40 years of free tai chi at Maymont

The tai chi class takes place on the lawn of the Dooley mansion. | Photo by RICtoday

For four decades, Wilson Pitts has been teaching tai chi at Maymont. We headed to the park on the morning of Sat., May 7 for the first regular class of the year. 

The weather was overcast to start the anniversary season. The group gathered at 10 a.m. at the Hampton Street gate entrance to the park, waving as familiar faces emerged from cars. Some people have taken the weekly class, on and off, for a decade or longer.

As the class made our way to the North Lawn of the Dooley mansion, we joked that in order to write an article about tai chi, you’d have to practice the form for a decade or so. Although we editors can’t keep to that timeline, it soon became clear why the beginner class has a devoted following.  

“The more people do it, the more they love it,” Wilson said. “You feel like you missed something if Saturday morning didn’t start off that way.” 

Wilson began practicing tai chi in 1972 after finding a book by Robert W. Smith — a pioneer of martial arts in America — in the library. He drove up to Bethesda, MD several times to meet with the author. After starting to teach for a bit, he wanted to something more

“I was seeking community,” Wilson said. “That’s what we’ve tried to provide all these years, for people who have increasing levels of experience and for brand new beginners.” 

Around 200 people showed up to the first free class in 1982, which Wilson had advertised on notecards around VCU and in a listing in the Times-Dispatch. Since then, attendance has ebbed and flowed, but the class is still going strong.  

“The core group around me, there’s any number of people that are qualified to teach that class on any given day,” Wilson said. “The joke is we have more teachers than students.”

Wilson is pretty sure the class is the longest running free outdoor class in the country. Although several attendees are well-versed in tai chi, the class remains beginner-friendly.

“It’s a big art — it’s hundreds of years old and lots and lots of people have contributed to it,” Wilson said. “But what we do out there in the park is one 12-posture sequence, and it’s not that hard to learn… and once you have it, you have it. And it’s really a gift.”

Class attendees echo Wilson’s sentiments. Before the class begins, assurances are shared that even those who have been practicing the longest are still not perfect — consistency is key. 

Getting a meditative start to the morning was easy at Maymont, particularly in the nestled-away area where the class is held. The lawn is a relatively new location for the decades-old class, but it’s quieter than where it used to be. The sounds of wildlife soundtrack the sequence + trees shield the class from rain.

To passersby, the class may not seem like much of a workout. But while it appears gentler than a high-intensity run or weight-lifting session, the focus and discipline required to move your joints is something a beginner will need to develop. Turns out being told to “relax your ankles” is not something you hear often.

Both the practice of tai chi + the free class have always been friendly to older adults, particularly those with mobility issues. But really, Wilson emphasizes, it’s for everyone

“I just look forward to going to the park… I love going over there,” Wilson said. “To do something that makes you feel good in that space is really special to me. I want to be there to share it with other people.” 

Try out class every Saturday at 10 a.m., weather permitting — fair warning, you may get hooked. Pro tip: Keep up with the group on Facebook.