Slow and steady

Painter, instructor: Patricia James follows along as Michael Davis demonstrates a move during his free weekly tai chi class for Asheville Terrace Apartments residents.

Every Thursday at 4 p.m., Michael Davis swaps the white cotton maintenance uniform with his last name stitched on the chest for a silky jacket with a dragon embroidered on the back. Then he hurries to the activity room at the Asheville Terrace Apartments on Tunnel Road, where he teaches a one-hour tai chi class.

Nearly a dozen residents are waiting for him. And though Davis has taught martial arts for 32 years, this class is different.

A stroke cost one student the use of an arm. Another student, who’s had both knees replaced, wobbles more than he’d like. Several practice tai chi while sitting in their wheelchairs.

Setting a black boom box on the table, Davis presses the play button. Chinese music fills the room as he bows his head and leads the class in a brief prayer. Looking around the room, Davis smiles at his students and then begins.

“Each and every one of these people has a unique talent,” he observes. “They don’t all do the same thing the same way, but they do it in their way, which makes it right.”

No longer at the bottom

Sometimes called “meditation in motion,” tai chi (pronounced “tie-chee”) is a Chinese martial art that emphasizes slow, flowing movements. Rather than strength or brute force, Davis explains, tai chi emphasizes “coordination, balance, peace of mind, awareness — and that satisfaction that you’re no longer at the bottom of the totem pole.”

That’s exactly what Evelyn Vaught and other residents were looking for when they found out their maintenance man could do more than just paint. Bored by yoga and uninterested in aerobics, Vaught saw Patrick Swayzee do tai chi in the film Road House and started looking for a local class.

Discouraged by the cost, she soon gave up her search. But when a friend told her that Davis taught tai chi, she recalls, “I was thrilled.” Vaught asked Davis if he’d be willing to teach a free class; a few weeks and a few fliers later, Davis went to work.

Davis was excited about teaching again, though he didn’t quite know what to expect. “We’re talking about people who aren’t able to stand for a long period of time, who hurt constantly, who are immobile or have a very small range of mobility,” he reveals. The low-rent, subsidized apartments house residents 62 and older as well as people with disabilities.

At the first class, however, Davis took his students through their paces, helping them with the moves as needed. “They did it without a break, without sitting down, without complaining, without anything,” he remembers. “It impressed me, because I thought I was going to have to take a 15-minute break. But they were so excited, so full of zeal.”

Joy and satisfaction

Rod Oertel jokingly calls himself a penguin, because his knee replacements make him shaky on his feet. To Davis, however, Oertel is the bionic man: Besides having both knees replaced, he’s legally blind in one eye and has had multiple other surgeries. But after getting an OK from his doctor, Oertel began practicing tai chi regularly for exercise and to improve his balance. “There’s so many other facets to it that you take away from it, like getting to know your neighbors better and camaraderie,” he explains.

Teresa Courtney, 53, says the class gave her something she never thought she’d have again: the use of both arms. Following a stroke earlier this year, Courtney’s left arm hung by her side, hand clenched in a fist; unfazed, Davis invited her to come to class.

From her wheelchair, Courtney would go through the moves with her right arm, doing whatever she could. And when Davis came over to help her, he would do isometric work with her. One day, Davis found a pressure point on her left side, and her clenched fist slowly opened. These days, she can raise her left arm shoulder high. “I couldn’t believe I could do it,” she recalls.

Davis finds that kind of attitude and spirit inspiring. “The look on my student’s face, that’s what I get out of this,” he reveals. “I get to see the joy, the satisfaction that they’re accomplishing something.”

After Davis’ painting business failed and his marriage ended, he didn’t think he’d ever have a chance to teach again. “For the past two years, I just dropped off the face of the earth,” he reveals. “But these good people right here found me and fixed me.”

“Now he’s fixing us,” Vaught interjects.

And though Davis isn’t paid for the class, he says teaching these people tai chi each week brings him a deeper happiness. “If you can reach out and touch someone’s life, then you’ve done something really special.”

Send your local health-and-wellness news and tips to Caitlin Byrd at, or call 251-1333, ext. 140. To watch a video of the tai chi class visit


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