This article is brought to you live from the Martial Arts Studies Research Network 2016 conference, taking place at Cardiff University from 19-21 July 2016 . . .
One of my female martial arts blogger friends, Megan, has been training in Lightsaber Combat for the last few months. It looks like they have a lot of fun  – but until now I didn’t really get it.
After all it’s not actually a real martial art! (Although some would disagree) .
Why on earth would anyone spend their precious time on something like this, instead of doing proper training . . . ?
But having attended a lecture on this topic yesterday by Dr Ben Judkins (of Kung Fu Tea fame) , a few things have fallen into place. Here are the key points he made, which suddenly put this seemingly bizarre art into a very interesting light . . .
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1. It’s fun and inclusive
Ben trains in a large dojo which offers several martial arts, plus Lightsaber Combat. All the classes are diverse and friendly, but Ben says:
One of the most notable things about the lightsaber class is the number of family relationships it seems to accommodate. In the class we have multiple sets of couples, adult siblings, parents and children, all working together with a surprising degree of harmony. I have actually never seen anything quite like it .
In fact, Megan trains alongside her two brothers, which is interesting in the light of what Ben is saying.
2. It’s free of politics
Ben explained that being free of the strict hierarchy and formality of a traditional dojo is refreshingly pleasant. He describes his Lightsaber class as: a release from the politics of traditional martial arts . . . the sense of community is outstanding.
Ben’s teacher takes on the persona of Darth Nihilus for the Lightsaber classes (complete with costume!)
Martial arts teachers are typically concerned with issues of lineage, integrity and purity. Ben has observed “Darth Nihilus” teaching Wing Chun, and says that in that setting, his teacher is so serious. But he casts this gravity aside in the Lightsaber lessons – and is always happy to collaborate with other LS groups and styles. After all, this very new art has no provenance to sully or disrupt.
3. It’s culturally neutral
The traditional martial arts have often been co-opted into promoting and transmitting the culture and values of their country of origin. Or even used to express the nationalism of a foreign culture, such as the case of Karate and Japan.
However, Lightsaber Combat doesn’t “belong” to any country – not even the USA where the Star Wars movies originated. It’s been picked up with enthusiasm all around the world.
The values it promotes are “universal” and culturally neutral, being grounded more in generic human psychology than any nationality. These values therefore appeal across a range of cultures.
4. It’s a great way to draw in new students to the martial arts
Ben said that running the Lightsaber class is quite time-consuming and hard work for his teacher. However, it’s also a fantastic way to draw new students in to the club – which is a challenge for many dojos nowadays.
People of all ages and backgrounds come in to play Lightsaber, who would never have dreamed of doing any traditional martial art. There’s plenty of flexibility to market Lightsaber classes creatively, as a fun, quirky and sociable fitness activity.
And once inside the class, there are opportunities for students to gain exposure to the “real” martial arts – and perhaps in time move towards training in them . . .
5. It offers opportunities for “martial play“
Because it lacks politics, formality and allegiance to any tradition, there’s a profound sense of freedom, open-mindedness and exploration in Lightsaber practice. Ben explained that a lot of the students are experienced martial artists, who enjoy playing around with classmates from other styles, and experimenting with “what works”.
As Ben says, this is not something we tend to be allowed to do in “normal” (that was his word!) martial arts classes.
6. It’s a chance to explore your dark side
It’s really interesting, because normally people always want to identify with the good guys. I’ve never heard anyone say: oh I really want to be like the people who burned down the Shaolin Temple because they definitely won that time! Normally it just makes no sense to want to be the bad ones.
But in Lightsaber Combat, we mix up everything – all the symbols can be reversed. In Star Wars, the Darths are the bad guys – the masters of a dark philosophy responsible for various deaths. They’ve become less than human; and can’t access the healing, life-sustaining power of the Force.
But some students choose to be Darths – including my teacher. Because it’s fine to play at being socially dysfunctional – or even a monster – in Lightsaber training.
Others prefer to model themselves on the Jedi. Still others create “grey Jedi” roles, where they mix and match from each group, to reflect their own philosophy. Or they even bring in characters from outside Star Wars.
NB: Ben adds that about half the students don’t take on any roles; being uninterested in Star Wars, and seeing the training as no more than a chance to stay in shape with like-minded friends!
7. It offers a modern take on spirituality
Ben has written on this subject recently: 
In the current era many individuals turn to the traditional (usually Asian) martial arts precisely because they see in them a font of ancient wisdom [LaRochelle 2013: 46-47]
[…] Much of the commercial success of the traditional martial arts appears to be rooted in a near mystical faith in their ability to promote balanced development in both children and adolescents. One wonders how much of this belief (in the West) we can attribute to Luke Skywalker’s very public journey to adulthood, aided by the dual disciplines of the Force and the lightsaber training, during the 1970s and 1980s?
[…] My own ethnographic research conducted with a lightsaber combat group in a mid-sized city in the North East United States has revealed a surprising degree of dedication on the part of many of the students. The oft-repeated mantra that it is all ‘just for fun’ notwithstanding, it is clear that many students are approaching lightsaber combat as a key organizing symbol in their lives.
[…] The weapons may be fictional, but the feelings that are invoked through practice are authentic and profound. Nor are the sorts of mentoring relationships that students seek from their instructor any different from what one might find in a traditional martial arts institution.
[…] The Jedi and Sith are readymade symbols ripe for spiritual or psychological appropriation.”
8. It offers a modern pathway to psychological growth
This was the point at the heart of Ben’s lecture.
Ben explained that traditional rites of passage have always played a critical role, both for the individual and for society as a whole. Their deep power lies in casting the individual into a mysterious in-between (liminal) space for a time, as we leave the old role behind and reemerge in our new role.
The sociologist Victor Turner saw this liminal period as a dark, ambiguous space where we can experience and explore chaos and paradox:
Hence, in many societies the liminal initiands are often considered to be dark, invisible, like a planet in eclipse or the moon between phases; they are stripped of names and clothing, smeared with the common earth, rendered indistin- guishable from animals. They are also associated with life and death, male and female, food and excrement, simultaneously, since they are at once dying from or dead to their former status and life, and being born and growing into new ones .
The psychological benefits of experiencing periods of liminality are immense. Sadly, they are often watered down in modern society. For example, many traditional rituals are seen as optional nowadays, which dilutes their power.
However, Turner also saw something new emerging in society. He called it the “Liminoid”, as in something which looks like the liminal – but isn’t the same. The liminoid is a kind of light-touch liminal experience. It’s not as powerful as the liminal, but it’s a lot easier to access, and less demanding. The liminoid is also a lot more focused on the individual’s own personal experience, and not really concerned with their role in society.
Ben explained that we can access liminal experiences in a traditional dojo. An obvious example is a grading, which can be an intense, demanding and profoundly meaningful experience, marking our transition from one position in the hierarchy to another.
But in Lightsaber Combat, he argues that we can enjoy a constant, powerful stream of fun, exciting liminoid experiences – as a low-intensity pathway to personal growth. We can play around with social values and hierarchy; and enjoy exploring different roles and mindsets.
Ben describes this as People who are not marginal, choosing to play at the margins.
His teacher always says: Remember, this is all just for fun. But the same teacher would never say that in his Wing Chun class . . .
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So there you have it; eight fascinating benefits which Lightsaber Combat potentially offers. Personally I won’t be deserting my beloved, strict, hierarchical dojo for a Lightsaber class any time soon.
But Ben’s talk definitely got me thinking, and I would certainly be a lot slower to dismiss the overall value of this training now . . .
 Megan Farquharson (A Martial Artist). (2016). Lightsaber Training! May the Fourth Be With You (Blog post).
 Dr Ben Judkins. (2016). The Seven Forms of Lightsaber Combat: Hyper-reality and the Invention of the Martial Arts. Martial Arts Studies 2, 6-22.
 Dr Ben Judkins. (2016). “Liminoid Longings and Liminal Belonging: Hyper-reality, History and the Search for Meaning in the Modern Martial Arts”. (Keynote presentation at the Martial Arts Studies Research Network 2016 conference).
 Dr Ben Judkins. (2016). A View from the Mats (Blog post).
 Victor Turner. (1974). Liminal to liminoid, in play, flow, and ritual: an essay in comparative symbology. Pages 58-9.
Ben has also written an interesting blog article giving a more detailed description of his school, and Darth Nihilus’s teaching: Feeling the Rhythm in Lion Dancing, the Wooden Dummy and Lightsaber Combat