A BRIEF HISTORY OF CLOUD HANDS
In the early 1970’s a group of us who were members of the Dance Center of Columbia College were performing in a Meredith Monk production at the University of Wisconsin. During the breaks in the rehearsals her close friend and performer would practice Tai Chi Ch’uan. None of us had seen Tai Chi before and though we were all fascinated a few of us were totally captivated. We returned to Chicago and set about finding a Tai Chi teacher. At that time none were to be found.
Instead I began studying 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 led to instructors who were Western, brutal and lacking in the cultural depth and sophistication of the original teachers.
Quite by accident 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. I was gainfully unemployed and was hired. I spent two years travelling around North America visiting all of the teachers and schools of Tai Chi that could be found. This was a fabulous opportunity for me and provided the foundation for what would become Cloud Hands. There were many accomplished martial artists who taught Tai Chi less out of conviction, than the realization that there was market for it. The most profound instruction came from several modest, self-effacing and unpretentious masters. I was lucky enough to be able to spend time ‘hanging out’ with them in their studios.
At the time the Drama Department of Columbia College along with the Dance Department began rehearsing for a production of “Fan Shen: Life in a Chinese Village” which required movement in the style of Tai Chi. Remarkably we found in Chinatown in Chicago a man 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.
All of us were unceremoniously fired from Columbia College—ah those huge egos and the arts. 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 generation 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. A moderate by nature and experience 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 of 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 ultimately was 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 whose specialty was Chinese Philosophy. We had long discussions during the course of which I realized 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 to my 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.
Cloud Hand’s loft space had to be abandoned each time rents escalated. 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 and financed the building 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.