DALLAS - Like a slow-motion ballet corps, they gracefully move their arms and legs in unison.
They tuck their arms and legs into their body, then flow into an open stance.
This is the grace of tai chi chuan, a Chinese art designed to increase the stream of energy in the body.
"It's really very centering, and I definitely believe in the health benefits," says Sandy Mullen, 61, a psychiatric nurse from Dallas.
She is one of about two dozen people who gather on Saturday mornings at the Dallas Museum of Art to perform tai chi - sometimes spelled tai ji quan - amid the peace of the museum's sculpture garden.
The class began earlier this year, when there was a tai chi demonstration at the museum as part of its 100th anniversary celebration. It just seemed to fit, and the museum invited Eng Khoo, who teaches at the downtown YMCA, to come back.
The Saturday class is free, and Khoo, a commercial door designer by trade, teaches it without pay.
"He's like a dancer - he's very smooth," says Ann Gilliland, 74, a retired clothes designer from Dallas.
She's been doing tai chi for about five years, on the recommendation of her daughter, a physical therapist.
"She said I needed to do it because I'm old," she says.
Tai chi tends to attract an older crowd, and this group is no exception. Many of the participants are on the far side of 50. And they tout the art's benefit in getting them feeling fit, well balanced and more energetic.
Khoo, 61, was taught by four teachers, who had stories about how tai chi keeps away colds and can even help people with diabetes.
He estimates he's been doing tai chi for 25 to 30 years, and does about 10 hours each week.
He was born during World War II, in Malaysia, where food was scarce.
"I was pretty sickly," he says. "I got whooping cough and asthma."
His mother vowed to the goddess of mercy that she would give up beef if her son became healthier. He did, and to this day he eats no beef, either.
He got into tai chi as an adult when he developed back problems, and a neighbor steered him toward the art.
"For the first three months, my back hurt pretty bad, but I kept with it and now I can stand for hours," he says.
There are 108 postures, with names such as Strum the Lute, White Crane Spreads Wings, High Pat the Horse, Turn Body and Strike With Heel, and Carry Tiger to the Mountain. Some moves open the body, while others close it, like the opening and closing of a book. This balance provides a yin-yang stability to the movements, Khoo says.
It takes about 25 to 30 minutes to go through all the postures, and the group does it twice, with a brief break in between.
They're not breathing hard, but several sport a film of sweat that testifies to the exertion.
"It's a big workout," Khoo says. "You don't get tired after a set. Actually, you feel pretty good."
Michael Daum, 51, a land surveyor from Dallas, found tai chi after trying a wide variety of workouts.
"I didn't like the feeling of being exhausted after all those other exercises," he says. "It's something I can do anyplace, anywhere, with no apparatus."
He found that his improved balance helped recently, when he tripped and was able to catch himself from falling.
"I notice how it gets the chi, the energy, circulating in around my body, and it gives me a feeling of peace and serenity," says Shirahba Rasheed, 51, an executive assistant from Irving, Texas.
Carolyn McDivit, 60, a nurse from Ovilla, Texas, says she had a knee replacement eight years ago, and had become unbalanced from favoring one side of her body.
Tai chi has helped her restore her equilibrium, she says.
She also likes that it's always possible to learn more - greater refinements of the posture, for instance.
David Thompson, 51, an IT director from Grand Prairie, Texas, was drawn to the spiritual side of the art.
He has a long history of studying martial arts, but came to realize that they were incompatible with his Christian belief of nonaggression.
Tai chi "is an art that's not designed for aggression," he says. "It's a more passive approach."
But actually, Khoo says, when speeded up, tai chi is in fact a martial art. He demonstrates how the hand motions can ward off an opponent.
"The moves will help you defend yourself," Khoo says. "All the moves can be used in self-defense."
(c) 2004, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.