When you are heading to your first padawan training session and there’s a fully garbed Jedi Master standing beside you, you know you are in right place, even if you are near Times Square.
I headed to New York City to join the Empire Saber Guild, a Lucasfilm-recognized group dedicated to “costuming and lightsaber weaponry” that meets weekly and often performs lightsaber battles for charity. They are the largest of the 11 guilds the world over (seven in the U.S), with 47 official members. Six of those members (four Jedi and two Sith) gave the new recruits our first lesson in using that elegant weapon from a more civilized age.
The members repeatedly pointed out that this is not a school (though this session was a teaching one), but rather something of a “collective,” a group of people with a “hive mentality” that get together and “feed off of one another.”
It’s free to join, but you are required to have your own costume and lightsaber if you want to become an official member. (Members often donate money to help offset the costs of rental space.) Members that can’t sew often use Etsy get a costume, and the lightsabers they use are not the replica ones from Hasbro you often see, but much sturdier ones that are custom made from a few different sources. They can range anywhere from 75 to 700 dollars, depending on how many extras (like sound effects) you want.
(How sturdy? We were told, “If you break one of these, congratulations you are very strong.” I didn’t try, but man those things can take a beating. The low ceiling took some vicious whacks a few times and the ceiling lost all of them.)
If you want to try it out first though, you are welcome to attend any of their weekly Friday meetings, where they’ll have some extra lightsabers for you to choose from. It might sound nerdy (I’m not judging, my first question was whether they would be doing all seven forms of lightsaber fighting, a fact I did not have to research for this event), but it was way more fun than I ever imagined.
Everyone in the room seemed excited to be there from the start, but when they handed us our lightsabers and we turned them on it was like we (fittingly) turned on a magical energy. Suddenly the room was glowing with tubes of red, green, purple, and blue light, and it felt like this basement room was suddenly transformed into a training room on Coruscant.
There was also one yellow lightsaber–mine.
If you don’t think I was way too happy to have my own distinctly colored lightsaber ,you don’t understand what happens to you when you hold one, how against your own desire to avoid being silly you start to imagine a life where you can use the Force. I instantly started coming up with a reason for why mine was yellow, a world where I desired to stand out from my fellow padawans, and I could feel a sense of pride coming over me as I thought about us training together at the Jedi Temple, me the only one with a yellow lightsaber.
That’s when I realized I was falling prey to the trappings of the Dark Side. In less than twenty seconds I went from trying to just enjoy a fun little activity to experiencing the existential crisis of a young Jedi. Something happens to you when you hold one; you become a kid swinging a cardboard tube, only it lights up and you start debating how you can afford to buy your own.
As for the “fighting,” we were primarily taught moves from the first style of lightsaber fighting, the basic one that is the foundation for all of them, and the one taught to younglings first. (It is the one Kit Fisto uses). We weren’t really learning how to fight, but more so how to choreograph a fight, and stage combat. Though some real techniques (the “push and pull lever system”) are inherently part of that understanding (lightsaber fighting is influenced by kendo). It was pointed out to us that the advantage of a lightsaber over a typical sword is you don’t have to worry about edges; you can just hit your opponent at any angle and do damage.
The movements we were shown certainly looked like something you have seen in a Star Wars film. We walked through them slowly, but when the members of the guild put them all together for us they looked like they could be walking through an army of droid soldiers, cutting them down and deflecting blasters.
I also understood why each hilt is unique. My lightsaber had a handle that cut into my hands, and it was much more comfortable to swing with one hand. When I started asking some of our trainers about their own method of holding one, they gave me a different lightsaber with a thinner and smoother handle that was much easier to hold. Suddenly I preferred a two handed grip. It was clear how a preferred style and technique would influence the design of a Jedi’s hilt.
The grip might be the most vital part of lightsaber fighting, as almost all of the movements come from your wrist. I held mine just like I would hold a baseball bat, not tightly, but loosely. You want it to be able to move freely, like a steering wheel, especially since you are constantly turning your wrists to get into your next striking or defensive position.
The stance we were taught, with knees bent, was a little too painful for me (yeah, I’m an old man with bad legs, that didn’t stop Dooku from beating Obi-Wan in 20 seconds twice), so I found myself standing upright, lightsaber to my side, in a much more prone but aggressive stance. If I were to complete my training, all of my lightsaber duels would be quick and action-packed. Probably not the wisest choice, but one that definitely had me imagining how I would have taken on Vader on Mustafar.
The people training with me were all shapes and sizes (the only true youngling practiced next to me the entire time and the Force was strong in him as he was easily one of the best in the room), and after we were given some time to choreograph our own fights. Instead of hemming and hawing from embarrassment about “going in front of the class,” my fellow padawans couldn’t wait to volunteer to show the rest of us what they had come up with. That’s how joyous this experience was.
My friend and I were not so eager though, but not for the reason you might think. See, I’m obsessed with Palpatine’s aggressive “stabbing” technique, so instead of choreographing a small fight we spent our time trying that Sith style out instead. Our Jedi Masters were strangely supportive of that, proving the Dark Side truly is tempting.
By the end of the 90-minute session I was tired and sweaty. It’s hard work wielding a lightsaber in the name of good versus evil, but I was already thinking about coming back with some other friends, a fun alternative for a Friday night out.
The members of the Empire Saber Guild in New York formed three years ago (the whole of Saber Guild is eight years old), and they put this session together to raise awareness about who they are and what they do.
What they are is no different from any other group of people with a shared interest. It might seem silly to some to wear costumes and practice fighting with fake weapons, but I used to play co-ed, slow-pitch softball, and that involved uniforms and pretending we were in a real athletic competition, so what’s the difference? Besides, I never loved softball like I love Star Wars anyway.
And besides, it’s way more fun to hold a lightsaber than a bat.
If you want some information about Empire Saber Guild in New York, or one of the other guilds around the world, or to book them for an event, you can head to their website for more information. They are extremely nice and eager to help with any questions you have.