In her ongoing study of women in the martial arts, Lesley Jackson meets Tiger Crane Kung Fu teacher and practitioner Heather McLean to deliver a few home truths.
Heather McLean is a busy woman. Alongside running her own media business and working as a freelance journalist, she dedicates a great deal of her time to studying, practicing and teaching Tiger Crane combination style kung fu. One particular role Heather fulfills is as the assistant children's instructor at the Southern Crane kung fu club, run by Darren Trottman in Surrey.
Heather's first contact with the martial arts world was at the age of 17 when she took up kickboxing. Here she learned the basics of sparring and fitness training that were a mixture of a number of martial arts, all with a strong western influence. It was also here where she was first exposed to kung fu. She comments: "The animal forms and precision and complexity of kung fu stood out for me."
This interest in kung fu followed Heather for some years. She eventually decided to take up the study of kung fu at the age of 28. She had been looking for, she said: "A style with genuine Chinese connections," which she found at Southern Crane kung fu that teaches Tiger Crane combination.
|KUNG FU ANIMAL STYLES|
|Tiger||To represent the simple, strong, powerful and straight forward methods, techniques & strategies.|
|Panther||The physically lesser Tiger to represent complex, cunning, diverse and hidden Kung Fu & Strategy.|
|Crane||To represent the evasive, re-directive, non-aggressive and elegant Kung Fu Styles.|
|Snake||Would contain all those aspects that pertain to Precision, Speed, Secret Knowledge and Wisdom.|
|Dragon||Was not a style in it self but the mastery of the 4 aspects thus making them one.|
Through this fusion of the strong stances and flowing movements of Crane style and the powerful Tiger style, Heather aims to be: "Able to move with precision, grace, flow and subtlety to strike, manipulate and redirect blows, while being solid and strong on the inside, which will make me capable of major destruction and of absorbing powerful blows."
Kung Fu Lifestyle
Kung fu suits Heather as it is, she says: "A vast and complex area," which covers many different elements including both hard and soft (Tai Chi) forms, weapons and sparring. Heather is uncompromising in her approach to sparring as she practices full contact and dislikes, "the way some martial arts have watered down what they do in order to attract women and to encourage men and women to spar."
She further describes kung fu as, "an intelligent martial art, also known as the scholars' art," which complements this smart young woman's intellect and offers her the challenge she desires as it will, "take many, many years for me to get as good as I would like to become at kung fu; its a lifelong journey."
Along with many martial arts, the Southern Crane style has also become a lifestyle choice for Heather as its holistic nature, "rubbed off into every other area of my life." As her training progressed she found that, "kung fu sneaks in when you're not looking and before you know it, you can't stand the smell of a smoky pub and a takeaway is just plain greasy and horrible."
Apart from the obvious health and fitness benefits, Heather has found that kung fu has "also made me more focused on my work," which is partway to explaining this hardworking woman's career success as well.
The origins of the Tiger Crane style of kung fu are fascinating and according to Heather it's, "perfect for women," as the Crane aspect of this style of Chinese martial art was developed by a woman called Tee Eng-choon which when combined with her husband's style of Tiger, became Tiger Crane.
The feminine basis for kung fu is further emphasized by, "A woman known as Fang Chi-niang who created the overall White Crane style, it is said." Therefore, Tiger Crane kung fu is an ideal martial art for women of all ages to be involved in as, "Using the female connection, and how slight Chinese women are, the style evolved into a system that would allow a woman to defeat men."
The long and medium fighting combination of Cranes, "precise and deadly pressure point strikes," including, "many vicious strikes including a beautiful, very strong hand movement that will remove the breast of your opponent in one swift go;" is the ideal companion to the Tiger's short range, "ripping and slashing," that complements, "the fluidity of movement that women tend to be able to cultivate through their lack of bulky muscle," that, "results in a tight, springing delivery once they have developed the overall strength the style requires."
However, what can annoy Heather when speaking of women's involvement in the martial arts is the automatic association of self-defense which she describes as, "wildly overused," as it is assumed this is the only reason women take up kung fu, or any other martial art.
She explains this well when she speaks of women being, "interested in defending themselves, but so are men. I am just as interested in the hard study of kung fu, plus the health, fitness and fighting aspects as the men in our club." Yet there is still a need for more women in kung fu. Although there are female masters in China, Heather finds nothing more frustrating than "turning up to a competition after months of preparation to be told that you've been bumped into a higher weight category to make up numbers."
Heather would like to see more women take up kung fu and make it part of their daily routine and this starts with, "more top quality female instructors who will be able to act as role models for other women to encourage them to start training."
Indeed, as an instructor herself and in particular her involvement in teaching children, Heather has found that, "My kung fu improved in leaps and bounds" as she, "had to work with the kids on all the basic movements, cementing everything into my foundation training."
Heather's teaching style includes having to, "break movements and philosophies down into tiny, digestible pieces," that, "give me a far greater insight into what I am actually doing in terms of the principles and techniques of our style, as well as boosting my confidence."
Overall, Heather McLean is an excellent example of a woman who trains purely because of her love of Kung fu and has achieved a great deal within her martial art. She does not do this because or despite of being female, but because she is first and foremost, a martial artist. Heather sums this up well when she says:
"I find that women who excel in kung fu tend to learn very quickly, are hard on themselves and so constantly strive to achieve perfection, lack ego and are dedicated students."
And I couldn't agree more when she describes kung fu as, "Not for the feint hearted."