Shifu Howie Solow would shrug off the notion, but he's easily the Boulder Baryshnikov of Shaolin Hung Mei Pai Kung Fu. Wiry and hard, with poised muscles, Shifu Solow is an ordained martial arts master, and it shows in the fluid snap, crackle and pop of his artful movements. Every tendon, every shred of sinew in his body knows exactly what to do in any given moment. And Shifu Solow has the kind of eyes you'd expect a kung fu master to have (think -- why not? -- David Carradine, wandering through the Wild West, looking strange and knowing and ancient and wise). Those eyes have been around. They've seen things. They're seeing things, in fact, as Shifu Solow moves and speaks. But he would shrug off the notion.
How does a nice East Coast Jewish boy become a Shaolin master? Another shrug. As a young man, Solow was into all kinds of athletics; one thing led to another. "I was interested by the total-body aspect of it, the way it makes use of every portion of every muscle," he notes. "No other sport required as much focus as this one." And focus is the indispensable word for describing Solow's unceasing dedication not only to the sport, but to its entire spectrum of cultural connotations. A Boulder resident since 1992, Solow's now bringing that spectrum full circle.
What might seem mysterious to the black-and-white Western sensibility is to the Chinese just a regular part of life, where all things are endlessly interconnected. So it is at the Shaolin Hung Mei Pai Kung Fu Association, Solow's nonprofit school that holds classes for only a nominal facility fee at the East Boulder Recreation Center. Boasting a student body that's about 80 percent Chinese, the school may be the state's most authentic kung fu academy; it's certainly one of the best. "We're the only school in the state where the majority of the students come from the country that spawned the martial art," Solow says. And it's not simply a sport that's being taught there.
"There's more to it than punching and kicking," he says. There are historical and religious components to the training. Traditional Chinese medicine, another aspect of the Shaolin Kung Fu gestalt, is used in the workout room to soothe sore muscles. Most important, students never learn a move blindly -- they have to know the reason behind each motion they make, and they're verbally tested on it. Yes, Grasshopper, it really works that way: The idea is to learn the motions so completely that they become automatic.
The school's a boon for a growing local population of young, educated urban couples from Taiwan and mainland China -- researchers, scientists and college professors, many of whom are centered at the University of Colorado. Until the formation of Solow's group, many thought their own Americanized children would never have an opportunity to receive such training, and they're enthusiastic about it. They like the mixture of cultural and traditional learning, as well as the cross-cultural facet of the training, which is conducted bilingually, in English and Chinese. Chinese students spar side by side with Americans of every stripe. And it's absolutely a family affair: Parents, children, siblings and friends all work together in the beginners' class, where nearly anyone with a desire to learn is welcome.
Laura Ting, whose son Alexander was one of the school's original seven students (there are now about sixty), notes that Solow's thoughtful, accurate instruction made all the difference in her American-born child's inevitable struggles with culture shock. His desire to blend into American culture led to disinterest in learning about his Chinese heritage. "Getting into the school has made a big impact on his attitude," Ting says.
The school also encourages an easy cross-cultural exchange. Solow's deep understanding of the many-layered Chinese philosophies and mores helps make communication within the group a two-way street between cultures -- something Ting thinks happens all too infrequently in this country. "Asian-Americans should be accepted as Americans rather than as an immigrant culture," Ting says. At Shaolin Hung Mei Pai, everyone is family.
In spite of the social leaps taking place each week in Boulder, the group is still most visible when it performs showy Chinese lion and dragon dances at cultural events and during annual celebrations of the lunar new year throughout the region. For instance, the Shaolin Hung Mei Pai's splendid 75-foot dragon -- a nine-man, multi-colored affair led by five brilliantly colored satin banners handmade by group members -- will kick off this weekend's Boulder Asian Festival, twisting and turning to the beat of cymbals and gongs while honoring the divinity that controls winds and rains. "The idea is that you want some rain, but not a typhoon," says Solow. "So you pay respect to the dragon." The likes of this particular dragon may never have been seen in the area before.
It's through such performances that Solow and his followers raise funds for the association. The group's growing cache of Chinese-made lions, each operated by two people leaping and lunging under wildly embroidered folds, must find and obtain hung bao, or monetary gifts, which are hidden inside cabbages or crab shells perched high atop poles or rooftops by merchants. The lions scale such heights under a deafening rain of firecrackers and smoke, making for quite a show.