Photo: Douglas Zimmerman/SFGate.com
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On a recent Saturday, 10 armed people gathered in the third-floor yoga studio of an upscale gym near San Francisco’s Civic Center.
There are seven men and three women, aged roughly 20 to 45. Some are dressed in classic athletic gear (yoga pants, tank tops, sneakers), while others wear multicolor v-neck tunics and wide-legged sweatpants, accessorizing with gloves or protective goggles or both.
The unifying factor of the group is the object they hold in their hands. It’s about three feet long, with an aluminum base and a translucent “blade” lined with LEDs. It’s called the Polaris SSe-1, and though considered a weapon, its deadly blow is dealt largely with one’s imagination.
To the general populace, the Polaris SSe-1 is known as a lightsaber, the weapon-of-choice for Jedi, the monastic-like warriors of the Star Wars fictional universe. Their lightsabers are swords with 360-degree luminescent blades that can cut, burn or melt nearly any metal — metal locks, essential limbs, Jabba flesh, etc.
Kyber crystal — the element that powers the blade — does not exist in our solar system, so my lightsaber is made of an aluminum hilt and a polycarbonate shaft. It rarely leaves my hands over the next two hours — the period of time to which I have committed to learning LudoSport: lightsaber combat.
A sport rooted in Italy, not Endor
LudoSport was founded 13 years ago by three Italian men — Fabio Monticelli, Gianluca Longo and Simone Spreafico — all friends, all schooled in various martial arts techniques. As the story goes, Fabio, Gianluca and Simone were hanging out a birthday party when they began messing around with replica lightsabers.
“We started to play like kids,” Longo recalls in a promotional video for LudoSport (“A Story of Light: Part One”). “Suddenly we moved outside to strike each other with the lightsabers,” he continues. “Then we started asking ourselves: How could that toy be used for sport?”
After three years of studying the films, texts and lore of Star Wars — and consulting with a menage of martial arts experts to “reverse engineer” techniques from movie clips — LudoSport was born. Though based out of Milan, the sport has nearly 40 academies — or “halls” — throughout the United States and Europe, including a school on Reunion Island near Madagascar.
A couple thousand people practice LudoSport around the globe, estimates Michael Masangkay, the dean of the San Francisco LudoSport academy, though he guesses there are fewer than a hundred practitioners in the U.S.
The San Francisco academy — the sole LudoSport branch of the West Coast — is composed of roughly 12 members, most of whom gather for two to four hours every Saturday to practice sparring and technique. They pay $195 in monthly member dues for weekly instruction — lightsabers not included. (Polaris sabers are manufactured by an Italian company called Lamadiluce. They start at about $370.)
I signed up for the introductory class, held each Saturday afternoon at Studiomix on Van Ness Avenue, which is open to the public with a $30 ticket, available for purchase online.
I brought with me the only person in my life who I thought might be excited about learning to wield a lightsaber: my roommate, Connor Holmes. He’s a 30-year-old bar manager and comedy podcast host and exists on a tier of Star Wars fandom I struggle to conceptualize in writing.
Connor has seen every recent Star Wars film in theaters multiple times. He has a four-foot-high framed poster of Luke Skywalker hanging near his bed. “Leia” is tattooed in cursive on his wrist. He cried — at work — when Peter Mayhew died.
I, on the other hand, would not consider myself a Star Wars aficionado. I’ve partially watched most of the films, and am familiar with the basic lore and characters, but I’ve never gotten into it.
I hoped my relative ignorance would work to my advantage at LudoSport training, allowing me to evaluate the sport as an athletic endeavor, and not as a skeptical Star Wars-head (that’s where Connor’s expertise comes in).
Our own Obi Wan
Studiomix is not the sort of place one would expect to learn lightsaber combat. It’s a fancy gym, with sleek concrete walls, hardwood floors and a multi-story rock wall. It kind of reminds me of a Janet Jackson music video set.
The LudoSport cohort meets in a mirror-lined yoga room with windows looking out onto the governmental buildings of Civic Center. On the Saturday of my class, the group was composed of two instructors, four regulars and four first-timers, including myself, Connor.
The workout begins with a group warmup of some light jogging and stretching (without the lightsabers) before we break off into groups. One regular shows up late, but with a valid excuse — he was touring Rancho Obi-Wan in Petaluma. He even got to hold one of the lightsaber models from “Galaxy’s Edge,” the new Star Wars-themed area at Disneyland.
The intermediate members of the class trained on the lefthand side of the room. They are distinguished from the rest of us by their official LudoSport uniforms, which includes a “combat tunic” atop sweatpants branded with the Ludo logo. Some completed the look with leather belts and black gloves. I’m told the men wear cups.
Our group is tasked with learning the basics, as taught by Michael Christopher, a 37-year-old startup finance director by day, certified LudoSport instructor by night.
He was drawn to Ludo by its sporty aspects: “I wanted to do something active, something competitive, that had martial arts elements but didn’t involve people pummeling me so hard I’d come into work with a black eye.”
He says LudoSport exists in the “sweet spot” between mental and physical exercise. Sparring, he says, involves mental facilities similar to those required by a strategy game, like chess. One must always be thinking a few moves ahead, while simultaneously adjusting the strategy in real-time.
Christopher’s technique is gorgeous. He holds his saber like a conductor’s baton, slicing the purple blade with chin aloft, shoulders cinched back. He spars with the precision of a ballet dancer: face serene, feet just barely swishing the floor. (He’s an avid swing and ballroom dancer, I later learn.)
Compared to Christopher, I wield my saber with the grace of a wookie in a china shop. The glowing stick is long and counterbalanced, with a heavy hilt and light blade that mimics a “real” lightsaber.
Thankfully, Christopher starts us off with the most basic of moves, called Guardia. (This is the other strange thing about LudoSport: Because it was founded in Italy, all the terminology is in Italian. And because of copyright issues, you can’t refer to anything using Star Wars parlance. Various techniques, of which there are nine, are called “forms” instead of their established Galaxy names. No one in the room would dare call himself a “Jedi.”)
In Guardia, you stand with one foot slightly in front of the other, knees loose, right hand over left. The hilt is held about a fist’s distance away from the pelvis at a 45-degree angle, with the tip ideally aligning with your line of sight.
Once we learn how to stand with our sabers, Christopher begins teaching what is, in my opinion, a fairly aggressive combat technique.
“Fendente!” he shouts, and I’m tasked with tapping my partner on the top of the head with my saber. Had we been sparring, this head tap would have scored me a point.
Scoring rules are fairly specific. A lightsaber is not a sword — “You can’t pierce with the tip,” Christopher says. Rather, you’re aiming for a swipe at the region beneath the neck, and above the knees and elbows. I should also note, getting whacked with a saber doesn’t hurt at all, though I understand the necessity of gloves and cups.
Next we learn the basic right and left attack moves —”destra” and “sinistra” — and how to block them. To my surprise, all of these motions are incredibly complicated. Each action consists of various arm and leg movements that you’re supposed to coordinate, while also attempting to hit your combatant. I often feel that my feet are tangling up beneath me.
The other side of the room, where the experienced crew practices, doesn’t seem to have this problem. They flick their sabers at one another with fleet-footed ease, cheering one another on for each point scored and collectively dropping down to pump out pushups when a saber gets dropped.
It takes months, if not years, of practice to get to their intermediate level, James Billings, the advanced instructor, tells me.
Billings, a web developer, came to LudoSport by way of Star Wars fandom. “The Force Awakens” had just come out, and he wanted a replica lightsaber, so he joined a handful of Star Wars makers groups of Facebook in search of one. Like Christopher, he saw a targeted ad for a LudoSport event in San Francisco.
Three years later, Billings is halfway through mastering LudoSport Form Three — the “fluid and deceptive” style. He competes regularly in tournaments, which are held across the globe and culminating with the World Championship in Milan, and has flown to the Italian countryside to learn from the masters themselves. In July, he’s headed to Italy again to complete his Form Three training.
“Before LudoSport, I’d never been out of the country,” he said.
Takeaways from our day with the saber
As class winds down, the two sides of the room come together in a circle for some improvised sparring. Heretofore, the beginner training has consisted of a lot of basic drills and explanations (and some basic Italian lessons). Now, we finally get to try the few moves we learned on a combatant.
I face-off with Christopher, cheered on by my fellow LudoSporters who have formed a human barrier around us. Time moves slow when we spar, manifesting a sort of flow state in which my body seems to move without the intervention of my brain. With each clash of our sabers — and the accompanying sound effect — I experience a rush of adrenaline.
When I ask Christopher how he’s applied his LudoSport training to regular life, he says his unconventional hobby reminds him “to play.”
“What I export, mostly, is just remembering to enjoy life and have those moments where I don’t take things seriously,” he said.
And let’s face it, when you’re prancing around with a light-up weapon derived from a fictional universe, it’s hard not to feel a bit silly. But it’s also sort of freeing. I felt surprisingly safe in that circle of lightsabers, surrounded by strangers celebrating each of my poorly executed blocks and meager “fendentes.”
The night after class, back at our house, I consult with Connor over dinner.
Me: “What did you think?”
Connor: “I love Star Wars…but not that much.”
Me: “But did you like it as a sport at least?”
Connor: “I mean, it doesn’t have that much to do with Star Wars to begin with. I couldn’t even use the terminology!”
Connor seemed offended by this.
At this point, my other roommate, also a considerable Star Wars fan, chimes in at the table.
“Lightsabers aren’t even that big of a deal in Star Wars,” he says. “They only come out a few times in the original movies, and when they do, it’s like this big, emotional moment.”
“Right,” Connor says. “They’re barely a thing in the new movies, too.”
In seconds, I’ve lost them to a debate about the cinematic merits of the fight between Kylo Ren and Rey at the End of “The Force Awakens.”
It occurs to me LudoSport exists at the convergence of multiple globalist — or, really, intergalactic — phenomena. It’s not exactly fandom, but it’s also not entirely a competitive sport. Invented in Italy, grounded in Eastern martial arts techniques, inspired by a fictional space opera created by a Californian … If anything, it’s a lot to wrap your head around.
“You usually come to LudoSport being a Star Wars fan,” Masangkay, the dean of the San Francisco school, tells me. “But that’s not why you stay.”
Michelle Robertson is an SFGATE producer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @mrobertsonsf
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/sports/article/Light-saber-academy-ludosport-star-wars-13966224.php.