So, my sister-in-law and I have been looking at local Martial Arts schools. We haven't had a lot of time, so we're basically hitting one a week. Results so far have varied from disappointing (good instructor, bad students) to pleasantly surprising (much better than I'd seen that style taught before), to last night's entry... which was interesting.
I'm reluctant to name names, especially on the less impressive schools, so bear with me.
Last night's entry was a small, local Kung Fu school. The instructor offers three sorts of classes: a forms class, a sanshou (free-fighting) class, and Tai Chi. We arrived in time to watch the very end of the forms class, and all of the sanshou class.
The forms class had four students, in the 12-15 age range. The forms had a very Wushu feel to them - flashy stances, wobbly-bladed swords, dramatic movements. (For those unclear on the distinction, Wushu is Communist state-sponsored Kung Fu, and tends to be more of a performance art and less of a fighting style; as part of the performance, it uses thin, flexible blades on any weapons.) This was a little disappointing, as I have no interest in studying swords that aren't actually swords.
The next class was the sanshou class, which was what we'd mainly come to see. I was particularly curious about how one would teach sanshou, as I tend to think of it as something you do as part of learning a style. In this case, the students were a young man (maybe eighteen), and a woman who looked to be in her early twenties. They worked on basic kicks, basic punches, and some stepping, either in the air or targetting pads. When they were targeting each other, they wore oversized boxing gloves. Apparently the sanshou class involves some knee and elbow work as well. This was Kung Fu stripped down to its fighting essentials... which is to say, it was basically just kickboxing. My reaction (which mirrored my sister-in-law's almost perfectly) was essentially, If I wanted this, I'd just study Muay Thai and have done with it.
As I said, it was interesting. The instructor was good - he could demonstrate exactly what he wanted, fast or slow, and his movements were graceful, balanced, and coordinated - but he managed to completely avoid everything that I would actually want to study.
At one point he asked what we'd studied, and we told him that we'd done a little bit of Northen Praying Mantis. (This is known as "hiding your tip". We've actually studied more than a little of it.) This led him to show a little bit of a mantis form, and explain that mantis moves were too flashy for real fighting.
There two problems with this. The first is that the phrase "praying mantis kung fu" doesn't actually tell you that much. Why? Well, first, Northern Praying Mantis is a completely different style from Southern Praying Mantis; aside from the name, there's no connection between them. Second, Northern Praying Mantis has several different branches, which do things differently - sometimes very differently. To further confuse the issue, at one point there was an effort to preserve and consolidate all styles of kung fu. As a result, there is now a mantis form in what is usually taught as "Shaolin Kung Fu".
I believe this last is what the fellow last night was thinking about. Because of its history, that form focuses on the distinctively mantis movements, and - if taught as part of wushu - actually will be more of a showy, display style. But that's the mantis form, not actual Mantis Kung Fu.
So that's the first problem: he didn't know what we were talking about.
The second problem is this: if someone comes to your school with prior training in another style, don't dis that style. First of all, even if you're familiar with the style, you don't know how they were taught. I've seen some good styles taught very poorly, and I've met some very formidable practitioners of styles that I would otherwise dismiss. You never know. Second, if the person liked that style, they're likely to feel insulted when you talk it down - and that's not the reaction you want from a potential student. Third, and most important, it makes you sound insecure about your own style. Again, this is not the impression that you want to make.
Seriously. Don't be that guy.