Sing. Dance. Fight.

But… I haven’t been writing much about them! Basically, I haven’t had much to say, because there’s not been much opportunity to do anything for over a year, with Janick Litalien’s seminar here in Beijing in late April being the honourable exception.

I hope that this is now on the brink of changing…

To be honest, I needed a break. I’ve alluded before to the last four years having been dreadful. The first three of those, with family illness eventually leading to caregiver stress, combined with a job with a working environment so toxic it led to the Welsh Government asking questions and ultimately damaging the entire instution (not to mention the health and careers of many of the staff)… well, it ground me up and barely left me strong enough to jump ship. That took me to Russia; it was great having the opportunity to train with Andrey Karimov and Vitaliy Denisov, but being an English teacher isn’t always the best job to have a life with.

So when fate intervened and brought me back to Beijing after an absence of nearly five years, with a good job in which I’m very happy, I decided to more or less give myself a 6-month break. I’ve been getting back up to speed in yiquan, which has been great, but that’s about it.

Now I’m ready to get back up to speed again.

I’ve now got a few weeks of annual leave to use up. I’m going to use them to start getting fit again, and to work on developing my skills.

Here’s what’s happened in the last couple of days…


I brought two balalaikas and a domra malaya with me to Beijing. Although I have tried to do something with them in the last few months, I’ve sadly made almost no progress. I bought a couple of books from Amazon that I hoped would help me to study solo, but I just couldn’t get anywhere; I wasn’t able to make the conceptual leap from what I was seeing on the page to actually doing something with my hands. There are a couple of people advertising lessons via Skype, but it’s not something I fancy until I have more of a foundation. And as for finding a tutor in Beijing… well, I did try looking, with all of the success that you would expect!

So, I decided to follow the example of Jiang, a commenter here and on my other blog, who decided to learn the ukulele. That seemed like a good idea to me: small, portable, and relatively inexpensive, it’s functionally very similar to the balalaika – and, as I mentioned in a previous post, Olivia and I aren’t trying to become cossacks (though we love the culture), we’re trying to take the system Andrey Karimov has been developing and adapt it to our own cultures. The ukelele will work just fine for me.

In one of the many small music shops on Gulou Dongdajie I bought a Chinese-made ukelele, a TOM TUC-800, which has excellent reviews on Amazon and elsewhere.

Since I’m very much a visual learner, I also ordered a couple of tutorial DVDs: Ukulele – A Beginning Method, by Daniel Ho,
and Ukelele Primer Book with DVD, by Bert Casey. Both of them are excellent; I find them really easy to understand and to follow. I’ve already got a couple of chords down fairly confidently after just a couple of sessions (which means I should already be able to play punk!), and I’m confident of making fairly rapid progress.

This has also transferred across to the balalaika, which is becoming clearer to me. However, it’s going to have to wait; I know I’ve tuned it correctly, but the sounds I’m getting when I try to play chords are not what I expect, based on the chord sequences shown in the books.

So, one step at a time. As I try to play my uke, I’m discovering that my hands are very inflexible, and my fingers are very weak; this is an interesting insight for a martial artist! I’ll see how this changes…


I’ve found a lezginka video tutorial on YouTube which teaches seven or eight different steps. Add to that one that I learned from Andrey Karimov, a couple taught to me by the Ensemble Imamat in St. Petersburg, and another couple that I can see clearly on other YouTube clips, and I’ve got quite a collection to work on developing. I’ve been practising a few of them intermittently during slack periods of work; now that I have a long period free, I’m going to work on them intensively, until I can do them properly.

In a long session working on five or six different steps today, I concentrated on not letting my head bob up and down – something I couldn’t avoid doing while I was training with Andrey Karimov. I found that some of the things I’ve been working on in Chinese martial arts came in useful: I stood “as if sitting on the edge of a bar stool”, and moved from the hip joints/psoas muscles rather than the lower leg, and it made a big difference. One step in particular, though, made my vertebrae right up my back click and pop; I have no idea why…

I’m also working on a stomp/boot slap set based on a video tutorial from one of Andrey’s students, Fedor Tarabukin. It’s a Cossack dance, but there are very similar sets in Welsh folk dance, not to mention the South African miners’ gumboot dance!

I’ve been filming myself, and I can see that this is going to need slow, steady, work. Although I’m getting the steps more or less right, they’re very messy – whereas the Caucasian and Cossack dancers I admire most on YouTube are very precise in their movements. They also have excellent posture, standing spear-straight… which I, ahem, am not doing. It’ll perhaps become easier as I lose weight, but it definitely needs specific attention.

This is all great aerobic and cardio exercise. It’s definitely working the psoas muscles, which are hugely important for martial artists. As I practice the lezginka steps with my arms raised, I’m trying to move my shoulders in figure-8 motions; these are very large – too large – at the moment, but as the Chinese traditions do, I’ll start large and then make them smaller and subtler as I improve. (Too be honest, though, at the moment it’s like “rub tummy, pat head” at the moment – I can concentrate on the steps or my shoulders, but not both!). Before too long, I’ll also start integrating shashka and nagaika work. When I’m stronger and more flexible, I’ll try some hopak as well, but that’s a long way off!


As I’ve been recounting on my Jianghu blog, I’ve been working hard on strength and power in my yiquan classes. This is based on relaxation, and on developing the power of the leg and back muscles. This is going very successfully, but I’m aware that I need to complement this with strength and aerobic exercises.

I’ve found a combination of two programs from Scott Sonnon (Flowfit and Kettlebell Spetsnaz) to be very effective in the past so, having bought a yoga mat and a kettlebell, I’m starting up those again. I’m also going to try to work in elements using a Swiss Ball, based on material that Kevin Secours has posted on YouTube.

One of the big issues has been not having a training partner. That may be about to change, as I’ve met up with another westerner, a beginner in systema like me, who would like to get some training sessions going. We met up to talk about it last weekend, and we agreed that we should begin with:

– Vasiliev’s breathing methods;
– internal wave, low acrobatics, and structure-breaking from Kadochnikov
– other material as we identify it.

So, I hope to be able to report on my progess more frequently…

Image credit: The Space Cossacks – Tsar Wars by user Mutant Surfing on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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