If Sister Madeleine Marie's students could see her now!
On second thought, they might well recognize the graceful woman with the cap of white curls, even though she now wears a sweat shirt with a tiger on it.
No matter what her garb, she's still teaching.
Helen Christian, the former Sister Madeleine Marie, is one of the volunteers teaching Taoist Tai Chi in Kenmore.
"If you live long enough, you have an interesting life," says Christian, 73, of Buffalo, remembering the all-women trip to China in 1995 that introduced her to tai chi.
If you closed your eyes while observing a class in the airy, bright studio that houses the Taoist Tai Chi Society in the small plaza at 968 Kenmore Ave., you'd hardly believe that 35 people are moving in unison on the carpeted floor.
Cars shush by on the street outside, but the only sounds in the room are the whisper of sleeves as students raise and lower their arms. Feet, cushioned by socks or soft shoes, are placed carefully and silently. Arms raise, swoop, fingers point, form a fist, separate and relax.
The students in this continuing class flow through 108 separate movements with such exotic names as "Wave Hands Like Clouds" and "Step Back to Repulse Monkey."
Many styles of tai chi have developed from the original set of poses created by Chinese monks. Most forms of tai chi share the same slow, flowing arm and leg movements and body positions. But Taoist Tai Chi is less a martial art and more a set of exercises done for health benefit.
"If you've been bright your whole life," says Christian, dark eyes twinkling, "and good with learning and in the classroom, you start tai chi and it can get kind of frustrating. It's a different kind of memory - it's muscle memory."
Christian has always been good with learning and in the classroom, on both sides of the teacher's desk. Her father was a U.S.-trained attorney who took his family back to his native Antigua, West Indies, during the Depression and found he needed a second law education - in the British system. He went to London, acquired the British degree, and returned to Antigua.
Her family never returned to the United States to live, but when she was 17, Christian enrolled in Barnard College in her hometown, New York City. It was the start of a lifelong educational path.
Christian has a bachelor's degree in zoology from Barnard, a bachelor's in nursing from New York University, a master's in microbiology from Catholic University, and a master's and a doctorate in psychology from the University at Buffalo.
She worked as a nurse and a teacher, was a Mercy nun from 1959 to 1976, and after graduating from UB, a psychologist.
Her work took her to the alcoholism unit at the old E.J. Meyer Memorial Hospital, the Stutzman Alcoholism Treatment Center on the grounds of the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, and Gowanda Psychiatric Center.
In 1995, Christian got a chance to tour China with a group of women after the end of the United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. She decided, "I will never be healthier, I will never be younger" and joined the tour.
"Of course they treated us royally everywhere we went," she says, getting a welcome usually reserved for official representatives of the United Nations.
In China, she met a woman who practiced tai chi.
"I had heard of it, but never seen it," Christian says, so she was delighted when the woman offered to show her a few movements. Finally, Christian was able to imitate the fluid set of steps, and said, "Oh, it's like swimming!"
"You could see the woman pause while she translated it in her mind," Christian says. "Then she said, "Yes, like swimming!'
"It looked like the kind of exercise I wanted to learn, and I needed a challenge because I was going to retire" from her job as a psychologist at the Condrell Group. She signed up for a beginners' class during the annual January open house at the Taoist Tai Chi Society.
Three months later, with the late Buffalo News reporter Carl Allen as her instructor, she had run through "a skeleton set" of the moves. "You don't have time for the subtleties," she says. "Then I was kicked up into the next class."
Taoist Tai Chi Society board member and instructor Brendan Fallon has practiced the art for 13 years, since he was 17.
"My dad did it because he hurt his back," says Fallon, "and he'd come home and do the moves, and I thought, "That looks cool.' I started doing it just for fun, but it really made me feel good. And I wasn't coming into it with any health problems, but I just remember it made me feel really good, and that's what made me stick with it."
Christian says she has experienced the health benefits of tai chi herself. "I used to have bursitis in one of my hips. I don't have it anymore, and I credit tai chi," she says. When she tore her rotator cuff, she looked over the set of exercises prescribed by her physical therapist and thought, "Hmmm, some of these look kind of familiar!" she says. "So I just kept doing tai chi.
"As a scientist, I've learned not to take anecdotes for proof, so I can only talk about me," says Christian. "But tai chi seems to work for a lot of people."
Fallon says that in the 13 years he has been with the Taoist Tai Chi society, he's seen people credit the exercise with "fixing the joints, improving movement after a stroke, combating side effects of medications. "... And beyond that, it really works deep into the body, at levels that Western medicine isn't always as good at hitting ..."
Says Christian, "I keep trying to improve my set (of tai chi movements) - how I do it. My balance continues to improve, and it's good for your lungs, the stretching. I used to take yoga years ago, but now, tai chi feels right for me."
Tai chi also feels right for about 50 members of the Amherst Center for Senior Services on John James Audubon Parkway, who signed up to take the class that Christian teaches on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Phyllis Holmes, who is a program leader at the center, says tai chi has been offered for at least 10 years and "is a very, very well-attended class."
Christian "is amazing and the members adore her," says Holmes. "She is the type of person who wouldn't be doing it unless she truly loves it, and it's clear that she does."
The center offers only a continuing/intermediate level class, Holmes says, because "many of our members who take tai chi at present have taken it for years," but new people still enroll.
Several local martial arts studios offer tai chi classes. The Taoist Tai Chi Society, a nonprofit organization, starts a new beginners' class around the first of every month. After paying a $15 registration fee, adults pay $35 a month for membership, with reduced prices for youngsters, seniors, students and families.
Society instructors, all of whom are volunteers, also teach classes in the Dale Association in Lockport, Covenant United Methodist Church in West Seneca and the Veterans Administration Medical Center.
For more information, call the center at 876-7218 or find them online at http://bluemoon.net/~ttcsbuf.