Dance of the Tao: Tai Chi and the Five Elements

Guilin, Southern China

GUILIN, China, June 1992: “Heaven and earth,” I called out. Together the group moved in silence. When our hands came to our hearts in prayer position and then separated, tracing the line of the horizon, I felt a growing sense of awe. The ancient city of Guilin lay beneath us. The massive islands of stone and trees piercing through the mists from the river below had inspired artists for thousands of years. Our rooftop perch, five stories above the city, gave us an easy view. It was truly beautiful. Adding to my awe was the juxtaposition of cultures. I was teaching a group of Chinese graduate students a simple tai chi form. “Fire,” I continued. Hands slowly met at our navels, we stepped out lifting our palms to the sun. “Water.” Our palms slowly pulled the mists down over our heads.

I traveled to Hong Kong and Guilin with Ray Wright, my philosophy and world religions teacher. He was returning to China to teach a three-week class in English for graduate students at Guangxi Teachers University. Four students from the University of Houston, Downtown, myself included, joined him to attend those summer classes. We were each assigned a graduate-student host from the Teachers University: Wei, Benjamin, Sophie, and John Paul. They acted as translators and guides to help us with our senior-project papers. My research paper involved interviewing students and townspeople to gauge “The Effects of Communism on Taoism and Buddhism in Chinese Culture.” The graduate students were terrific and generous hosts.

I quickly fell into a trio with two of my fellow Americans, both named Sharon. Our dormitory was off campus near the central city. We often walked through town exploring and were quite a sight together. Sharon Attra was a short, wiry woman with a butch, blue-black, flat-top haircut. Sharon Holder-Coleman was a round, dark black woman from Jamaica with beautiful long braids. I was six foot, four inches, two hundred-plus pounds, and towered over everyone. The hordes of Chinese bicyclists would slow to a crawl to gawk at the unusual sight of us walking through town.

Wei was being groomed for membership in the Communist Party. The wounds of Tiananmen Square were still fresh; our new friends were cautious of the government and careful of the sanctions imposed on all university students afterward. They could only speak honestly with us in Wei’s absence. Our student hosts were each well versed in United States culture. Their grasp and depth of knowledge was incredible. They knew every bit as much about American sociology and psychology as we did (in some cases, more).

However, our Chinese hosts did not know much about Taoism or tai chi; they considered the practices quaint and old-fashioned. I was surprised by the paradox. Our hosts could rattle on about the differences between Faulkner and Hemingway, but I met only one student who had read the Tao Te Ching. I was fascinated with this ancient Chinese classic text and the movements of tai chi. A few mornings I got up very early and rode a bicycle through town to see the old men and women “dancing the Tao” in the parks.

On a bike ride one afternoon through town, a handsome, well-dressed young man named Benjamin pulled up beside me. He asked if he could practice his English while we rode. Benjamin spoke fairly good English. After riding and talking for a while he invited me to his apartment. I was surprised to learn he lived alone in a one-room efficiency; most Chinese lived with their extended families. He worked part-time as a truck driver, and most of his money went to pay his rent. I learned soon enough why his little apartment, a seeming extravagance, was a necessity.

Benjamin was gay and needed the privacy. He opened my eyes to the plight of gay people in China. Most Asian men with homosexual feelings married women to preserve the status quo of family and society. Very few identified themselves and lived openly as gay. Once arrested for indecent behavior, a gay person in China could expect years of imprisonment and hard labor. It was easier to pass as “straight” with your own wife and family. Chinese homosexuals frequented “gay hangouts” and had clandestine male love affairs on the side. Benjamin felt tormented because he knew he was gay. He didn’t want a wife and family. He longed to live openly.

The day before I left Guilin, he begged to go with me. My heart ached. I knew his tears weren’t for our little tryst. They were for a life of courage and freedom he dreamed of in the West. Even if he could get a visa, I knew I couldn’t afford the thousands of dollars in sponsorship fees. And I couldn’t afford to support him back in Houston. I was working two jobs to pay my own way through college. I did send money back to him several times to help with his junior-college tuition and so he could have some fun. A hundred dollars, what I earned giving two massages, was most of a year’s salary to him.

“Wood/wind,” I called out. Our little band of Chinese and American friends turned to face the river. Pushing off we each slowly opened and made the three-quarter turn, taking in the setting sun. “Metal,” I called. I focused inside myself as my scooping hands compressed into my center the beauty of China, the pleasure of my new friends, and the thrill of an adventure come true. “Tiger returns to mountain” I whispered as we wound down our exercise.

We lingered on the roof, laughing, talking and sitting on the ledge of the building as the sun sank behind the ancient mountains. Later we trailed down the steps to our final Chinese feast to wish us farewell.

I started my studies in tai chi in the fall of 1983, when my friend J.D. and I met Tory Fritz and Kim McSherry at a store named the Aquarian Age Bookshelf. We took beginners classes through their Houston Institute of Astrology. Kim studied regular tai chi classes taught by Jane Shorre in a lovely Montrose studio, and J.D. and I were soon regulars too. We would dance our tai chi moves across the after-hours dance floor of Rich’s Disco downtown (not what most tai chi teachers have in mind for practice).

Jane was a student of Chungliang Al Huang, a dancer and tai chi master. Chungliang is known for his love of laughter and for dancing the tai chi forms. He seeks the inner life and spontaneity in all things.

There is a tendency in spiritual practice to focus on the minute details of a form. The forms, in turn, can become static and rigid. Chungliang tells the story of a German aristocrat who became so obsessed with his tai chi that he lost any and all spontaneity in his movement. One day while practicing in the park, a dog walked up to the aristocrat’s leg, sniffed, and hiked its own leg and peed. The man’s practice was stiff as a fire hydrant.

I included the Five Elements of tai chi in Body Brilliance to inspire you to explore these ancient Chinese principles and exercises, as I was inspired. In describing the Five Element forms, I have been as specific about the movements as I can. There is no instruction on breathing through these forms. Let your breath happen naturally as you move, finding its own rhythm. Once you feel comfortable with the forms, let them dance through you. Play with them. Jane once called tai chi the “Dance of the Tao.” Make it so.

Tai Chi Chu’an
Five Element Series

The five forms of tai chi illustrated on the following pages are deceptively simple. The ability to perform them gracefully usually takes longer than one would think. And while the repetition of five forms might seem boring, every practice can be a new experience, like the subtle changes of the colors on the horizon. As with the other exercise routines outlined in Body Brilliance, to receive the greatest benefit you have to pay attention. The five forms are called:

• Tiger Returns to Mountain
• Heaven and Earth
• Fire and Water (which I have shown separately)
• Wood/Wind (demonstrated in two parts)
• Metal
• then Tiger Returns to Mountain again.


  1. Stefan Weslowski says:

    Tai chi is an ancient Chinese tradition that, today, is practiced as a graceful form of exercise. It involves a series of movements performed in a slow, focused manner and accompanied by deep breathing. *^^`

  2. enjoyed the article on T’ai chi in China. I studied with prof. Huang in LA – he had the Chinese press with 3500 Chinese characters . He taught the WU style with 108 characters and his wife spoke no English but she cooked the most delicious curry chicken. That was in the late 50’s. _ also agree with your recommendation for the berries but I buy fresh organic blueberries in bulk at COSCO. On your English friend Pankhurst I signed but could not get the next info. – Many thanks you do fabulous work and above all you made direct contact with Craig Hamilton and his wife – my congrats – yes that’s beyond description — you have a great life SARVA MANGALAM

    1. Marlyse – You especially know the joys of the spiritual quest. Thank you for being a trailblazer and shining your light for us all. It is our dear spiritual friends that are “half-a-step-ahead” that show us the way. ad

  3. You’re a “knock out!” !!! Love ya! And so graceful…you move like a majestic swan!

  4. Susanne Cook says:

    Alan, you are so beautiful and graceful when dancing the Tai Chi.
    I discovered a side of you that does not cone through to me from your “Howdy” style writing 🙂
    I deep bow

    1. Susanne- thanks for the “howdy” and sharing your beauty and grace. I’m in Boston a couple of times later this year. MY first trip to MA. I’d love to see you…ad

  5. Dear Alan,
    So beautiful to watch the Tai Chi 5 elements – it touched me deeply. Always love your entries and your stories. Thank you, Marie

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