This is Mario, and this is one of my favourite photos. We were at the Ashburton Community Festival in 2012 and had a half-hour block of time on stage to entertain the crowd with the wonders of tai chi. We didn’t plan it ahead and we didn’t rehearse anything. This photo suggests we should have! We were doing the classical sword and I was a bit rusty… When we found ourselves facing each other instead of in the same direction we just laughed. There were only a handful of people watching, thanks to having the Bananas in Pyjamas on another stage further down the road, so we just enjoyed the moment and abandoned the effort. Later on Mario did the sword on his own - much better!
Mario has just retired from teaching tai chi after 27 years. He took me under his wing soon after I joined Celestial in 1995. Those were early days for the College and they were keen to recruit new instructors, so I was sent off to instructor training before I’d even finished the long form. Mario saw me looking a little lost and volunteered to help fast-track my learning and I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for him ever since. He’s been a lovely mentor to me and has been a bit like a guardian angel – looking over my shoulder and cheering me on.
We’ve had a lot of fun over the years and a couple of highlights stand out. In 2009 Celestial was invited to be a part of the Moomba Parade. Gee we slowed the parade down… ! But what I really remember was how much fun Mario had. He made friends with just about everyone we came across. In every photo I have, he is smiling or clowning around. He particularly enjoyed the Mexicans and I can’t remember who he ‘borrowed’ the rock from, but it amused him no end (and me too).
Another great memory was when we put on a bit of a performance for a Malaysian promoter who wanted to get us teaching tai chi in Malaysia. I don’t think anything got off the ground, but we had a great time anyway. Grandmaster Eng Chor led us through various exercises, shibashi, long-form tai chi, some wing chun and then partner work. It was in the evening and we got more tired and more silly as the evening went on (or I certainly did). Ultimately I could barely lift my arms anymore, so retreated behind my camera to watch the others. The partner work was hilarious, with everyone doing their best to follow what Eng Chor was doing, but often descending into giggles.
I can’t talk about Mario without also mentioning Tony Donnoli, who is partnered here with Eng Chor. Tony and Mario ran many centres together and were a great partnership and great friends. When I first went to their centre in East Doncaster, I got such a shock. Having come from the Grandmaster’s centre, where proceedings were traditional and quite formal, the contrast was huge. Tony and Mario joked around with banter frequently flying across the hall. Learn tai chi from two Italians? Yes, why not! They knew how to make teaching and learning fun and I learnt to loosen up a bit in their classes. When Tony passed away suddenly over five years ago, he left a great hole at Celestial and an even greater hole in Mario’s heart.
I learnt many things from Mario, but the greatest lesson was how to find joy through tai chi. Mario could make anyone smile through his teaching. He loves to tell stories and his love of tai chi shines through. In quiet tribute to Mario, I’m writing this with a glass of red beside me. Thank you for everything Mario, you have left a significant impression and are much loved. Cheers to you xo.