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An ancient martial art with meditative, fun-sounding movements has become a modern phenomenon. Strum the Pei Pa indeed.

After four weeks of tai chi, I felt more limber and less creaky getting out of bed in the morning. Jean Walsh, one of the instructors at the Taoist Tai Chi Society in St. Petersburg, has a more impressive story.

"I saw an article about tai chi in Clearwater and started classes in September of '96,'' said Walsh, whose chronic back problems once landed her flat on her back for five months. Since starting tai chi, she has had just three minor "back attacks.''

"Tai chi is part of my life," she says now.

The Taoist Tai Chi Society, which has four branches in the bay area, teaches the Yang style of this ancient martial art. There's no contact with an opponent; just a flowing series of offensive and defensive movements.

I'm told it takes about three to four months for a beginner to learn all 108 moves in the Yang style and to be able to perform them with a group.

Learning all the names might take longer.

You have Grasp Bird's Tail, White Stork Spreads Wings, and Brush Knee. And then there's my favorite, Strum the Pei Pa (Pipa in Chinese vocabulary), which made a whole lot more sense to me once I realized I was to imagine holding a musical instrument with a pear-shaped wooden body and four strings.

Still ahead for me are Go Back to Ward Off Monkey and Parting Wild Horse's Mane.

As a newcomer, I was a little nervous the first day of class. But, as is fitting with the philosophy of the Taoist Tai Chi Society, everyone is greeted at the door as though entering the home of a dear friend. All instructors are volunteers who are required to meet the standards set by the society's founder, Master Moy Lin-shin, and they must attend regular classes to update their knowledge.

Students are guided through a precise method. First, the instructor performs a move three times while the students watch. Next, students follow the instructor and set leaders (experienced students assisting the instructors) through the same move three times. Finally, as the students perform the move three more times with only the set leader, the instructor steps aside to watch each student's form.

Instructors stress the precision of each move with correct placement of torso and feet to avoid unnecessary strain, particularly on the back and knees.

When the exercise is performed correctly, the result is a fluid, dance-like arrangement of moves that, when performed in unison with a group, can feel energizing and almost mesmerizing.

Sharon Otts can be reached at

if you go

Open house

The Taoist Tai Chi Society's St. Petersburg branch, at 1833 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, will hold an open house from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. today, with a free lesson, demonstrations and refreshments. For information, call (727) 896-2620 or go to stpetersburg.florida.usa.

The best deal is the new member package, which combines five months of daytime and evening classes. Go as often as you like. (Adult $185, full-time student $145, senior (60') $125, family $265). Joining the society entitles you to attend multiple classes and experience different instructors. For those recovering from injury or requiring special attention, there is a health recovery class. And, most Tampa Bay centers offer chanting programs.

More Local Branches

Brandon: 911 S Bryan Road. (813) 685-1211.

Clearwater: 1223 Cleveland St. (727) 562-2878.

Sarasota: 2888 Ringling Blvd., Suite A/B. (941) 365-0999.