Exploring Creativity and Authenticity: A Workshop with Damon Honeycutt

We have our first guest contributor here to the blog! Actually two! Ben Judkins of Kung Fu Tea and his wife Tara recently hosted Damon Honeycutt for a workshop last Sunday. Damon is one of the progenitors of the lightsaber movement and last winter we hosted him here for the Symposium. Here is a report on the experience last weekend and a discussion of some of the larger questions that working with people from different backgrounds brings up.

Take it away Judkins!

Exploring Creativity and Authenticity: A Workshop with Damon Honeycutt

By Benjamin N. Judkins and Tara Judkins

Some criticize the Lightsaber Combat community for leading its practitioners away from the “reality” of the sword.  Such statements have always struck us as a too sweeping.  It is easy to become fixated on the glowing blade and lose sight of the hands that hold it.  Simply working with steel wasters does not automatically confer skill on HEMA competitors.  And in the hands of a skilled teacher even the most abstract analogs, such as the shinai or the 19th century single stick, can become a powerful means of instruction. 

Given its connection to powerful images in popular culture, the lightsaber has a knack for animating and motivating students.  The weapon routinely attracts people who would never have previously considered studying a martial art. At the same time, it’s simple form empowers experienced fencers to experiment, exchange with one another and playfully reconsider what they know.  Yet again, we cannot lose sight of the hands that wield the weapon.  While the saber as a mythic object may inspire students to seek out knowledge, it is the instructor who ultimately provides a more sustained type of inspiration.

Damon Honeycutt instructs

We recently had an opportunity to observe this principle in action.  On Sunday November 24th Damon Honeycutt (also known in the lightsaber community as General Sun) presented a day long workshop titled “The Dao of Lightsaber Combat: Foundations, Practice and Evolution.”  Organized by Ithaca Sabers, the event brought together 18 participants from across central New York State for seven hours of meditation on how each one of us could find more meaning, insight and nuance in even the most basic aspects of any fencing system.  While most of the people attending the workshop were TPLA students, other individuals brought backgrounds in the Japanese sword arts and 19th century military sabre.  Students of all levels of experience from any school were welcome.

A few words of introduction about the instructor may also be in order.  We first became aware of Damon Honeycutt’s important contributions to the development of Lightsaber Combat in North America when Benjamin Judkins was researching his first scholarly article on the subject.  Damon was an important member of the early group NY Jedi and (in 2006-2007) was one of the first professional martial artists to begin to take an interest in developing lightsaber combat as a distinct discipline.  Many individuals will already be aware of the Shii-cho (Form I) which he created for NY Jedi as it has gone on to be practiced by many other schools, including Ithaca Sabers. Having recently returned to the lightsaber community after a brief hiatus, Damon is now a Council Member at the Terra Prime Light Armory (TPLA), where he has been developing a new interpretation of Form V based on the pioneering style of the well-known Chinese swordsman Yu Chenghui.

Yu Chenghui

What is sometimes not as well known within the Lightsaber Combat community is the depth of Damon’s training in both the traditional Chinese martial arts and dance. He has trained and taught extensively in a number of styles over the past 35 years. His teachers include Paulie Zink, the western inheritor of Da Sheng Pigua Men; Hu Jian Qiang, twice all-around Wushu champion of the People’s Republic of China; and Beijing Opera performer Qi Jian Guo.  As a dancer he worked professionally with Pilobolus, Scapegoat Garden, Nai Ni chen and The Yuan Beijing Opera Company. Indeed, he is one of a small number of Western martial artists to have toured and performed professionally in Beijing opera.  

All of which is to say that when Damon first agreed to present a day-long workshop, I knew that he would be bringing a wealth of knowledge regarding both the performance of dulon (or kata/taolu) as well as the practical applications of Chinese fencing.  The real challenge was finding a set of narrow topics that could be covered in only a single day and with a relatively large group of students working at different levels.

On the day of the workshop students began to assemble for a light breakfast and check-in at about 8:30. At 9:10 we kicked things off with a formal welcome.  After being introduced, Damon said a few words about his first experiences with the nascent world of lightsabers combat and the community’s subsequent growth.  The students of Ithaca Sabers then presented him with a new Ing Chao Persuader (black hilt, with a green blade) as a token of their appreciation for the workshop. 

With that everyone got down to business.  After warming up with the first line of Shii-cho (which became the core set of movements that we would explore and experiment with throughout the day) Damon began a set of exercises designed to deepen our understanding of phrasing and tempo in blade work.  Much of this was framed as an exploration of the Chinese martial arts axiom (passed on to Damon by his opera teacher) that when using any weapon “One’s hands must be good friends.”  We looked at various methods of coordinating and using the hands (both with and without weapons), and the impact that these choices had on the rest of the body.

This led naturally into a further exploration of tempo as it related to footwork and stepping.  Under Damon’s supervision students experimented with patterns of very short, very long, and mixed-interval stepping.  We then observed the ways in which this affected stance, fluidity, body carriage and blade work.  Together the two exercises not only reinforced the notion that the body should move as an integrated unit, but they gave students some basic exercises to explore different modes of movement within any dulon or kata that they might practice.  The end result was that students became progressively more aware that the seemingly simple choreography of Shii-cho concealed a much broader range of concepts and skills than they had previously understood.

During the morning session Damon also introduced an important teaching method that would be used throughout the day.  Given the large size of the workshop it was decided to split the class into either two or four groups, each of which mixed individuals from different backgrounds and experience levels.  After being given a specific assignment by the instructor (“I want group one to perform the first line of Shii-cho, but this time make each step as long as possible.  Explore momentum, see if you can make it to the other side of the gym in just one line.”) the other groups were tasked with making observations about the patterns of movement that resulted, or aspects of Shii-cho that they had not previously noticed in their own personal practice.  These discussions were exploratory rather than critical, and really helped to advance the workshop’s understanding of the subjects that were being discussed.

By 11:30 everyone was physically and mentally exhausted. By common consent, we broke for lunch early.  The workshop venue had a kitchen, so some students went about preparing a lunch.  Others walked down the street to a deli named the Brookton’s Market.  Finally, a third group took Damon to a ramen noodle shop in Ithaca so that he could catch a quick glimpse of the Commons and the downtown area.

By 12:30 everyone was newly energized and ready to continue.  Damon started off with a few more exercises designed to encourage students to approach their study of Shii-cho from new perspectives.  We performed the form with only retreating footwork, and then in reverse order.  After the challenging material from the morning everyone took this afternoon warm-up in stride.

Next we looked at some additional variations on footwork, exploring how far one can push Shii-cho while maintaining the essential integrity of the form.  Damon spoke on the subject while doing a version of his Form I based on the crossed leg sitting stance which was both unlike anything that we had seen before, yet somehow retained its essential flavor.

To assist us in further exploring these issues, Damon then introduced his “five element” theory of Lightsaber Combat.  This drew on the five elements (or more properly “phases”) that many traditionally trained Chinese martial artists will already be familiar with (fire, earth, metal, water, wood).  While the metaphor is commonly encountered, there is much variation in how it is used in different arts or school.  As such we have always enjoyed collecting these sorts of discussions.

Given that this was new material to most of the class, Damon began by sketching the “generative” and “destructive” elemental cycles on a chalkboard.  After that he focused on the destructive cycle as a means of assessing and countering the energy of an incoming strike or bind.  This is a vast topic and so Damon gave the class very specific exercises directing them towards certain combinations (metal vs wood, earth vs water).  Typically, students were instructed to work these exchanges with open hands first (it’s easier to get a feeling of what “metal” means when experiencing it through your own arm) and then attempt to apply what they had learned to exchanges with the saber.  This cycle of exercises took up much of the afternoon.

At 3:30 we switched gears and ended with a group question and answer period.  As one would expect, many of the early questions focused on the elements and their application to the martial arts. Damon confirmed that in his system one can use the generative cycle tactically. However, it is a more nuanced exercise, so he decided to leave that to another day.  He also discussed his recent work on Form V, how it sits in relationship to the first four pillars of the TPLA system (Forms I-IV), and his desires to use it as a means of fostering Yue Chenghui’s goal of promoting world peace through the sharing of fencing systems and the exchange of martial knowledge.  Unsurprisingly, he was called on to demonstrate this form a couple of times, pointing out places where it was conceptually similar to, or different from, his own Shii-cho.

Other questions focused on more philosophical issues.  Many of the exercises in the workshop had asked students to experiment in their presentation of Shii-cho.  This led to a discussion of how one ascertained the “edges” of a form, the point beyond which something loses its essential identity.  This relates to larger questions about the “authenticity” of practice within traditional martial arts and, if one is willing to get a little meta, how Lightsaber Combat sits in relation to the arts that it was derived from.  While it was agreed that these are critical questions for continual study, they do not suggest easy, universal, answers. 

Finally, the conversation turned towards future trends. Entering his second decade within the lightsaber combat community, Damon noted that the continued growth of the hobby would likely result in increased specialization. The section of the community focused on sabering as a competitive sport is growing the fastest.  He noted the increased diversification of rule sets and leagues that are now available (Saber Legion, LudoSport, FFE, Lightspeed Saber League, etc) and predicted that we would see an uptick in specialized athletic training for individual rulesets.  Likewise, he noted that we are also likely to see an increase in athleticism in the area of forms competition and choreography.  Indeed, the lightsaber would seem to be a natural fit for those interested in the more acrobatic and flashy aspects of something akin to performance wushu.  

Damon made an argument that there was also room for a 3rd option, an approach that would treat lightsaber combat more as a traditional martial art and seek to find within it a “way” of personal cultivation.  He noted that individuals who are drawn to both the Star Wars mythology, as well as the actual practice of traditional training, might find this the most rewarding.  This is also likely to be comparatively accessible as rather than specialized athletic training best suited to young adults, such an approach could balance the demands of competition, performance and self-cultivation.  This middle way was the path that he has chosen to promote.

The workshop ended at 4:10. After taking the customary group photos, the students facing the longest drives home said their goodbyes.  The remaining participants gathered at a Chinese restaurant in Ithaca NY for the final workshop meal.  Once our energy was restored many of the finer points of both the workshop, and the larger Star Wars Universe, were discussed for hours.  If one were to accept enthusiasm and participation as measures of success, it was clear that this workshop had exceeded most people’s expectations.  As the group finally broke up everyone agreed that we needed to do this again next year.

Looking back on the event, Damon’s mastery of his art was inspirational to the students, especially those who were first drawn to the study of the martial arts via the glow of a lightsaber blade.  It was also clear that the name of the workshop was well chosen.  The “Way of Lightsaber Combat” that he explored was focused on practice and study of the art’s foundations in an attempt to understand both what it is, and what we might all become in the future.  Such a process will always be one of self-discovery, and I fully expect that some of the students in this workshop will seek out each of the three areas that Damon discussed.  Yet the principles laid out in this day long meditation on the lightsaber will be invaluable for anyone seeking to balance authenticity and individual exploration in their own practice of any art.

Below is a video sample of some of the workshop. Enjoy!

Ben Judkins is a scholar at Cornell University, a Council memeber with TPLA and the author of “The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts”

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