The movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" featured an epic love story, poisonous darts and graceful, gravity-defying swordplay, with lithe warriors battling each other in midair by ricocheting off walls, leaping off roofs and soaring among treetops. Although the flying was courtesy of stunt masters and cinematic special effects, there is a real martial art buried under the glitz: wushu, a modern, acrobatic variant of kung fu that is gaining in popularity locally and worldwide.
Wushu is the national sport of China -- in 2008, it'll be introduced as an event at the Beijing Olympics. While kung fu sticks to the traditional moves, wushu constantly evolves, adding more tricks, twists and turns. Advanced feats include running up a wall and flipping back down, a 720-degree spinning tornado kick and a butterfly kick that resembles a sideways-twisting layout -- all making the sport a perfect base for the gymnastics of Hong Kong action movies. (Superstar Jet Li, of "Once Upon a Time in China" and "Hero," was a member of the Beijing Wushu Team.)
Wushu has been around the D.C. area for some time but has been largely geared to the Chinese community (in Silver Spring in the mid-1990s, our high school mascot attributed his ability to do aerials and flips to his "secret Chinese sport"). As its popularity has increased, though, participants have become more diverse.
What to Expect: Your first class won't involve any fancy gymnastics or sword fighting. In fact, though wushu is a martial art, students generally aren't allowed to learn sparring until the higher levels. Instead, you'll stretch and learn the basic straight-leg kicks, such as the front and side stretching kick and the outside and inside crescent kicks. Wushu emphasizes a straight back and extended arms, so you may come away with mild soreness in those areas. Impatient athletes shouldn't fret, though: Depending on dedication and ability, it's possible to start trying acrobatics, like butterfly kicks, after about six months.
What to Bring: Shorts, a T-shirt and a clean pair of sneakers. Unlike other martial arts, wushu is not done in bare feet.
Cost: Your first two introductory classes can be had for $15 to $19. After that, weekly or semiweekly classes cost just over $100 per month, depending on the school.
Where to Take Classes
Chinese Martial Arts Institute. 8426-B Lee Hwy., Fairfax, 703-204-0040. www.cmai-va.com. One of the few "hybrid" schools that teach both kung fu and wushu. The institute features a competition-size floor, as well as showers and a pro shop. Two instructors, Jiang Bangjun and Li Ying, have been Chinese national wushu champions.
O-Mei Wushu Center. 2929-D Eskridge Rd., Fairfax, 703-560-1900. 18949 Bonanza Way, Gaithersburg, 301-987-0610. www.omei-wushu.com. O-Mei's Virginia location opened in 1984, and the Maryland location opened about a year ago. Virginia features a springy floor to make gymnastics exercises easier. Currently, 11 students are on U.S. national wushu teams.
U.S. Wushu Academy. 7251 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church, 703-698-8182. 701 Russell Ave., Gaithersburg, 301-869-7519. www.uswushuacademy.com. The Virginia location has been around for more than a decade, and the Maryland location is in a temporary facility in
Lake Forest Mall until its permanent, 6,000-square-foot school opens. Coach Zhang Guifeng was a member of the Beijing Wushu Team along with Jet Li.