By Paul Ruffins

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Janet Thomas (left) teaching Andie Huberty
Credit: Paul Ruffins

Early Saturday mornings, the University Park Church of the Brethren at Tuckerman Street and Route 1 hosts a small cadre of people led by a true believer. They open their moving meditation with a healthy serving of what Janet Thomas calls, “eating our bitter greens, which may not be pleasant but keep us healthy.” Thomas is the founder of the Dancing in Silence martial arts center, and her bitter greens are the qigong exercises that form the basis for tai chi, as practiced primarily for health purposes rather than fighting.

Thomas moves with the suppleness of a light middleweight boxer and speaks with the soothing cadence of a yoga teacher. “Your body is upright like the top of your head is suspended from the ceiling by an invisible string,” she chants quietly. “Your shoulders hang low, your tailbone hangs low, and your weight is equally distributed on both feet.” New students often find it surprisingly hard to spend just three minutes standing up perfectly still.

The newsletter of Harvard Medical School praises tai chi as a form of moving meditation, explaining that, “Tai chi differs from other types of exercise in several respects. The movements are usually circular and never forced, the muscles are relaxed rather than tensed, the joints are not fully extended or bent, and connective tissues are not stretched. Tai chi can be easily adapted for anyone, from the most fit to people confined to wheelchairs or recovering from surgery.”

A substantial body of scientific research suggests that tai chi is probably the single best exercise for senior citizens. It offers many of the non-impact and cardiovascular benefits of swimming without requiring a pool. And, while most beginning yoga exercises take place on the ground, tai chi offers the same breathing and meditative benefits but is practiced the way most people actually move,which is on both feet, standing up.

Thomas is an anomaly, a woman in electrical engineering, a field dominated by men, and an African American teaching old-style Lao Yang Family tai chi and Taoist longevity exercises. In 2008, she decided to offer classes at the church as a form of community healing. Thomas’s chi energy draws an unusual concentration of scientists, other Black martial artist practitioners — and sometimes both. One of her newest students is Andi Huberty, who holds a doctorate in entomology from the University of Maryland and started studying in the spring of 2023. Huberty, who grew up playing soccer and danced as an adult, said, “I never considered the fighting aspect of tai chi at all. I joined to focus on my breathing and become more aware of how my body is moving in space. I chose to study here because the group is very accepting of new students and willing to help you.” 

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Eric Jordan (left) leading experienced students
Credit: Paul Ruffins

Thomas’ oldest student is probably Keith Preddie, 85, a retired engineer who saw her class practicing in the parking lot while he was driving up Route 1. He recruited his younger son, Darryl, 54, who is an architect and his older Dexter, who is also an engineer. 

As a young man, Darryl had taken karate classes and fought in World Champion Sugar Ray Leonard’s boxing gym in nearby Palmer Park. Now he’s one of Dancing in Silence’s five other instructors. “We’re incorporated because we need the same liability insurance as yoga studios and boxing gyms,” he said, “but, as far as I’m concerned, it’s really like an extended family healing circle.” Like Thomas, Preddie is a strong proponent for the restorative powers of tai chi. “After I developed a case of diabetes, Janet convinced me to really start reading the labels on what I was eating and pay more attention to the qigong exercises for cleansing and health. They do a world of wonder for the mind and body.”

Another student who focuses on the healing aspect is Madeline Simpson, who said, “I study this traditional Lao Yang style here with Janet. But over at the Cedar Heights Community Center, I teach a style called Dr. Paul Lam’s Tai Chi for Arthritis and Balance.” Simpson was introduced to Dancing in Silence by Eric Jordan, who taught her another modern version of tai chi known as 24, which is widely practiced all over the world. Jordan also recruited Gloria Hicks, who teaches at another community center.

 Jordan is the school’s instructor who seems the most like a warrior and has earned the honorific title of shifu or teacher. Not surprisingly, he is a retired military systems engineer. “I started studying hard styles of karate like tai kwan do when I was in college,” he said. “And then I learned kempo, kickboxing, and several other techniques in the military. Wherever I was stationed around the world, I would drop into local martial arts schools just for fun. Eventually, I studied Healing Hands Tai Chi then Yang 24.”

Jordan found Dancing in Silence through a meet-up app. “ I discovered it almost by random chance,” he said, “but I stayed for the mindfulness, breathing and relaxation. Because of my background, I can help other students with both their fundamentals and advanced techniques. Most importantly, this school draws a lot of accomplished people who are still growing.” 

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