Things are starting to come together, at last. For the last two weeks, I’ve been able to get started on what I came to Russia to do: sing, dance, fight. These are early days indeed: I’m pathetically bad at all three right now. I have the rest of the year to get better.
There’s also the balalaika. I’ll talk about the balalaika later on…
During my first few weeks in St Petersburg, I tried hard to find a teacher in at least one of the Russian martial styles, but nothing seemed to be working out. The main problem was my work schedule, which involves working anti-social hours and, in particular, in the evenings when most martial arts classes are held. None of the instructors I contacted seemed particularly interested in holding private lessons at times when I was free. Worse than that, the salary I’d agreed before I came here, having researched it and discovered that it seemed to be an average Russian salary, is actually barely adequate to live on in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second most expensive city after Moscow. Private lessons weren’t going to be much of an option even if instructors were available. (Hopefully, this might get a bit better: I’ve had a lot of startup costs, eg clothes, bedding, kitchen equipment…)
By the end of January, I was feeling pretty despondent. It looked as if I’d come to Russia on a wild goose chase. Then I had a stroke of luck. My employer needed me to work on one of my agreed days off; in exchange, I could have Wednesday. This was a game-changer; Wednesday was the day on which Andrey Karimov – the instructor who more than any other had inspired me to get on the plane to Russia rather than go back to China – holds his afternoon classes. Consequently, I’ve spent the last two Wednesdays travelling out to Pushkin, a small town about 25km to the south of St. Petersburg.
To get there, I travel down to almost the southernmost Metro Station, Moskovskaya, from where I catch a matrushka, or minibus, to Tsarskoe Selo, the historic heart of Pushkin. Tsarskoe Selo means “The Tsar’s Village”, and is so called because it was the old Tsarist Summer Palace. From where I’m dropped by the matrushka, I walk through an old imperial park to a point where Tsarist Italianate military offices turn into a more recent, and thoroughly dilapidated, semi-industrial area. Here, in a two-story brick building, is the dance studio where Andrey holds his classes. It turns out that Andrey has only been in St Petersburg since August last year; before that, he was based long-term in Novosibirsk, Siberia, which is where he produced the videos that first caught my attention way back in 2007. Obviously, his move to the Baltic was a huge stroke of luck for me! Still, because he’s only recently moved here, the school is still relatively small. On the two occasions that I’ve been there, the core has been Andrey, his wife Katya, Artëm (an assistant instructor) and his wife Anna, two other blokes: Sergey and Fëdor, and a woman whose name I haven’t caught. On the first day there were two more men (Oleg and Kirill), on the second, another man and a woman whose names I didn’t get. So, it’s a small group, but very friendly and relaxed! There are also a number of children in the 5-8 range – some belonging to Andrey and Katya, one to Artëm and Anna, and I’m not sure who the rest belong to!
Each class lasts approximately four hours. We begin in a smallish dance studio/gym, which has a sprung floor, a gymnastics frame, and weights and kettlebells littered around the walls. Here, we dance. In the first week I went, this was a “Cossack step” (vaguely reminiscent of elements of lezginka to my uneducated eye). We began moving around the room solo in a big circle. After a while we formed man/woman pairs; the men danced backwards, and had to maintain eye contact with their partner. Lacking the requisite spacial awareness, I tripped on the gym frame, walked backwards into walls, and was generally a hazard to shipping. At least I didn’t tread on any children. Much.
From that we progressed to dancing solo, with the arms moving in a horizontal figure-of-eight in front, while holding a blunt training knife. The kids loved this bit; it was interesting to see that the little girls took part as well. In the second week (ie last week) we did a bit of hopak. In both weeks, Andrey explained how each step was connected to martial arts, in terms of evasiveness, sureness of foot, kicking, and so on. I have to say, it was surprisingly hard work, and I was perspiring heavily very soon! Even now, several days later, my legs still hurt from the hopak session, even though we weren’t squatting very low at all!
After this, we move next door into a larger dance studio, where the floor is covered in blue mats.This is playtime for the kids, and the adults join in. We play catch; we have to go on all fours, trying to stop the kids from climbing on our backs – and trying to (gently) buck them off if they succeed. We form a bridge in press-up position, shoulder to shoulder, as the kids crawl underneath (or over) us. It’s so much easier, somehow, than holding a press-up for five minutes (though your muscles hurt just the same the next day). One of the exercises in the first week made my blood run cold: the kids had to play dead, while the adults moved around poking them. Then the adults picked the kids up and carried them – in one case, carrying one little girl by one ankle while she dangled limply – to a corner, and stacked them up like logs. The kids loved it. I’m going to talk about this a bit more in another post.
Gradually, this session turns into a more serious form of play. Adults kneel, and kids grab them from behind; the adults swivel, throw the kids to the floor, and roll over them. Of course, because they’re kids, we have to take care to be precise and careful. Last week, we used nagaika whips – first the kids had them, and we adults had to evade their strikes; then the adults had the whips, and it was the kiddies’ turn to dodge. I didn’t get to participate in this part very much – give a little kid a whip and tell them to have a go at an adult and well, of course, they want to hit mummy or daddy, not some fat bloke who doesn’t even speak their language!
Eventually, Katya takes the kids back into the small studio, and the adults go into martial arts practice. So far, (ie in only the two sessions I’ve seen) a lot of this is about knife work. Andrey has been putting a lot of emphasis on establishing psychological dominance over the opponent, through using eye contact and distraction (in my first week, this was integrated with the dance practice). Using the eyes, a hand, or a tissue to guide an attack away from the body is the aim; it strikes me that this is the basis for much of the non-contact work that Mikhail Ryabko – and indeed the various ling kong jin teachers in the Chinese martial arts – are teaching.
We’ve also been working on throws and rolls; no strikes so far.
After we’ve worked on this for a while, we go back into the small studio, and the children charge back into the big room where – to judge by the noise – much running around and shouting happens. We adults, in contrast, stand in a circle and sing. When I say sing, of course, I mean that everyone except me sings. I don’t know the tunes; I don’t know the words; heck, I don’t even know the language! Since all of these things are just a touch problematic when it comes to singing, I just try to join in by making appropriate vowel sounds in the appropriate key, when I can. It must be intensely irritating for everyone else, but so far they’ve kindly refrained from giving me the beating I probably deserve.
Finally, everyone remains in a circle, and each person in turn reviews the class, in typical systema fashion. I don’t know what other people are saying, of course, but there is certainly quite a bit of discussion. I say my piece in English, with Fëdor acting as an interpreter. I’m sorry if all of that sounds a bit dry and dispassionate. I am in fact hugely excited by all of this; probably a year or more before I came here, I was trying to find a way to train in Russia, and here I am, at last. I really feel under pressure to learn; I know I have until the end of 2014, and I think it should be relatively straightforward to get another year’s contract after this one. However, whether that would be financially sustainable is another matter.
So, I’ve arranged to take extra lessons in the singing and dancing with Andrey, which we’ll do back at his apartment after the main class ends. Why the singing and dancing, rather than more systema? I’ll have to return to that in another post.
Which brings me to the balalaika… Throughout the various phases of the class – the initial dancing, the martial arts element, and the singing at the end – Andrey plays the balalaika. At the end of my first class, he turned to me, and told me that everybody else knew how to play the balalaika, and that I was expected to learn as well. At first, I thought that this was tongue-in-cheek, but it was immediately clear that he was serious. We talked about this again after the second class. I was reluctant: a) because it would take time that I would prefer to use on the activities which I’m particularly interested in, and b) because it would cost me money that I can ill afford at the moment. However, following our conversation, I can see that he uses it as a method to direct and control the class activity; it’s an interesting insight, and one that hadn’t occurred to me before. Also, frankly, I came here because what I’d seen of his system via social media really impressed me. If playing the balalaika is a part of it… well, then: playing the balalaika is a part of it.
So, I have a balalaika; now I need to learn how to use it…
Update: Cossack School: