When trying to develop a Form, or watching others develop a Form, I’ve noticed several things that can greatly affect the way one goes about doing it. While certainly not the exhaustive list of considerations in lightsaber form development, it is something I strongly consider anyone in the saber community to consider.
No One Answer
Almost ten years ago Damon Honeycutt, who went by the Jedi nickname of General Sun, developed a version of Shii Cho using infantry sword forms taught to him through his years of training in Kung Fu. It was, with little exception, exactly as the form described. Basic swordwork, forward moving, tight control, flowing movements. Gen. Sun nailed it, and since then there has been near-universal acclaim and acceptance within the community.
This hasn’t stopped others from trying, and there are several who also capture the principles of Shii Cho while still being visually distinct from the version General Sun created. This leads to the most important thing you should probably know when discussing the Seven Forms in real life: There is no single pure answer. There can’t be one, and honestly there shouldn’t be.
The descriptions of the Forms are broad in most cases, and widely open to interpretation. Even in Forms such as Makashi, which are very clearly based on fencing, you will find derivations in how people create them. This is because the Forms really only exist in our minds, and we fill in the blanks. Ask twenty fencers to demonstrate Makashi, and you’ll most likely get twenty different variations, all similar yet somehow nuanced and apart from each other. Now imagine some of the more esoteric Forms like Niman or Juyo, which not only are broadly defined but also outright encourage individualism and improvisation in their actions.
The accuracy in which General Sun’s version of Shii Cho, and the subsequent acclaim it has achieved, should be regarded as a fluke. It was the right person in the right moment doing the right thing. And because of it, a generation of nerds developing martial arts have been inspired.
So, when developing the Forms, understand that your Form doesn’t need to mirror anyone else’s. Also, you should not be touting it as the end all and be all of the Forms or the ‘official’ one for anything other than you or your personal group. Everyone will have their own interpretation.
Focus on The Weaknesses
The Forms as they are written and described come with something that most traditional martial arts don’t take in to consideration in their development: Inherent weaknesses. Some styles are only good close up, some have no ground game, or rely too much on taking the fight to the ground. In martial arts, these things evolve over time and are usually compensated by the individual.
A lot of the mistakes people makes during development is that they don’t add the inherent weaknesses. It’s not something that they would think of. Why would someone intentionally build a weakness in to their martial art? Because this is a translation, and knowing the limits of the subject helps in defining it. As far as I’m concerned, doing a Form without focusing on the weaknesses is doing only half the job.
While there are many different ways of interpreting, it doesn’t mean that every way is exact or that one martial arts style fits all. I’ve seen people try, very badly, to shoehorn all of the forms into Karate and other such styles. While there are some styles that certainly go over a broad range, it isn’t enough. No one style can cover the mentality, strengths and weaknesses of the individual Forms.
An example: When I was beginning my time in NYJ, a visiting lightsaber guy from out of state displayed his understanding of all seven Forms. He was a Tae Kwon Do instructor, and each kata he performed for each Form was roughly the exact same kata, just with minor changes. It was mostly kicking with some basic swordplay, nothing really distinct. They guy knew he had nailed them all he had a Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do so of course it had all of the answers in it. Meanwhile all those around him, who were trained combatants of one stripe or another, weren’t buying it.
It was this level of “work with only what you know ” attitude that made me write the first Seven Forms paper in the first place. We’re not just dealing with martial arts, but the ideal of them. It’s too broad for one way and one style. Expand your thinking, collaborate outside your style.
When developing the Forms, you should consider multiple sources as points of reference in your work. In the Form specific posts, I will list a number of martial arts/activities that are good analogues I have found. It’s not an extensive list. There are, undoubtedly, more. So this is a call to research, study, discuss and to even take up lessons in some of these different styles to better understand. Do not rely on these posts alone. And if you find other examples, share them. I like getting my mind blown by new stuff.
I was blessed with being in a group filled with fencers, martial artists, freerunners, and performers. I had a broad base, and what information I didn’t have available, I had someone point me in a direction. And there were instances where someone said ‘well, the form looks like this’ and I didn’t agree with it on a personal level. It happens. Again, there is no one answer. However, in order to evade a wrong answer, I strongly encourage research of other styles and even other takes on the Forms. Do not limit yourself to what you know right now, study and develop. Take your time.
Linear or Individual
A question that should be asked before beginning is this: Do I want to build all of the Forms, or just one or a few of them. This is part of a larger question: do I want to build all of the Forms in sequence, or keep them individually distinct from one another?
It has been the way since the beginning to work on each Form individually, focusingon one at a time. This method allows for the Forms to look visually distinct from one another and be functional pieces. However, remember that each of these Forms were in many ways responses and reactions to the ones before it. Makashi came in reply to Shii Cho, Soresu and Ataru to Makashi. Djem So and Shien were developed to answer Soresu. Niman tried to be a capstone to them all and Juyo took lessons from all of them and broke down all of the barriers.
Example: New York Jedi sees the Forms as intrinsically linked, but also unique from one another. Shii Cho and Makashi are linked in history, but look nothing alike, nor does Soresu or Ataru look like Makashi, or Djem So like either of them before.. Each Form looks different, and can give a better vision of what the person is doing. Chances are good you will learn most of them, but you can have one preferred style.
For Terra Prime, each Form is a building block to a greater purpose. You learn certain core lessons in the first four, then begin to learn synthesizing it all in the latter three. Niman and Juyo, in this way, becomes a Master’s Thesis– kinda literally.. This method does not allow picking and choosing. It requires you to go through all of them, or strive as much as possible.
Both ways, however, are valid, and should be considered when thinking of developing all of the Forms. At the very least, consider the small connections between the Forms that have ties with one another. How do they manifest, is it subtle or in a larger way?
Trust Not In The Movies
A common misconception is that the Forms were developed for the Prequels and the fights planned with them in mind. They weren’t. In the original Seven Forms paper I stated my suspicions. Since then, I have had confirmation from Nick Gillard, the Fight and Stunt Coordinator for Episodes I, II, and III. He was given a copy of the Seven Forms paper—a fact that caused me a lot of surprise—and revealed something: The Forms had nothing to do with the Fights, and that the Forms were developed in the Star Wars magazine for some added flair to the characters.
What this means is that, as far as a reference for developing the Forms, watching the movies or TV shows should be done last. Read the material on Wookiepedia, in the novels, maybe even the Seven Forms paper or even this blog, research the martial arts. Then, work on the Form a bit. If it looks like stuff from the corresponding movies, then you’re probably somewhere close. The movies provide flavor, not the meat.
One instance in the community where this becomes relevant was when watching someone post a video on Vaapad, they were doing a generic martial arts kata, but at various points adding the low sweeping motions Mace Windu employs in the Form. It came off as arbitrary and the only way to distinguish their other katas from their take on Vaapad. Don’t do this. Do not add something arbitrarily in a bid to fit a perceived mold. Achieve to get the spirit of the Form, do not try to copy verbatim.
Personal or Group? Performance or Instructional?
When making anything for the forms, you have to ask yourself what the purpose of this is for. Is this just a set piece that I am displaying to the audience, or is this something I wish to teach to others? There’s a difference here that is not inherently obvious to some. If the form you are working on is a personal one, you are allowed to take liberties with what you do. Performance is all about adding flair to a solid foundation, to add character to what is already there.
If you intend on instruction, you need to be clear to the why of a move. The move needs to have a tactical point that you are trying to instill in to those who are going to use it. There can be nothing superfluous. You can save that for performances.
An example; a teacher with one of the groups has a personal demo of one of the forms. It works, for them. Key emphasis on that. But there is a lot of flash and superfluousness and not much in martial instruction, not really much in performance instruction either. So they start teaching their members…and you can just watch the confusion cross their minds. The moves were foreign to them, and they were provided no context because it was the personal performance informed by the original performer. It was a copy, and there was a loss in translation. Watching the individual perform it, it’s an alright kata. Watching their group, it frankly sucked.
It’s okay if this isn’t meant to be part of a core curriculum and is your own interpretation of the forms. These are means of expressing oneself and you can kick out the jams and throw in your own flavor. But if you intend to instruct, you must make what you have accessible physically and contextually to the lowest common denominator of student. There must be a reason, it must make sense.
Prepare to Share
Eventually, you’re going to want to show off your developed Form. That means that you’re going to be sharing it with other people who may or may not have experience with the Forms. There’s a lot that goes in to sharing with the community, almost as much as making the Form.
First, there’s the potential that you may feel ridiculous. This is normal, this is an odd thing to share so publically. As someone who has practiced in the middle of New York City, having done impromptu shows in Central Park and Times Square, allow me to give some advice: You’re carrying a giant glowstick. You’re a giant beacon of ridiculous. Own up to it and let it go. Take your time, but realize that this is a ludicrous hobby and learn to love it.
Second. When you share, realize that there are going to be people who are going to critique. Note, I say ‘critique’ and not criticize. The first word sounds nicer and is actually constructive. Take whatever people tell you with a grain of salt, but also listen. Some of the people who will be looking at what you put out will be people searching for information, or fascination in the various different ways people develop the Forms. Listen to what they have to say, grow from it.
And yes, even the trolls who will bash your material even if it’s good. Make that work for you. Because either they have noticed a deficiency and are latching on to it like the predatory animals they perceive themselves to be, or you have succeeded where they have failed and that is something to celebrate.
Third, and I’ve said this before, but we are a community that can only grow through collaboration. There have been members of the community who have come in and told people that they’ve done these things, but haven’t shown any one. Some of them are merely seeking recognition for–earned or perceived–achievements. Others have tried to market their work off, using members of the community as nothing more than rubes and not as peers. I’m generally biased against using the community to make money, especially when that information can be gained for free from other sources.
So share, even if this particular attempt didn’t work, it can help others to learn and grow.
In most aspects of life, it pays to relax. When teaching Shii Cho to members in New York Jedi, the first thing I tell them to do is relax their body. They often forget that the saber cannot move without the body. The body moves, the saber follows. If we keep our joints and our muscles stiff, we come off as stiff. If we relax, we gain a flow to our movements. This tension is both physical–we are working out with a sword style after all– as well as mental.
This is why I suggest, before doing any work with any weapon, to allow yourself a few moments to relax. Whether this is a few minutes to warm up, or just sitting down and focusing on the moment, is up to the person. The goal is to remove all outside influences in your life from interfering for the moment. Family, fiscal or work pressures do not exist for the moment. The audience does not exist, there’s only you.
When filming your demonstration of the Forms, I suggest doing multiple takes. Often people will film their first and be done with it. Film multiple, look at each one to see what works and what doesn’t, what may be translating wrong from your perception to the way the camera perceives it. Even if this is meant for martial and instructional reasons, there’s still a level of performance that goes in to it. Your movements must sell for the audience watching it, and therefore we must adjust some. Allow yourself to express what you want, while also allowing those who wish to look to follow.
And, finally, enjoy yourself. This is something that is weirdly rewarding. It takes hard work, but the benefits are there.
Because I’m a masochist at heart, I promised to write an article about The Force and the ‘Grey Jedi’. That, I’m afraid, is going to take me time as I have several larps I’m coordinating, a Jedi show to write, two conventions to go to out of state and not nearly enough booze to get my thoughts on the subject down in short order.
The next post will be on Lightsaber Combat 101, the Marks of Contact and Lightsaber Tactics. All of these must be taken in to account when working on The Seven Forms.