In Memory of Ken Van Sickle
Gifted Tai Chi Sword Practitioner, Instructor, and Photographer
Tai Chi Practitioners and Teachers from the Tai Chi Foundation
I remember Ken saying once in a sword workshop that no fancy steps are necessary for fencing… just be easy, like walking in the park.
Ken was a kind and generous teacher. He was very patient and encouraging. He was also very practical in his approach to practicing the movements in the forms. He emphasized that form follows function, so movements change based on application, real or imagined. This important point really opened my mind. I am grateful to him for that, which helped free me from constant worry of right or wrong in my practice. It was always fun to fence with Ken. He helped me find the blind spots, and he would be very patient and come back again and again to help me discover places that I was just not noticing. So it was fun to be a part of that and have it work for me. He was a great teacher.
Four years ago, Karen Kohlhaas accompanied Ken to Seattle to teach an extended weekend of Push Hands, Sword and Fencing. Ken stayed at my house. He was a most enjoyable guest—engaging, self-sufficient, and not at all imposing or demanding. Our very shy cat, an excellent judge of character and level of awareness, took an immediate liking to him.
During the weekend, I had a chance to fence with Ken. The sword play was fast, unpredictable, and frankly exhilarating. While he easily stayed with me and could have instantly taken advantage of my inexperience, he met me at my level, as though we were equals. Rather than come away from the encounter feeling discouraged by how little I knew, I came away feeling like this is really exciting, and I have the potential to become good at it.
It was a great lesson in how to teach – encouraging our students to feel excited about their progress, inspired for what is yet to come, and having fun in the process.
Many thanks to you, Ken, for your sharing your wisdom, encouragement and immeasurable kindness.
I loved Ken and valued my few chances to work and play with him, and always to learn from him. I loved his irony and his artist’s eye, his gentle and respectful way of engaging, in fencing or sensing hands or in any simple interaction.
We were all so lucky that Greg and Jonathan connected with him, and that Ken chose to share his wisdom with us.
The first time I met Ken Van Sickle was at a winter training party in New York. I didn’t really know who he was, but I had a wonderful swing-style dance with him. He was a very good dance partner leader, fluid and relaxed. I had just done days of tai chi so I was very responsive. It was magical.
The next time I saw Ken was at summer training at Bennington College when Ken was invited to teach sword, and for the first time, I really enjoyed sword. Fencing with him was fun and I gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of the sword.
I had more opportunities to work with him in New York, Florida, and Seattle. He was always upbeat, willing to help and point out how one could improve. Greg and Jon and some others had much more time with him in New York and brought Ken’s wisdom and experience into their classes. Ken’s approach to the sword form and fencing transformed sword in our tai chi school.
Ken was funny, self-effacing, kind, and talented. I bought a few of the photographs he took, and they adorn my tai chi space. I’m sorry I didn’t get more time with him, but I will always be grateful to him for what he did for the sword, for the professor, for his appreciation of our school and for his willingness to share what he knew.
-Margaret Olmsted (MO)
Not only was Ken a good teacher and friend, he taught me how to hold my sword in a firm but relaxed manner.
It is a treasure to me, that I attended a sword class with Ken Van Sickle at the New York Winter Training in 2019. His transmission of the sword form and fencing, all his insights and experiences that he brought to our school, mainly through Greg and Jonathan, enriches me and means a lot to me.
Ken’s vivid memories of his time with Cheng Man-ch`ing which he shared with us showed us his beautiful and soft personality. All the photographs and films of Cheng Man-ch`ing and his students that Ken created, as well his generosity in sharing them with all of us, is an important way we can now feel more connection with Cheng Man-ch`ing.
Ken Van Sickle‘s open and warmhearted presence in the Cheng Man-ch`ing Global Forum warmed my heart.
I met Ken in February 2019 before the world shut down when Ken came to Seattle to work with us here and I was struck by his humor, strength, skill, and unwavering enthusiasm.
He was in his late eighties, and he demonstrated both form and sword form moves the entire two days of his visit; he answered any and all questions asked of him, and he never sat down. And at the end of the first day when we were all exhausted and ready for home, dinner and rest, he wanted to know where we were going to get a glass of wine.
I remembered sitting on a chair and marveling at his vitality and hoping that I would be as strong in my late eighties as Ken was in his, avowing to get to work on that now because he had at the time more vitality than I had in my late fifties!
Ken was a lovely man and I feel lucky to have spent the short amount of time with him that I did. Rest in peace and power Ken and thank you.
-Pam Kelley Elend
Ken came on a tour of Europe/UK and he was hosted by the team in St Albans. He was about 82 at the time, worked on form, applications but mostly, sword.
Someone asked him, “What should the footwork be like in sword?” Ken’s answer was, “like taking a walk in the park.”
I loved that reply and I’ve sought to apply it in the open hand short form also. Can we get our steps as relaxed and free, as if we were taking a walk in the park?
Ken was my friend, teacher, and patient, and I miss him dearly. On my devices he is still very present as Google rotates photos of Ken and Greg or Jonathon or others practicing in the park or at the Soho coop pre-pandemic. There, Ken and I would sit on the bench and not talk about tai chi, but movies and day to day stuff.
One of my favorite tai chi gems from Ken is what he referred to as “FGO’s.” I will let you substitute the F with whatever you want, but the G and O stand for growth and opportunities. F***ing Growth Opportunities. Let us not forget this essential aspect of practice and take inspiration from Ken that even after all his years of practice he embraced FGOs!
As a teacher, Ken was humble, encouraging, and always positive with his feedback. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had him in my life.
First among the things that I remember about Ken Van Sickle was his infectious smile. He smiled with his mouth and his eyes, his whole being, it seemed to me.
He spoke reverently of the Professor, yet not from afar but as someone who was befriended. His heart was touched by the Professor, and he shared that heart with those of us who worked with him.
He encouraged me even when I made the same mistakes again and again. While fencing he suggested that rather than be serious about it, I might treat it like a walk in the park. My spirit was lifted immediately, and I try to take that with me still.
Ken gave freely that which he learned and was close to his heart, and that touched me and will anchor my memories of him.
We were having a sword class with Ken and he had us in a circle, inviting each of us one at a time to step in to the center and engage with him. Some of us did fencing moves, but mostly we were trying to stay connected to Ken through our swords. Some of us knew enough to attempt to adjust our relative body position or the relationship of our sword to him. All of us had been encouraged to cultivate a soft listening awareness instead of waiting for a moment to pounce or attack his wrist, cutting across the wrist while withdrawing being considered the ideal way to disarm your “o” as Ken called it, ( or “opponent”).
I was invited to go first, so I dutifully stepped forward away from the perimeter of the circle and toward the center. He had us touch swords and start walking, circling around with light sword contact. I felt cautiously protective in case he came in toward me suddenly with one of those disabling moves. Ken just smiled and said something like “stop being so hunkered down and defensive” … just go for a stroll in the park with me [in the center of the circle] and stay listening.”
I felt my shoulders loosen a bit and my attitude became more responsive. While I was in motion with Ken, I understood how much more easily I could learn to respond to the situation than if I had an ever vigilant and tense attitude towards him.
And I also learned to visually take in all of Ken rather than being fixated on our swords out of fear where his sword might go. Oh yes, dantian awareness… So easy to forget but so essential to the entire endeavor of communicating with others, whether actually going for a walk in the park or fencing with wooden swords.
Thanks, Ken. Your teaching was imminently clear and to the point (pun intended).
Like Patrick Watson, Ken could meet me at the level of understanding where I was and provide enough inspiration for what might be possible in the future. That reflected his level as a teacher and a companion in the Tao for which I am grateful.
Around Ken’s 80th birthday, I took a train to Long Island with Ken and his partner, Victoria, to where Ken’s son was living. I was going out to play violin at an art gallery where Ken also knew the owner. At the owner’s request, Ken demonstrated Push Hands to the audience using me as his partner.
Later, Ken generously told me how he noted my contact with the audience as I looked at them while playing the violin. He himself had such a presence, as we see in photos of him. Victoria was so lovely and kind. It was a pleasure spending time with them.
In Seattle, we apprentices had the precious opportunity of having Ken Van Sickle fly to us from New York for a weekend workshop just before the pandemic. I remember worrying a little that I would feel intimidated by Ken since I knew how he had been a longtime student of Cheng Man-ch’ing and he was a well-known tai chi sword expert.
But as soon as I met Ken and his friendly, warm personality combined with his surprisingly humble demeanor, I immediately felt completely comfortable with him as if he were an old friend.
However later that weekend, when Ken invited us to fence with him in the middle of the circle, I felt frozen in that old stuck place of self-doubt. When I finally very hesitantly stepped into the circle, I will never forget the expression on Ken’s face as our swords touched, ever so lightly. His face radiated so much kind, gentle, and attentive energy, that I was touched to the core, and I immediately relaxed. Time seemed to hold still as he carefully helped me keep my sword connected with his.
Months later, as a new blog editor for the TCF website, when I couldn’t get anyone to send in anything, Ken totally came to my rescue. He let me know he had some completed “notes” which he had planned to publish in a new book, but since that hadn’t yet happened, he informed me he’d just send them all to me to publish on our website.
Ken eventually sent in a total of 11 brilliant, detailed blogs accompanied by his photos where he shared personal stories, experiences, lessons, and further insights gleaned from working continuously and closely with Cheng Man-ch’ing for eight years from 1967-1975 until Professor passed away.
What a treasure trove Ken left us on our foundation website for our continued learning and reference! In addition, of course, we have his books: Tai Chi Sword; NYC T’ai Chi in black and white co-authored with Terry Marks; Ken Van Sickle: Photography 1954–2009; and the documentary feature of which he was the cinematographer: The Professor: Tai Chi’s Journey West.
For Ken’s 88th birthday we emailed Ken our birthday messages shortly after he left Seattle. I wrote a poem for him using titles of some of the images from the Sword Form. When Ken emailed back how much he liked the poem, he added in his humble way that it was the only poem he ever truly understood! His response lifted my spirits so much, I got back into my creative writing after a long lapse.
Ken not only shared his masterful gifts with us and others far and wide way into his late 80s (!), he also helped our unique capabilities grow, wherever we were at. And all the while he made it fun!
Ken was beloved by so many in our tai chi community and beyond. He exemplified the child-like joy of the Fire Element that manifests in swordplay as he fenced with us with a smile and sparkle in his eyes!
He was so generous in the way he made a conscious effort to pass on everything he could while his health allowed. Our school really has him to thank for raising the level of our sword game.
-Thomas Malone and Hollis Yungbliut
It’s a trumpet; it could have been a sword
We know and love and respect Ken’s mastery and teaching of the sword. And we have all benefited from his photographs and video of Professor Cheng and his school in New York. But Ken also had a distinguished career as a photographer aside from his tai chi photography. In 2018 he published a gorgeous book of his photos:
Ken Van Sickle (2018) Photography 1954-2009 Damiani, Italy.
I learned something interesting from this book. Ken was an outstanding “street photographer.” Many of his photos are spontaneous, unstaged, unposed, pictures of people in their natural habitats.
Look at this photo:
The woman is laughing at something; the man is playing the trumpet; there is another horn; there is writing on all the windows; the man in the left corner with his slick hair is looking out of the frame; everyone is looking in a different direction … yet it all hangs together.
When I was trying to do photography, I could never do this kind of photography. I could never respond spontaneously enough, never see the moment when an interesting photo was coming into being and going out of being. I had no chance of being Cartier-Bresson; I wanted to be Ansel Adams, who captured his moments on a geological time scale.
After I got Ken’s book, it occurred to me that this kind of photography is connected to tai chi, and especially to the sword. To create this picture, Ken had to respond in the moment to the man with the trumpet, and everything else going on. Had it been a sword instead of a trumpet, he would have to respond in the same way, in that same moment. So I wrote to Ken and asked if he thought there was a connection. I cannot find his reply to quote him exactly, but he agreed, in his humble way, that he thought there was an underlying principle connecting the two.
For me, Ken’s photography is a reminder of what it means to respond to the situation, not to my imagination of the situation. My delay in response, my desire to arrange the man with the trumpet in just the way I think he should be, is my greatest hindrance in tai chi and push hands and sword. My thanks to Ken for that reminder.
All photos by Ken Van Sickle
Slideshow of Ken Van Sickle facilitating a Tai Chi Foundation Weekend, Bennington College Vermont July 2008, and New York, NY
Slideshow photos taken and compiled by Patrice Wooldridge (11 minutes, 32 seconds)