A Dance Studio in a Galaxy Far, Far Away
“You, put your phone down!”
I looked around, unsure about the sudden exclamation from the instructor who had just been summing up the essential concepts of the drills that the class had run for the last half hour. This was my first evening with the Rebel Alliance,* the new incarnation of New York City’s best known Lightsaber group, and I was still getting a sense for the class. The threat of a high-profile lawsuit late last year had forced the group to drop their old name and reorganize under a new banner. You could feel that some things were still in a state of flux.
“No, just put down the phone. Put it down and get over here!”
I could now see that the instructor was motioning towards Maria, a petite brunette woman in her 20s who had made the trek from the Bronx to Manhattan. She had been the first person to greet me when I showed up at the studio. She volunteered as the Rebel Alliance’s social media coordinator and was responsible for filming class discussions and drills that might end up on a webpage or Facebook update.
Tentatively, Maria headed towards the center of the floor and the instructor. The dozen or more people who sat along the back wall, watching the unfolding scene, became very quiet. It was clear that something was about to happen, but it was also evident that few class members knew what.
“Since we are now this ‘new’ group and all, there were things that existed before and we didn’t really use them properly. You may have heard about titles. For instance, if you have been here six months you may consider yourself an “apprentice.” [….] You have been active for six months, you do stuff, that’s great! You have some privileges within the group.”
“If you have been here for at least one year and performed in at least two conventions, that means you are eligible to be knighted. That is a pat on the back. It means that you have gone above and beyond. Having been here a year and having done two cons, that is the absolute minimum. But you must step up, that is the thing for every one of the titles.”
“Maria has stepped up. Like last year at Eternal Con we needed someone else to help run tech.” At this point the instructor made an exaggerated bow towards the apprentice.
“We needed someone at Immortal Con. ‘Hey Maria, you have a fight right…would you mind being the star of that show?” Maria smiled in a chagrined way, remembering the conversation.
“And she has taken it upon herself to be your media admin. Pretty much everything we are posting comes from her.”
Then, turning from the assembled class toward Maria he stated “So, you need to take a knee.”
As she knelt and bent her head a blue lightsaber touched one shoulder and then the other.
“You are officially the first dubbed knight of the Rebel Alliance.”
At a loss for words, and with tears starting to form in her eyes, Maria stood and turned towards the cheers, claps and saber taps coming from her classmates.
Making it Real
Later that night, as I transformed the quickly jotted ideas I had recorded on the train back to New Jersey into fully developed field notes, I found myself returning to this interlude. Rather than occurring at the start or the end of a class (what one might think of as natural climax points) this ceremony had been staged right in the middle. It marked the transition between the technical instruction that defined the first part of the class and the extended period of choreography practice and small group experimentation that took up the rest of the time.
I had been eager to visit the Rebel Alliance for many reasons. Under a different name this group had been among the very first to organize, inaugurating the commencement of lightsaber combat in the United States. And while there were a number of people in the room who were relatively new, others had been actively engaged with the lightsaber community for close to a decade.
In that respect the Rebel Alliance is quite different from the Central Lightsaber Academy, which is the main site for my current ethnographic research. That organization is less than two years old, and is still in its active development stage. Nor do the two groups share the same basic approach to the lightsaber. The Rebel Alliance heavily emphasizes stage combat and live performances, often in front of large audiences. It is organized as a charity and classes are taught by a rotating roster of regular and guest instructors. While basic martial arts skills (and even some form work) is taught, this is usually understood in the context of public performance and theater.
The Central Lightsaber Academy (CLA), as I have explained before, has a different emphasis. The group’s leader occasionally puts in appearances at local events, and a few students have started meeting outside of the regular class hours to put together their own performance team for cons. Yet for the most part this is a traditional martial arts school. It approaches lightsaber combat as a martial art or, more properly, as a new platform for exploring and testing ideas from a variety of existing martial systems. It is run by a single professional instructor. Tournaments and rank tests are the most important activities that students are expected to prepare for and regularly participate in.
Relations between the groups are hospitable. My friend Craig Page invited me to drop by for a visit while I was in New York City earlier this year. I was only too happy to take him up on the offer.
At the same time, the visit showcased the growing diversity of goals and aspirations that can be seen in the Lightsaber community. Somewhat apologetically Craig explained that while they had always done choreography, if I had visited five years earlier I would have seen more of an emphasis on martial arts training. But recently the interests of the group had reconfirmed its theatrical commitments. Likewise, it is not hard to find all sorts of videos of groups on Youtube touting the authenticity of their martial art (or combat sport) based vision of Lightsaber Combat, conspicuously noting that they have no interest in performance.
In one particularly telling moment during my visit I had an enthusiastic thespian explain to me that what happened on staged was “real” precisely because it demanded months of dedication, training and painstaking rehearsal. You had to learn actual acting skills. Drawing an unfavorable comparison to individuals who were interested in sparring she noted “It is not just a bunch of people running around and trying to whack each other with glow sticks!”
These are the sorts of comments that ethnographers love. It occurred to me that this off-handed remark illustrated a fundamental truth about all of the various approaches within the lightsaber combat community. Everyone is always just a little bit sensitive about the “reality” of their chosen hobby. While other martial artists may point to history (Taijiquan, Kendo) or efficacy (Krav Maga, BJJ) to justify the reality of their pursuits (all of which, if we are being honest, are more “invented traditions” than most students care to admit), things are less straight forward for students of the hyper-real martial arts. They cannot point to the hegemonic forces of nationalism or the self-defense discourse. It is the shared effort and pain that goes into the practice itself that makes it “real” and grants the lightsaber community a sense of coherence.
Given the current obsession with “reality” in the modern martial arts subculture, it is not surprising that this would be a topic of discussion among lightsaber students. The only real surprise would be if they somehow managed to avoid it all together. So, on a more detailed level, how does a community deal with these questions? And what role do initiation rituals, like the one described above, play in ameliorating these concerns?
The Rebel Alliance is not the only lightsaber group tinkering with its progression system. Unlike the colored belts (originally developed for Judo) that have come to dominate the Asian martial arts, most lightsaber groups turn to the Star Wars ethos for at least the outward trappings of their advancement systems. The mythological progression from “youngling” to “padawan” to “knight” to “master” seems to have enough steps to keep students motivated while promising a fulfilling sense of completion at some point in the future.
Alternatively, groups who use the “Seven Forms of Lightsaber Combat” also have a natural progression system, which can easily be mapped onto the supposed career trajectory of a Jedi Knight. Sith hierarchies, based on murdering one’s own teacher, are always a bit harder to define or replicate in the classroom.
The CLA combines the two to create both a smooth pedagogical pathway and a more complex system of achievements. Following the TPLA system, Younglings begin by studying a basic form of Shii-cho, the first dulon anyone is introduced to at the Jedi Temple. Once more advanced variants of the form have been mastered, students are tested and accepted as padawans. At that point they must go on to learn forms 2, 3 and 4 before being tested again and accepted as “knights.” I would hazard a guess that the whole process would probably take most active students 3-4 years.
The remaining forms are reserved for the more senior students. Once students reach the level of knight they can generally teach classes and take on padawans of their own. As such “knighthood” might be thought of as the Star Wars equivalent of gaining your first or second dan black belt.
Or is it? In my system, the progression to knighthood is explicitly linked to one’s technical mastery of form. This is very much the theory of progression seen within the traditional martial arts today. Yet the Rebel Alliance system is quite different. There is no test that one can take to qualify for knighthood. In fact, the rank appears to have been explicitly delinked from technical attainment. Rather, the title comes as an acknowledgement of service to the group.
At first blush the two institutions would seem to have nothing to do with each other. And in a narrow sense that is probably true. Yet on another level both systems of progression seem to be designed as ways of dealing with questions about the reality of lightsaber combat and, by extension, the community that supports it.
A World in Which the Black Brazilian Man is King
Astute readers might wonder what lightsaber combat has to do with race, gender and Brazilian nationalism. Each of these variables proves central to Lauren Miller Griffith’s recently published ethnography In Search of Legitimacy: How Outsider’s Become Insider’s in Afro-Brazilian Capoeira Tradition (Berghahn, 2016). Her study contains no mention of lightsabers, yet the basic questions that it addresses regarding how individuals become members of hand combat communities will be of great interest to all students of Martial Arts Studies.
The Capoeira pilgrims that Griffith studied faced a particularly daunting task. Most of them were Caucasians or Asians from the global North (North America, Western Europe or Japan). Several of her fellow travelers were also female. None were native Portuguese speakers. Further, Capoeira has been deeply implicated in both post-colonial and nationalist struggles. Both the discourse of the art, and even the songs that are sung in the roda, tend to extol identity traits (such as African heritage and masculinity) that many of these students lacked. And given the cultural and national distances between the USA and Brazil, it was openly wondered as to whether such students could ever really understand, let alone achieve, the highest aspects of the art.
Given this situation Griffith (unsurprisingly) reports a great deal of anxiety of the part of foreign students undertaking training pilgrimages to major schools in Brazil. Had they been taught “real capoeira” at their home schools in Europe or Canada? Would they be accepted as fellow martial artists by local students? Would they ultimately be able to form meaningful relationships with their new Brazilian masters?
Griffith’s work has much to recommend it. Graduate students will find it to be a great model of clear and concise ethnographic work focused on a tightly defined research question. Perhaps one of her more important arguments emerges in chapter 2. Noting the persistent anxiety about the “reality” of an individuals practice, Griffith proposed that we should further disaggregate these into the complimentary categories of “authenticity” and “legitimacy.”
Authenticity, at its most basic level, is a problem of classification. Does a certain practice really belong in a given category? Unfortunately, those who are most frequently called upon to evaluate the authenticity of a new type of performance (e.g., new prospective students) are often the least equipped to do so.
As novices, we usually do not understand either a given practice, or the even the category in which it is supposed to fit. Very few of the individuals who wonder whether lightsaber combat is a “real” martial art have ever trained in the discipline. Fewer still have an interest in the humanities or social sciences or have spent much time thinking about how (and whether) we should define the martial arts.
In other words, most of us are asked to make decisions about the authenticity of a performance at a point when we are still “outsiders.” As such, decisions about the authenticity of other people’s practices tend to be very subjective, and they rely heavily on our prior experiences in related (but never identical) areas. Questions of authenticity tend to be fundamentally contested, and such conversations are usually outward facing.
A white Capoeira teacher who immigrates to the United States from Brazil may have to spend a lot of time bolstering their perceived authenticity among potential students who simply assume that all Capoeira teachers will naturally be black. Such external markers become an important means by which outsiders are forced to make “snap” judgements.
Yet as Griffith points out, they can also become an important informal barrier in the learning of Capoeira itself. While Brazilian teachers may host foreign students in their schools, gaining the sort of “insider knowledge” necessary to master the art requires forming a more personal apprenticeship relationship with a teacher. And one’s personal characteristics (gender, race, nationality, linguistic fluency) can make that a more or less difficult process.
These obstacles, while real, are not insurmountable, particularly for charismatic students. This is were Griffith turns from questions of authenticity to “legitimacy.” Legitimacy basically denotes how closely one sits to the center of a community. As students deploy various behavioral strategies they may be able to move themselves into a closer relationship with key members of the community, guaranteeing access to more personalized instruction, social capital and the agreement of all of they are in fact “legitimate” students of the master, creating authentic performances.
In a later chapter Griffith goes on and identifies four basic strategies, all of which appear repeatedly within her field notes, by which students gain legitimacy. Very quickly, these are having the proper attitude. Ideally Capoeira students should be perceived as warm, outgoing, good natured individuals. This is vitally important as foreign students are often stereotyped as being either frigid or self-centered or greedy. They are perceived as “only taking” and not interested in “contributing to the community.”
Second, one must learn to speak the language. The musical aspects of this art, accompanied by the singing of folk songs, indicate that there is greater pressure to become linguistically fluent than most students of Karate or Kung Fu might experience. Learning the language is also a powerful sign of dedication and respect. To the degree that it grants musical fluency it is a marker of one’s respect for tradition.
A number of students also became involved in volunteer activities. These ranged from helping around the school, to volunteering in children’s classes, to working with anti-poverty programs in other parts of the city. Such efforts served multiple purposes. In addition to the humanitarian good they accomplished, they also provided an “outside” venue in which Capoeira pilgrims could build social bonds with more senior students and instructors in the school.
Lastly, Griffith discussed the matter of romantic relationships and marriage. Dating a member of an established group could be an effective way to gain a much deeper level of membership in the local community. In fact, one suspects that there are several other sorts of close personal relationships (becoming a business partner, etc…) that might have a similar effect.
What all of these strategies had in common was they allowed for the development of what Griffith called “legitimate peripheral participation.” By engaging in such activities foreign students, who might otherwise be one face in a crowded class, had increased opportunities to spend time with their instructors, build social capital, and develop the sort of personalized relationship that would allow more traditional Capoeira instruction to happen. As this process was observed by the group, and new skills were developed, the legitimacy of an individual’s place in the community was cemented.
Authenticity and Legitimacy/Schools and Students
Griffith’s observations have wide applications. One could easily apply this basic framework to the efforts (some more successful than others) of Western students to establish meaningful relationships with Wing Chun or Hung Gar masters in Hong Kong. And in some ways it seems particularly helpful in disentangling the quest for reality in the Lightsaber Combat Community.
Both Western Capoeira and Lightsaber students face a fundamental challenge. One group studies an Afro-Brazilian art with strong post-colonial undertones, and yet they are not Brazilians or citizens of the global south. The other studies a Jedi art, yet they do not have “the Force.” No amount of training will ever change these essential facts for either group of students. Outsiders will always wonder whether white kids “can really” play Capoeira, and pretty much everyone will wonder whether lightsaber combat “can really” be a martial art. We all feel this external gaze and, on some level, we all internalize these questions about the authenticity of our own performance.
The first step in solving this dilemma for many of Griffith’s subjects was that they put their lives on hold and undertook an expensive pilgrimage to Brazil where they hoped to find legitimacy. Indeed, this basic impulse is sending growing numbers of martial arts students to destinations like Okinawa, Israel, Thailand and the Shaolin temple. One of the problems that Lightsaber Combat students face in defining their identity is that no such pilgrimage, with the attendant promises of legitimatization by proximity, is really possible.
As a global post-modern phenomenon, Lightsaber Combat has no center. The fact that it is usually treated as a “supplement” to other interests exacerbates the situation. Both the Central Lightsaber Academy and the Rebel Alliance only meet once a week. That is not a lot of time to develop skills, stabilize an identity or build networks of trust and reciprocity. And it is far less time than most serious martial artists devote to their training. When I was still living in Salt Lake City I spent about three hours a night at my Sifu’s school, 5 days a week. The Central Lightsaber Academy cannot meet more frequently because all the other nights of the week are taken up by the instructors busy Kung Fu teaching schedule.
Given this combination of factors, existential concern about the authenticity of one’s practice, combined with limited opportunities for formal training and socialization, perhaps we should not be surprised to find that many Lightsaber Combat students pursue opportunities for “Legitimate Peripheral Participation” with a vigor that Griffith would probably appreciate. At the CLA daily personal practice becomes an important mechanism for demonstrating one’s commitment between classes, which in turn allows more new material to be introduced within a class. Cultivating a public attitude of dedication, and a friendly openness to other students (even in stressful situations such as sparring practice), becomes an important means of moving from the periphery to the center of the group.
Also critical are volunteer efforts, such as the efforts to assist with public appearances, or the creation of the choreography team. These put students near their instructors and create opportunities for the sorts of detailed personal instruction that is a prerequisite for success in any sort of martial arts. Such additional training opportunities lead to quicker mastery of the essential forms needed to move through the schools progression system towards knighthood.
The process in the Rebel Alliance is similar. Here knighthood is not something that can be “earned.” Rather, as the scene at the top of this essay explicit notes, it is a combined process of the apprentice making efforts to “step up,” and the more senior members of the group accepting these gestures as legitimate. The technical aspects of advancement that mark the CLA are no longer present, but in both cases knighthood is explicitly understood as a marker that one has achieved a degree of “insider status.”
To be a knight is to have your efforts publicly legitimated, thus answering, to a degree, questions about the authenticity of one’s status. And as Maria’s reaction indicate, this can be a very powerful personal experience. Indeed, that speaks directly to the importance of these identities in the lives of students.
Nor should we neglect to ask what such rituals of completion accomplish for the group that bestows them. Classic anthropological theory (see Victor Turner on liminality) suggests that formal rites of advancement transform the group in such a way that it will be willing to accept the new status of their members. Yet in a modern social space in which the survival of any martial arts group is based on its economic success in a competitive marketplace, it is vitally important to demonstrate to outside observers (and potential students) that apprentices do advance and become masters (however that is defined) within a given art. Indeed, people join all sorts of martial arts precisely because they are looking for self-transformation, and any system that denied or failed to deliver on that promise would be perceived as “inauthentic.”
Martial arts organizations, especially those that are seeking to establish themselves, need their students to succeed. In critical ways that Griffith never explored in her book, the flow of credibility between students and organizations is circular, rather than running in a single direction. Only when a martial art is publicly seen to produce better people and legitimate students will the community at large accept it as authentic and worth investing in. Coming to terms with knighthood, itself a fictional title, is central to the real developmental challenges facing Lightsaber Combat. That in turn may suggest something important about the way that all martial arts group function in modern society.
*Following standard ethnographic procedure, the names of groups and individuals who assisted my fieldwork have been changed to protect the privacy of everyone involved. The names of public figures in the Lightsaber community, and other organizations that were not fieldwork locations, have been preserved. The knighting at the start of this essay was captured in a video recording that I made. However, the transcript of the event has been lightly edited for both length and clarity.
If you enjoyed this you might want to also see: Lightsaber Combat and Wing Chun: The Search for Meaning in the Modern Martial Arts.