Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Friday, August 30, 2013

A Biography of Taijiquan Pioneer Sophia Delza

Over at Kung Fu Tea, there was a very nice article giving a detailed biography of Taijiquan pioneer Sophia Delza, about whom I've posted before.

An excerpt from this most interesting post follows. The full post may be read here.


Slowly attitudes began to change in the 1950s.  It is in the middle of the 1950s that we start to see the first real signs of openness in the Chinese American community.  It is also when the first truly public schools, open to all individuals regardless of race or gender, start to appear.

One of the earliest of these was Sophia Delza’s (1903-1996) school of Wu style Taiji Quan taught out of her dance studio at Carnegie Hall.  She also taught regular classes at the Actors Studio and the United Nations building in New York City.  Given that her teaching career began in either late 1953 or 1954, she was one of the very first Chinese martial artists to operate publicly in the United States.  But who was she?  How did she become a student of Wu Taiji and what was her approach to the Chinese martial arts actually like?

Sophia Delza lived the sort of life that would make a good movie.  She was born in 1903 to a family of some means and distinctly liberal political views in Brooklyn NY.  She had a number of very accomplished siblings, including one sister who was an early pioneer of modern dance, a brother who became noted documentary film maker (he was later black-listed by the McCarthy Committee), and a younger sister who became an early pioneer of psychoanalysis in America.

Sophia was bright and majored in the hard sciences in college.  She graduated from Hunter College in 1924 and was accepted into a graduate program at Columbia University.  However, a trip to Europe derailed her initial career plans. Sophia had always been attracted to dance and had trained informally with her sister for years.  She had even performed in some community events.  While in Europe she decided to dedicate herself to the study of dance and did so exclusively for the next several years.

Upon returning to the states she encountered the hard economic realities of life as a professional performer.  Yet undaunted she worked her way into the vaudeville circuit and became a regular performer.  In 1928 she even danced opposite James Cagney in the Follies.  Once her career was established she began to experiment with her performance and moved in the direction of modern choreography.  She achieved some level of recognition for her work in this area and was booked for multiple seasons at the NY Guild Theater.

During this time Sophia met her future husband Cook Glassgold (1899 – 1985).  In many ways he had lived the same sort of exciting and artistic life as his wife.  Also a native New Yorker Cook had graduated from City College in 1920.  He was a talented painter and taught art at the City College until 1932 when he became the director of the Whitney Museum.  His career took a distinctly political turn after that.  From 1936-1941 he was an editor of the Index of American Art for the Works Progress Administration.  During WWII he served with the Federal Public Housing Administration.  After the war he was sent as a diplomat to Germany to help with the rebuilding and resettlement problems.  In 1948 he was assigned as a United Nations diplomat to go to Shanghai and assist in the refugee resettlement situation there.  This last assignment was an unexpected turning point for his wife Sophia, and it marked the rest of her career.

Sophia was interested in the intersection of culture and dance.  She had formally studied Spanish dance, and had actually toured as a performer in that style one occasion.  An extended stay in China (almost four years, 1948-1951) opened vast new horizons.

Upon arriving in Shanghai in 1948 she initially found an audience that was receptive to her work.  She gave a number of concerts and lectures, and was the first person to teach modern dance in Chinese dance academies and number of traditional schools in the city.  This quickly developed into a two way exchange.  Sophia was fascinated by traditional dance and opera, including its more energetic and martial roles.  She studied with leading performers in the city and counted Wang Fu-Ying and Cheng Chuan-Chien among her teachers.

She was also introduced to the martial arts while in Shanghai.  Ma Yueh Liang and his wife Wu Ying Hua, a unique husband a wife team of martial arts masters, defined what for many was the golden age of Wu style Taiji.  Sophia had the good fortune to be introduced directly to the pair and became a student of Ma sometime around 1949.  She was able to receive about 3 years of pretty regular training directly from one of the most talented martial artists of his generation before returning to the United States in 1951.

1 comment:

James C Bush said...

Hers was one of the first cogent books on the subject back in the day.I enjoyed it and it inspired me to study further.