Sifu Benno Training Weekend October 2018
By Jessica Schallock
We must have been a funny sight, standing shoulder to shoulder in a long row across the training hall of Cambridge Kung Fu HQ, looks of intense concentration on our faces as we slid our feet across the floor in super slow motion. Borrowed from the Yi Quan system that Sifu Benno has been studying lately in Beijing, the strong focus on intent rather than external form complements and enriches our Practical Wing Chun. Lifting from the hip and sliding rather than stepping, practiced in super slow motion, forces a conscious focus on weight distribution, and it’s the perfect drill to begin a seminar on kicks. We attempted to imitate the graceful movement of Sifu Benno as he flowed from one foot to the other across the room. At first, I felt rather like Gene Wilder in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” trying awkwardly to “walk this way”, but after fifteen minutes of practice I began to feel the power that comes from stepping – and kicking – from the hip.
Since I began studying Wing Chun at Cambridge Kung Fu three years ago, I have had the privilege of attending seminars with Sifu Benno. A private student of Grand Master Wan Kam Leung since 2008, he has had a remarkably comprehensive martial arts career including full contact Karate tournaments, winning national and international championships in Taekwondo, and having a Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He has had practical combat experience, serving in the Dutch Special Forces and working in some of the rougher bars and clubs in Amsterdam, but he combines this street-savvy pragmatism with a deep understanding of the benefits of Wing Chun for health and wellbeing.
I have found that Sifu Benno is not only a master of his art, but also a skilled teacher. These two things do not always go hand in hand; often, when someone with exceptional natural ability turns to teaching, they find it difficult to articulate to others what seems obvious to themselves. Indeed, masters often make poor teachers particularly of the basics, which they learned and internalized long ago. Not so for Sifu Benno. His seminars generally focus on a single idea which is explored and developed through a series of drills and practical applications. At first simple and accessible even to beginners, they gradually increase in complexity. If the group picks up the concept quickly, the drills become more challenging, but if the group struggles, Sifu Benno responds by simplifying or altering the drill until understanding emerges again. While the group practices, Sifu Benno wanders around the room answering questions and providing feedback to individual students, easy going and with a ready sense of humour. He sees the struggles of his students as a technical challenge; chi-sau like, he tries new ways of explaining the concept until one works.
Sifu Benno sees himself as a fellow student of the martial arts; the basics are not a dim memory but an active part of his practice. While those less advanced on our journeys seek the externalized aspects of Wing Chun – the ability to throw or defend a punch, to deliver a kick without losing our balance, to sense a weakness in an opponent’s structure – Sifu Benno practices the skills behind those skills: how to stand, how to walk, how to breathe. These are simultaneously the most basic and the most advanced aspects of our art, and Sifu Benno’s ability to integrate them with a practical fighting system makes him a powerful martial artist and a phenomenal instructor. While we never did get to learn “flying kicks to the head”, I developed a better understanding of the source of power of the low, stable Wing Chun kicks in just a few hours, and I look forward to the next opportunity to gain new insights from a remarkable teacher.