Categorized | Arts, Neighborhoods

Yoda Would Be Proud

New York Jedi practice futuristic swordplay in Midtown.

BY JONAH COMSTOCK

They arrive as actors, graphic designers, ER nurses and schoolteachers. Men and women, black, white and brown, a colorful mosaic hailing from Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan or the Bronx. They shed these mundane identities at the door of the Dance Art New York dance studio on 38th Street and Eighth Avenue.

Once inside, they become Jedi Knights, the defenders of peace and freedom in the galaxy.

Inside the studio, under the leadership of one of their Jedi Masters – the title bestowed on longtime members who have gone above and beyond the call of duty – the dozen attendees, dressed in everything from jeans and T-shirts to karate robes, start their stretches. They stand in a clump as the master, who wears nothing to distinguish himself but a black headband and an attitude of mastery, demonstrates a move – a two-step block and disarm maneuver. The young Jedi break off into teams of two to practice as the master yells out counts and circles the room.

The New York Jedi are hard to classify. Describing the organization as equal parts martial arts dojo, theatre troupe, fan club and writing group comes pretty close. Every Tuesday and Thursday night, the Jedi gather under the leadership of Grandmaster Flynn, the group’s founder, to learn new stage combat techniques, plan new fights and practice for upcoming performances. Last month’s Comic-Con at the Javitz Center was a huge event for the group, as was the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. Performance is not their only purpose, but it’s essential to giving the attendees something to work toward.

Tuesday and Thursday night practices last from 7 to 10 p.m. Other aspects of the club – costume making, saber building and back story writing – happen on the members’ own time.

The group takes its name, of course, from the heroic fighting force in George Lucas’ “Star Wars” films. Onscreen, the Jedi wield light sabers – glowing, futuristic swords made of energy – and use “The Force,” a mystical energy field that allows those attuned to it to use telekinesis, precognitive abilities and more. The light saber battles between Jedi and their evil nemeses, the Sith, are some of the most exciting and pivotal scenes in Lucas’s six-film epic. But in the “Star Wars” series, being a Jedi is not just a rank or a training division – it’s also a belief system, even a religion, which involves finding balance within oneself and with the world. And Flynn, who started the off-screen club almost six years ago, has tried to incorporate all of these same elements.

“I didn’t want to start just another ‘Star Wars’ fan group,” he said. “There are a million of them out there.”

He drew inspiration from Samurai tate, a stage combat/theater education discipline popular in Japan, which involves mock-sword-fighting in the Samurai style.

“That’s where the methodology of ‘practice a sword form, put together a performance, and do it in front of a crowd’ came from,” Flynn said.

Six Halloweens ago, Flynn, an audio events producer, got together a small group of friends, choreographed a lightsaber battle, and performed in the Greenwich Village Halloween parade. He registered his friends as the New York Jedi and, “just for fun,” registered the newyorkjedi.com domain name and set up a forum for people to comment on what they had seen at the parade. Before he knew it, he was bombarded by requests to join.

“People were like, ‘Wow, who are you guys?’ ” Flynn said. “We’re the New York Jedi.”

Now the club has grown to include 60-some attendees and performs several times a year. A number of other Saber Wars groups have sprung up around the country, using the New York Jedi as a model. Though some attendees might evoke the chunky, acne-ridden comic-book nerd stereotype, most are slim, attractive New Yorkers.

The fan fiction aspect, in which everyone has one or more characters, has taken off far beyond Flynn’s initial vision. Fan fiction is a practice of writing derivative but original stories set in the world of an admired franchise, which began to gain rapid popularity with the rise of the Internet and the ability to share stories easily with many other literary-minded fans. For the New York Jedi, it’s a way of making their fights come alive.

“You are encouraged to have a character,” said Melissa Koval, a pink-haired, 5-foot-tall actor from the East Village. She performs as Tindómë Urúva, a Sith assassin who fights with two short sabers. “We’re not just a sparring club, we’re a stage combat group.”

Having a back story and a motivation for fighting makes the fight scenes feel more real and more exciting, Koval said. “Even if your audience doesn’t know your back story, if you know it, it’s going to come out in your performance.”

But in some cases, the back stories have taken on lives of their own. Members began posting their stories on the group’s web site about three years ago, and recently Rich Zak, one of the group’s masters, looked through the site and organized the various stories into a single chronology. Using this, the many writers and artists in the group started working on a comic about their various characters. The promo issue was released at the New York Jedi booth at Comic-Con.

Though Flynn and the other leaders teach fighting techniques in a large group, it falls to the members themselves to put those techniques together into individual fights, with help from the masters and instructors as needed. The last 20 minutes of practice are devoted to showcasing fights and pieces of fights. There are no rules for the fights except the rules of safety. The fights are scripted. The Jedi can battle exclusively with light sabers or members can engage in hand to hand combat. One group even uses a Nerf gun as a blaster. Though drawing inspiration from the movies, the styles incorporate tai-chi, fencing, samurai tate, or anything else the fighters bring to the table from their past experiences – all strictly simulated, of course.

The light sabers are special custom jobs, costing anywhere from $60 to $700. Members construct them or buy them online. The polycarbonate tubes are lightweight, durable enough for real stage combat and, most important, they light up in a score of different colors.

After members share their fights, the group closes in for its nightly ceremony. The two dozen Jedi and Sith raise their sabers in the air, light them and chant the five pillars of their club.

“Safety. Respect. Artistry. Revelry. Community. Bound by Honor. We are the New York Jedi!”

And that’s it. As they scatter into the Manhattan night, the men and women of New York Jedi return to their earthly lives. Until next Tuesday night.

2 Responses to “Yoda Would Be Proud”

  1. Melissa K. says:

    Thanks for quoting me so well, you represented us excellently! (though I don’t live in the East Village…I should be so lucky, lol) You were a pleasure to have in class and you’re invited back anytime!

  2. Jonah, thank you for such a great piece. You really showed the real dedication in peoples’ hobbies that makes this group so magical.

    Come play with us!

    -=Flynn=-

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Photos on flickr