a production of “Fan Shen: Life in a Chinese Village,” a show that requires movement in the style of Tai Chi. I was also included in this project, and to teach the dancers, we eventually found a man in Chicago’s Chinatown who was teaching Tai Chi. Thus began our association with H. H. Lui, who continued instructing us at the Dance Center and subsequently at MoMing—a performance collective which we founded in Chicago in the mid 1970’s.
After all of us were unceremoniously fired from Columbia College, we began establishing MoMing. Within several months, we had set up MoMing as a performance and teaching center in the community building of a Lutheran Congregation. H.H. Lui joined us there. H.H. Lui was a remarkable man who had received a full merit scholarship to one of China’s most prestigious universities in the 1940’s. In his words, he was one of the last generations to receive a classical Chinese education as well as a full-bodied Western education. He survived the war as a banker working out of a cave in the mountains. He left China in the early 1950’s for Hong Kong and then Chicago. At age 45, he assumed his experience and education would be appreciated and rewarded, but heh, this was the U.S.A. What followed for him and his wife were a series of modest jobs at insurance companies. He would laugh and say that nothing was too menial for him so when all his bosses were ultimately fired over the next 20 years, he was always the one who remained. A Taoist lesson if there ever was one.
H.H. Lui encouraged Susan Kimmelman and myself to found Cloud Hands which would be dedicated to Tai Chi and Taoist studies. We did so in a lovely 5000 square foot, high ceilinged, heavy timber loft in River North in Chicago. Together with H.H. Lui, we published the first ‘Tai Chi Ch’uan: The Technique of Power.’ The book was a success and was ultimately translated and distributed in a host of languages and countries. In addition, we had classes in acupuncture, acupressure, and Taoist studies. We began working on translations of the Taoist texts at this time, an undertaking that continued for several decades.
During this period, I was invited to a conference of philosophers at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. The topic was death. In attendance in our group of a dozen prominent philosophers from all over the world were two who specialized in Chinese Philosophy. We had long discussions during the course leading me to realize that with a modest undergraduate and graduate background in western philosophy, and decades of reading the Taoist texts, the Taoist vision of the world had settled into my intellect and view of the world.
Classes were large in those eras—20 to 40 students in a class. The three of us taught, Susan and myself under the watchful eye of H.H. Lui. We were beginners ourselves, but he encouraged us, counseled us, prodded us to teach and to practice. Susan did some Tai Chi inspired performance pieces in the park that would go on for up to 8 hours. Some of our weekend classes in the park would last for up to 4 hours of continuous movement.
H.H. Lui ultimately retired and moved to San Francisco, where he continued teaching and holding annual reunions for many years. At one point, he informed me that there were 16 Cloud Hands around the world—all of them had sprung from our modest start in Chicago.
Each time rents escalated, the loft space for Cloud Hands had to be abandoned. Finally, with $10,000 and our publisher as a partner, we bought a loft building that was intended to be a permanent home. As it turned out, it did become a home for our publisher, but not for Cloud Hands. A huge 150,000 square foot building across the street came on the market which had one quarter of one floor which had been renovated after a fire. This proved to be a perfect Tai Chi space. I purchased, financed and totally renovated the building—with 100% bank financing and no background in real estate. H.H. Lui remarked at the time that things are always easy when you are on the Tao. Cloud Hands moved into the space. I developed other buildings into which Cloud Hands would move. H.H. Lui loved the continual growth and reformulation of Cloud Hands.
Over many years it is still a flexible, floating center for Tai Chi and Taoist thought.