Ryan Vandenberg had seen his share of martial arts movies, and he thought he knew what to expect four years ago when he visited the martial arts club at St. Charles East High School: sharp blows, perhaps, or precise blocks, punctuated by powerful yells.
Instead, he saw fluid movements that sometimes were playful, sometimes graceful, that seemed to require little strength but carried surprising power.
"I like this a lot better," he said. "It's really slow and open, not hard and violent."
Now a senior, Vandenberg often leads the class in warm-ups. Sometimes visitors to the club laugh at the style, called gray crane kung-fu systems, but those that stick around for more than a class or two usually become fans.
Gray crane kung-fu is a fusion of traditional kung-fu, a fighting style based on animal models, and tai chi, a fluid style that teaches relaxation and flexibility.
Ceramics teacher Greg Chapman brought the style to East. He has studied various martial arts since he was 13, and he started taking tai chi in college. Later he switched to a different tai chi teacher, who also was a kung-fu master.
Eventually he became an instructor in the gray crane style.
"You take that relaxed attitude you get from tai chi and apply it to kung-fu," Chapman said.
He brought up the idea of a martial arts club at East when he was the adviser for the class of 1996. Some administrators were concerned about safety at first, but in five years Chapman cannot recall a single injury.
The club meets after school Tuesdays and Thursdays on a drop-in basis. Between six and eight students form the core group.
They learn different fighting styles developed by monks who observed animal behavior. The tiger style would call for clawing hand-movements, while in the monkey style, you would pick at and annoy your opponent until he makes a mistake. …