Sarah Tierney wonders if 2023 is finally the year to become a Jedi Knight
IT’S a long time since I harboured dreams of becoming a Jedi. But on a Thursday night in a sports hall at Parrs Wood High School, I'm five-years-old again and Luke Skywalker is as real to me as my mum and dad. I’ve got a neon green, gently humming lightsaber in my hands and I’m off to join the Rebel Alliance. See you later Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru (and daily commute and endless stupid emails), I’ve got a battle against the Dark Side to fight.
Dan would love to see the sport in the Olympics one day. It certainly works as a spectator sport.
And I'm not the only one feeling like this. Apparently, it’s a common reaction for first-timers at the Ludosport Manchester Academy, a lightsaber fencing club that meets every week in Didsbury. I see it on the faces of the other newbies; adult men and women who probably never thought they’d be swirling a sabre around like Darth Vader on a November night. All around me, eyes are lit up like the LED blades. Some of us are doing the sound effects (even though they're built-in to the swords). It’s fun and silly but also really cool. I’m a Jedi at last. Destiny fulfilled.
A few weeks later, back on planet Earth, I meet up with the man who runs the Manchester Ludosport Academy, Dan Sammons. We meet in the cafe at Tesco Hattersley, not far from where he lives. He tells me my gleeful reaction is fairly standard.
“There are very few people who hold a lightsaber for the first time and don’t have a massive grin on their face," he says. "It taps into something from when you first saw Star Wars. It unlocks what it’s like to be a child again.”
But childhood flashbacks are not the only reason Ludosport is growing in popularity around the world. Dan's got a few hours before he’s due to give a Ludosport session at his old primary school in Longsight. It’s just enough time for us to delve into what lightsaber fencing is all about and why people get into it so much.
Ludosport was created in Milan in 2006 by three friends who were big fans of both Star Wars and martial arts. They wanted to explore how they would fight with a weapon that has no weight to the blade and cuts on a full 360 degrees, like a lightsaber. They developed a protocol weapon, established the rules and values of the sport, and soon Ludosport clubs were spreading across Italy, and then around Europe and across to the US.
The sport came to the UK in 2018. Dan says, “I found out about it on Facebook. I just wanted to meet some new, like-minded people who had the same kind of interests as me.”
Interests like Star Wars?
“Star Wars, nerdy things in general. Some people are really into the films and know everything about the expanded universe, and other people come just for the social aspects and to learn something new. Then you’ve got people who look at it as more of a martial art and combat sport.”
Get fit through lightsaber training
The discovery session that I went to in East Didsbury began like any other martial arts lesson, with a warm-up and jogging around the hall. It was familiar territory to me from boxing and muay thai classes but that was where the similarities ended. Because although Ludosport is a combat sport, it’s one fought with the slightest of taps rather than physical force.
Says Dan, “The idea is, because it's a lightsaber, it will cut through anything. So just a gentle tap is all we need. And because it doesn't rely on strength, and it's more finesse, it means that men and women can compete equally without needing separate divisions. It’s not every sport that can boast that same kind of equality, especially combat sports."
This makes it accessible across all ages and body shapes. The people who turned up for the discovery session were more varied in fitness levels than at any other exercise class I've attended. In a world where a lot of people feel uncomfortable with the idea of signing up for a sports club or exercise class, it was good to see how inclusive Ludosport is.
Dan agrees. “We get all kinds of people coming; people who don't like doing physical exercise at all but really enjoy this because it's something different. People with arthritis and joint pains join in because it can be quite low impact.
"And then we have people who run marathons or do CrossFit, but do this as well because it's fun. It’s a different experience to running on a treadmill for half an hour. It’s a different way.
"It’s like ballroom dancing; it uses muscles that you've never thought of using before. And it can be very good cardio, especially in short bursts."
A new hope
Dan says it acts as a gateway to getting fitter and healthier and tells me about one Ludosport member he knows who has lost weight, grown in confidence, and is now a lot happier with where he's at, thanks to the sport.
I can see how that would happen with Ludosport. In my experience, people only get really into a sport or form of fitness when there's some bigger appeal to it beyond the actual exercise itself. Something cultural that they connect to on a deeper level.
The philosophy behind yoga for example, or the fan culture of football, or the disciplined lifestyle of boxing. Ludosport has that extra layer to it with its epic sci-fi backstory and the code of behaviour that underpins the sport (its three pillars are Care, Respect, and Service). It can give people a different outlook on life, a different way of living.
But it doesn't have to go that deep. Says Dan, “Other people don’t have that goal and just want to come and have fun. And the wonderful thing about it is, it's just so open and welcoming. Anyone can join and have a good time. And if they want to take it further, they can, and if they don't, they don't have to.“
Are you a Yoda or a Count Dooku?
Dan was definitely keen to take it further. There are four different ‘forms’ within Ludosport, each based on a different style of martial arts. You can progress through all four, or just stick to the one that suits you best. Dan has been learning Form Two, which is similar to traditional fencing. Form One has a lot of circular movements to it. Form Three is characterised by spirals and flowing movements, and Form Four is more acrobatic.
So can you see the different forms in the Star Wars films themselves?
"Yeah! A little bit. Within the lore of Star Wars they have different forms and they have different names. We don't use the names because we're trying to separate ourselves a little bit from Star Wars. But you have, say, Count Dooku who uses Makashi, which is our Form Two; that one-handed style, very reminiscent of historical sword-fighting. Or Yoda uses the jumps and rolls; it's called Ataru, which our Form Four is based on.
"It varies it, and allows you to move in the way you want to move. You gravitate between either a form or a combination of forms that make up your style. It lets you fight in your own way."
Choose your weapon
Another way you can make the sport your own is through your choice of LED blade colour. Everyone starts with blue (like Luke) but when you get to a certain level you can change it to whatever colour you want. I'd go green in homage to The Return of the Jedi. A lot of people choose Sith red ("just so cliche," jokes Dan).
He says, “Then you get people who want a colour that matches their personality a bit more. Some people go pink or purple, yellow, orange. I quite like gold.” It matches his hilt and tunic, he explains. And the black and yellow is very Manchester Bee.
The Lightsaber Olympics
Dan represented Manchester (England, in fact) in Ludosport at the Championships Arena in Sweden last month - an international competition that saw fighters from ten countries compete.
He would love to see the sport in the Olympics one day. It certainly works as a spectator sport and the skills of the top-level fighters are no less than that of other athletes. Ludosport is still in its infancy though. Its development was hindered by COVID but it's beginning to take off again.
Says Dan, “We’re looking at reopening in Liverpool and we’ve got interest in other cities: Leeds, Newcastle, Nottingham, Glasgow. It’s already established in Birmingham, Bristol, and Cheltenham."
Lightsaber lessons for kids
He says, “One of the big things is getting kids classes going. If we can start at grassroots level and get kids involved, we’re going to see some absolutely amazing fighters and some absolutely amazing fights. A kid who starts at ten or eleven, by the time they get to 21, they’re going to be fantastic.”
All the Manchester Ludosport teachers are DBS checked, and Dan has started taking bookings for children’s parties. There are no regular classes for children under 13 in Manchester currently, but that will change if they get enough interest (so contact Ludosport Manchester if your kids are keen). If your child is 13 or over, they can attend the adult classes.
Where to learn lightsaber fencing in Manchester
Two-hour discovery sessions run once a month at Parrs Wood High School, East Didsbury. And a new weekly course starts on 5 January - contact Ludosport Manchester to book onto that one.
Confidential readers get 20% off any 2023 discovery sessions from Ludosport Manchester. Just use the code BodyCon23 when you book. And if that isn't The Force calling to you, I don't know what is.
Main image by Ryan Hickson
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