Here at Terra Prime, we are known best for one thing; lightsabers. For the past seven years, TPLA has been producing free youtube tutorials on lightsabers and lightsaber combat. For many reading this, this is how you came to know about TPLA. But for others, I am sure this has the same effect it has on most people. I imagine it sounds silly, childish, and unbecoming of an adult. But, it is also lots of fun and for a traditional martial artist or fencer, it can offer a great opportunity to spread the gospel of weapon combat to people that might never even think about trying martial arts. So, in an effort to introduce another practice to the unfamiliar and maybe persuade some detractors, I wanted to give a little over view of the Terra Prime Light Armory’s Lightsaber Academy and what we do.
In 2012, I was introduced to the LED lightsaber. This is a simple hilt and blade design that uses a poly-carbonate blade and an aluminum hilt which is not much more than a high powered flashlight. My co-founder, Matt, and I, had been looking for a sword analog that would allow for people of different backgrounds to train and fight together. Seeing that these lightsabers could now withstand actual combat, we jumped at the idea to create something using them. With our backgrounds being in Chinese and European martial arts, we wanted a way to test out different techniques and methods without the baggage of traditional martial arts. This provided us with a great way to do just that.
First off, let me address the elephant in the room; why am I dressing up Chinese and other martial arts in Jedi robes? Why not simply teach the straight ahead real world martial art? Why bring in fantasy and cosplay?
I have a simple argument for this. I have noticed over the years, that when you hand or even show a sword to a complete lay person, they will usually ask one of two questions; “is it real?” or “Is it sharp?”. Both questions mean the same thing to me. They mean, “Will this hurt me?”. There is an innate fear of a sword by most people. They ask these questions even about practice weapons which are obviously not suitable for cutting anything. There is a mystery there, and some find that alluring. But so many other people do not.
On the other hand, if you hand a lightsaber to someone, they usually react by misquoting the movies or making “vroom vroom” sounds while waving it around in the air. The feeling is completely different. They are not thinking about injuring themselves. They are not thinking about being in danger. In fact, the sense of danger is so low that people tend to want to just start fighting with them the moment they pick them up.
This is an important phenomena in my opinion. So many of our arts are being lost because of a lack of practitioners who can carry the traditions forward. Swordplay, actually fighting with the weapon, is not for everyone. And actually, relatively few people out there have any desire to get into a sword fight. By using a fantasy weapon like the lightsaber, we are able to reach people that previously would never had tried anything like this in million years.
The Problem of Sparring
I am a firm believer that unless you use your martial art training to fight, you will not be able to do so. Doing solo forms, drills, routines, fitness, cardio, and strength training are all important, but unless you actually go toe to toe with someone who is trying their hardest not to let you do anything, you will have nothing more than a fitness routine. Sparring is an essential part of martial art training and it is sadly neglected in most arts that use weapons. (Although that has been changing recently)
But also, sparring alone will not be enough to build skills into the future. Free play is also a very important part of training, but if one does only that, they will have enormous problems moving out of their comfort zones or trying things that are counter-intuitive. Novices that fight too early often get into loops during a match. They try the same thing over and over, even if it does not work, because they do not have the tools to deal with the problems they are encountering. As a result, there are many double hits as the novice competitors try to get their point while ignoring their own defense.
So, we started making videos to address not only the training and conditioning for weapon arts, but also the transition into free sparring or fighting.
One of the biggest problems with finding a way to spar with weapons, is that it is very difficult not to cause injury with a weapon. After all, thats why they exist; to cause grievous bodily harm with a minimum of effort. There are two solutions that modern practitioners have to choose from; 1. create safe training weapons or 2. wear protective gear. This is very important because without some manner of safety you will not feel free to hit your opponent, thus taking away from the realism and pacing of the encounter. With lightsabers, there is a little of both.
The weapon its self is rather safe compared to steel blunts or even wooden wasters. The blade does not really break into dangerous pieces, there is no splintering or cracking, and the flex of the blade as well as its shape drastically reduce it’s effect on impact. That is not to say they cannot hurt you. They do not flex in the thrust and could easily knock out teeth or break fingers. To address these issues, protective gear is used. A fencing helmet and Lacrosse gloves is what we started out with. There are now a myriad of choices out there in armor and protection. All of this makes of a great scenario where people of different backgrounds can meet and play together.
An Elegant Weapon
Another big benefit of the lightsaber for martial artists is its adaptability. Unlike conventional weapons, the length, balance, and handling of an LED lightsaber can be altered to suit the individual and changed at anytime. There is no need for a custom made blade costing thousands of credits. A new length of blade, a heavier pommel, or a screw on extension can radically alter the characteristics of one’s saber without the need for expert customization.
This is not to say that you cannot get expert customization. Not only is this a service that is well populated in the Sabering community, the simple nature of these devices make it possible for just about anyone to become an expert installer themselves. Then one can truly put together their own weapon as it has been said is true of past eras, a warriors weapon is theirs and theirs alone. But most people who use swords today don’t often make them as well. Some do of course, but the ease with which the lightsabers are customized cannot be overstated.
One of the most exciting things I have found while using the lightsaber, is that the nature of these devices means that they can be used in multiple ways. Contrasted with real swords, the sabers we use are light enough to be wielded with one hand and are long enough to be welded with two. One can use the same weapon as a rapier, side sword, longsword, katana, or dadao without making any changes to the weapon. This can be done while fighting as well. Starting off with a one handed grip to use when your energy is high and you can snipe from a distance, then switching to a two handed grip to get in close and bind them up as one fatigues during the match. This is a quality that no other weapon truly possesses. A saber can be a stick or a blade. Often within the same encounter.
Finally, there is something ultimately uniting about these things. While there are a good number of people working across different real world martial arts, the struggle has always been repairing the fracturing and isolationism that many traditional and modern arts create among themselves. In the real martial arts, there are people who still rank arts based on their opinion. Youtube is replete with this art is better than this one and “this art is no good and should be discarded”. There are identities attached to martial arts. National, personal, and cultural.
These identities are very important to our experience of these arts. But whereas the reality causes division, the lightsaber is generally absent of the sort of cultural biases that real world arts are subject to. This is because the culture of the art is served not by entrenched traditions and cultural taboo, but by a fictional world that we all share. It is a ready made all inclusive culture, history, and tradition. But one which also allows, if not demands, that those that follow it create their own traditions within it. The manufactured nature of any type of fictional universe allows us to examine the realities of our cultures while divorcing ourselves from their biases.
Simply put, the fact that we are inventing traditions and using those allows us to exercise the need for identity, lineage, history, and culture with out alienating us from each other. There is no real world cultural consequence for identifying as a Jedi or a Sith. These things are analogs as well, just like the lightsaber. A safer, more benign form of indoctrination into a practice. Once a person can accept the analog, they can use it to examine tough subjects and ideas and apply them in real life.
My friend and scholar, Ben Judkins, of the Kung Fu Tea Blog (a must red for Chinese and historical minded martial artists), calls this practice “hyper-real” martial arts. It strives for all the things that real world arts strive for, but it is divorced from the nationalistic and historical biases that real world arts are entrenched. They exaggerate the things we experience every day. In doing so, it allows us to examine, learn about, and try to accept the things we cannot control in real life. It can allow us a space where we can become the thing we need to become to defeat our adversary, what ever that adversary is. The fantasy gives our brain permission to think outside our experiences and find the common points that connect us to everyone else.
But it is an effort. These things do not come automatically. As I stated at the beginning, there are many detractors from the lightsaber. Many traditional teachers deride the practice as being demeaning to the arts they are based on. The silliness of it all others them and the fictional nature makes it seem like playing at martial arts rather than training them.
I disagree. Through the teaching of lightsaber to students I have been able to get people who never thought about martial arts doing it. Not only do they stick with the lightsaber, they instantly become interested in the origin of these techniques and traditions. The lightsaber has guided more students to my traditional sword classes than I can count. And the number of kids that end up in my Kung-fu classes is high as well. The lightsaber can be a guiding light for people to the traditional arts.
I love the lightsaber. It has allowed me to play and interact with people whom I never would have in the past. I has allowed me to reach people I could not have reached before. And it is fun! You can’t touch the blade so the game is a little harder, but the pace is fast and you can play any kind of sword match with them. And you don’t go home with broken anything if you wear your gear.
I will leave it there. Have some fun! Don’t take yourself too seriously! And in the words of our motto and catch phrase…
Patience, practice, perseverance!
If this interests you or you are already enjoying the lightsaber, subscribe to TPLA on Youtube and get training videos and more!