I like Star Wars. But I don't love Star Wars. If Star Wars and I were dating, it would be sort of a casual sex situation. Nothing too serious, just lots of sweaty, fast-paced action we'd both really enjoy, despite knowing very little about one another.
I mean, yeah, I know Darth Vader is (spoiler alert!) Luke Skywalker's father, and that Chewbacca is (spoiler alert again!!) a wookie, but I have absolutely no idea what color Mace Windu's lightsaber is, or what a Rancor is, or how many languages C-3P0 is fluent in – which makes today especially noteworthy.
It's noon, and I’ve pulled into a parking space in SOMA at the mouth of an alley with about a dozen parked cars that look half lived in. I'm carrying nothing other than my phone, wallet, keys, and pen and paper, because, well, I'm not all that sure what one brings to a lightsaber class.
About halfway down the alley I spot three guys wearing sweatpants and sneakers standing in front of a steel door. These are the Golden Gate Knights (GGK) – a band of Star Wars lovers who've opened their very own lightsaber academy, hosting once-a-week, three-hour classes where you can learn to master the quintessential piece of Jedi weaponry.
As I get closer, I start to run through my Wars ledger in my head, in case it comes up: I owned both Ewok spinoff movies growing up, I bought Lego Star Wars the first week it came out, and I have a miniature Stormtrooper sitting in one of the planters outside my house.
I strike up a conversation, personal factoids at the ready, with Matthew, a 27-year-old UC Davis Med Center intern who moonlights as a math and science teacher. He says he's been into the sextology since high school and practices lightsaber moves independently in his backyard. This, as it turns out, will not be the nerdiest thing I hear today.
His carpool buddy, a 25-year-old named Panda, is a full-time student and part-time computer repair technician who looks like a full- time computer repair technician.
He's wearing a Legend of Zelda shirt with Link on it reading "Sword Play.” "There's really no dogmatic system," Panda starts to explain, and that's all I get down in my notepad, still fixated on the fact that I'm talking to someone named Panda outside of a lightsaber academy.
The third and final member of this merry group of Lando-lovers is Gary, a 38-year-old tallish black dude who makes lifelike LED sabers in his free time. He's brought maybe a half dozen of them, packed in a duffle he's carrying over his right shoulder.
After about 15 minutes of conversation (including a very lively debate about Princess Leia versus William Shatner), Alain (pronounced Allen) finally shows. Alain is one of the group's original founders and instructors. His zip-up sweatshirt and vintage tee are both Star Wars branded. He's a skinny, scruffy-looking dude, who looks sort of like a nerdy version of Jesus.
He keys into the door, we walk inside a lime green dance studio with hardwood floors and mirrors on every wall. As he sets up the sound system, he tells me the idea for the group was formed at (where else) Burning Man in 2007, when a guy handed out 10,000 lightsabers and asked everyone to show up for a massive saber battle the following night. Everyone did, including Alain.
Set on making lightsaber battles a weekly reality in San Francisco, Alain turned to the Internet. "I googled ‘lightsaber instructor’ and I found Matthew," he says. The other co-founder of the GGK, Matthew is a professional fencing instructor, stage fight choreographer, and martial arts extraordinaire who lives in San Jose.
Alain presses play on his iPod, and the Superman theme song starts. He apparently has a channel on Pandora set entirely to John Williams’ classics. I rejoin the larger group, where there's a table completely covered in weaponry, and two new members of the GGK – Hayley, a 24-year-old Toys “R” Us employee, and Frank, her 27-year-old Mission roommate.
I'm standing next to Gary, talking to him about the huge aftermarket industry for Star Wars when someone hands me a lightsaber. I have never felt cooler in my entire life. Panda's now wearing fingerless gloves and doing air punching, which I somehow ignore just long enough to turn my saber on (it's blue!) and swing it for the first time.
Alain, now standing in the center of the room, gets everyone's attention, shouting (like only a lightsaber instructor can), "Follow me!"
The class covers all manner of lightsaber technique and terminology. Alain takes us through simple twirls, figure eights, behind-the-back moves, and transitions using the forward and inverse grip. Every move he teaches us becomes the coolest move I've ever learned. Maybe 20 minutes into actual lightsaber work, I realize I'm making swooshing noises as I do my figure eights.
Now that we've got the basics, Frank is invited up to show us some double lightsaber flourishes he's been working on. They give me a second blade, this time with a silver handle and blue light, and Frank begins. "It's just simple spins," he says. Except they're not. Not at all. It feels like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time. And whenever I feel like I'm getting it, there's Frank, doing it at 10 times my speed, with an almost machinelike precision.
Also, Gary's in a wife beater now. Which seems like it's worth noting. I can hear Matthew clear on the other side of the room. "Unfortunately, no one has four arms," he says. Unfortunately.
Frank's demo is finally over, and Alain is back up front now teaching us a 10-part sequence – five moves for an attacker and five moves for a defender. Specific attack zones are assigned numbers (one is lower right leg, five is upper right shoulder, etc.), which we all learn, practice, and then partner up. I'm paired with Alain first, and quickly realize that I suck.
Alain murders me incessantly, even though this is a scripted fight and we start out incredibly slowly. He also corrects us as we go, giving us tips on making the fight look more realistic. "You'll actually see Luke Skywalker do this in one of the films," he says as he lunges forward with a left shoulder attack. Everyone's eyes widen. They all want to be Luke Skywalker. So. Badly.
Next up, we work on footwork. It feels just like fencing – short forward and backward steps and slides, which, after mastering, we then apply to the fight sequence. Alain's Pandora channel shuffles to Darth Vader's "Imperial March." Again, I have never felt cooler in my life.
Two and a half hours later, we're ready for actual fight scenes. Alain chooses Empire Strikes Back, mocking Luke's preparation for the Luke/Vader scene we're about to re-enact ("He learned it in, what, five minutes on the Millennium Falcon??") before taking us through the paces.
Midway through, Gary interjects. "I watched it a few times last night," he says, "and he's got another weird one, where Luke does a thrust." Alain concurs. "What they're really trying to do is make Vader's height more enhanced, regal almost. Like Vader's saying 'Oh yeah? Well, you're not a Jedi yet.'" From here the class breaks down. Over the next 15 minutes, everyone is engrossed in deep-cut discussions concerning prequels, Vader subtext, Count Dooku, and Padawans.
Alain checks the time, realizes class is over, and circles the group – lights off, sabers on – in the center of the room. We balance our weapon on the ground in front of us, sit yoga style, and repeat a "Jedi code" Alain recites.
Once we finish we sit in silence with our eyes closed for almost five minutes. More than enough time to realize I might just love Star Wars a little more than I realized.
Think you might just love Star Wars more than you realize? The Golden Gate Knights meet every Sunday at LEVYDance (19 Heron St.) in SOMA from 12– 3 p.m. The first class is free, then just $10–$15 thereafter. Lightsabers are free for the first month and $5 per class after that. Jedis in training must be 17 years or older.