Entering DANY Studios on the West Side of Manhattan last Thursday night, it looks like any other dance studio. Aspiring ballerinas and dancers of different varieties arrive and exit for their respective practices. Everyone looking to hit the big stage eventually: a true New York scene and a true New York story.
But on this night, another community calls DANY Studios home. Entering studio No. 1, you’ll find a collective of a different sort. Some are dressed in garb that would assume expertise in the martial arts. Some are dressed in everyday work wear. All are of various sizes, genders, races and ethnicities.
And they’re also holding lightsabers.
The New York Jedi hold training and practice here every Tuesday and Thursday using the lightsaber, made famous by the “Star Wars” movies, to engage in stage combat using age-old martial arts and sword techniques of different kinds.
While the New York Jedi isn’t specifically connected to the “Star Wars” franchise (some of its members, who have experience in kung fu and capoeira, have never even seen the films), they have collected an international following in just a few years.
“We’re a lightsaber stage combat collective,” said a man who goes by the name Flynn. “The website started out being a lightsaber enthusiast collective and it’s still the same thing. People love the swords. They love creating their own characters.”
Flynn helped found the New York Jedi in the mid-2000s after putting together a fight scene with other enthusiasts during the Halloween parade in Greenwich Village. After establishing the domain name for the group and attracting the attention of lightsaber fans from all over the word, Flynn had a full-fledged organization on his hands. So why is the lightsaber held in such high regard?
“People have a doorway into their own fantasy with a physical object. And that’s how we actually use the sword,” said Flynn. “What we do here in the club…it provides people a platform to do whatever they want with the sword while learning practical knowledge of how it works.”
Flynn also believes it feeds into something that all people hold inside of them: hero worship. “When you were a kid and the teacher asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, you said a policeman or a fireman or a doctor,” he said. “These days, it would be ‘I want to be Goku,’ or whatever guy from [the cartoon] ‘Dragon Ball Z.’ Everyone wants to be a hero. There’s something about being a hero that everyone identifies with. Everyone wants to rush into a burning building and save somebody before it collapses. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a knight in shining armor or a Jedi.”
“There’s a warrior’s code that I see in a lot of these people who join up,” Flynn continued. “Some people come from other martial arts. Some people read all these hero magazines and want to identify with that, but they all love the lightsaber. It’s a beacon for what it means to be a warrior.”
The group’s profile was raised a bit more last year when a documentary called “Reclaiming the Blade” was released. The documentary centered on the culture and craftsmanship of swords and how Hollywood has kept the weapon in the public eye. It included Bob Anderson, the man who trained Mark Hamill for “Star Wars” and played Darth Vader during the fight scenes. According to Flynn, the documentary’s director, Daniel McNicoll, said he wanted to include the New York Jedi because they were “doing the new school. That’s why I want you on the documentary.”
Needless to say, it made Flynn very happy. “To be in a film associated with Bob Anderson was an honor.”
Meanwhile, some of the New York Jedi’s members are honored just to be in this group. Several of the individuals at the practice collectively explained what drew them to the New York Jedi and what it means to them.
“For me, it’s not just a group, it’s a family,” said one member.
“Community,” said another member.
“For me, it gives me a chance to share a bunch of things I love with people who understand it,” said one member. “It brings together the misfits, nerds and geeks, who you normally think wouldn’t be a coherent unit. People here have learned to fully express themselves, so you don’t have to feel like an outsider.”
The beauty of humanity is in being able to find a group that fits your worldview and sensibilities. The New York Jedi can be added to the list of life-affirming groups providing humans with a safe haven for free expression.